Monday, August 10, 2009

The problem with perception

I spent part of my Monday afternoon wandering around one of the floors in our offices checking the signal strength of our wireless network. Someone from the IT department had conducted a demo for some lawyers last week and reported problems with the signal and connectivity during the meeting. I went over there to check things out for myself and found that the wireless network was perfectly functional, though the signal strength meter in my Windows system tray flickered between green and yellow. The software that controls the wireless card reported 40-60% signal strength in the problem areas indicated last week by our colleague. I didn't notice any trouble connecting, reading and sending e-mail, or browsing the Internet despite the periods of "yellow" coverage.

I considered what the people who use that conference room might be thinking. They might see the yellow indicator on their computers and think that they have a problem, when in fact they are connected and working. Computers don't need a full 100% signal in order to transmit and receive data. I think the wireless signal indicators on computers are about as accurate as the bars on a cellphone. Since Wi-Fi and cellular signals are radio waves, they fluctuate depending on interference from other devices, walls, buildings, and so on. Full bars on either one doesn't mean that a phone or computer will have a robust, strong connection. Wireless networks are designed to work with less than 100% signal. A computer can connect to a wireless network with a 20% signal and still be able to send e-mail and download movies. There might be a speed drop-off, or there might not be. And even if there is a difference, it might not be noticeable without a speed test application.

But the perception is that a weak signal means a weak connection, and that's bad for network adminstrators. Most people don't understand the way wireless networks function, and to be fair, it's not necessary for everyone to know the link (or lack thereof) between signals and connectivity. The challenge for network administrators like me is whether to explain 802.11a/b/g/n networking to the general user community, or if it's better to saturate the office with access points so that the laptops always show "green." Many of my daily struggles with technology in the workplace boil down to these two choices: explain a problem to the users and how to work around it, or just throw money at the problem and make it go away. I'm not sure how this particular situation will play out. I suspect we'll choose the latter option.

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