A Beginner’s Guide to Wireless Tools

To say Wi-Fi is a complex topic is an understatement. On the surface Wi-Fi seems simple enough, but as you go deeper, it soon becomes overwhelming. Even wireless professionals that work with Wi-Fi on a daily basis can find it challenging — especially without the right WiFi tools!

Whether you’re new to Wi-Fi or want a quick refresher, we’ll cover the main tools needed to design, deploy, and maintain better Wi-Fi. This guide breaks down common types of tools used by wireless professionals today:

• Wireless network scanners

• Wireless network planning tools

• Wireless site survey tools

• Wireless spectrum analyzers

• Wireless Packet Capture Tool

Wireless Network Scanners

What they are used for:

To quickly gather and display various network parameters about nearby wireless networks. This information can be used to identify configuration issues, and also provide a graphical visualization of channel allocation to resolve channel conflicts.

How they work:

Most scanners leverage the built-in wireless radio of the device to perform a passive scan. By listening for beacon frames being transmitted from nearby wireless access points, the information contained within the beacon frames are decoded and displayed in a table. Channel information is commonly displayed using a graphical visualization.

Things to consider:

• The scan results are limited to the capabilities of the built-in Wi-Fi radio of the device being used to perform the scan. Be sure the device you are using supports the channel and bands you are looking to analyze.

• Wi-Fi scanner results are limited to a single location. To map out an entire Wi-Fi network requires using a Wi-Fi site survey tool.

Wireless Network Planning Tools

What they are used for:

To design a wireless network and determine the number of access points needed as well as the optimal location where each wireless access point should be installed.

How they work:

There are several methods that can be used to design a wireless network. The most common method is a predictive design. Start by importing a floor plan and modeling the physical environment (walls, doors, elevator shafts, etc). Simulate access point locations and visualize the RF signal propagation to ensure coverage and capacity requirements are satisfied.

Another common design method is referred to as the AP on a Stick (APoS) method. It entails attaching an access point to the top of a pole or tripod. By temporarily placing the access point at pre-planned locations throughout the site, it enables mapping out the coverage area of each access point location until all requirements are met.

Things to consider:

3D Planning – Wi-Fi signals propogate in all directions. So, having a true 3D planner is important to factor in signal propogation to floors above and below, as well as various heights of objects located throughout the environment.

Automation features – The planning process is often skipped or not performed properly due to time constraints. Planning software with automation capabilities can save a lot of time by automating a significant amount of the tedious work.

  • CAD files – AutoCAD (DWG) files can save a lot of time by automatically drawing the walls and objects as you import the floor plan

  • AP Auto-Planner – An AP auto-planner feature can save a lot of time by quickly planning out a network in 3D

  • Channel Auto-Planner – Determine what the optimal channel plan is going to be with the ‘click of a button’

Capacity planning – The number of Wi-Fi devices is ever increasing and putting more emphasis on the need for advanced capacity planning and analysis.• Up to date –Wi-Fi technology is evolving at a rapid pace. Pick a planning tool that keeps up with the latest advancements and includes the most recent Wi-Fi access points and antennas.

Wireless Site Survey Tools

What they are used for:

Wireless survey tools are used to validate new wireless deployments. They are also used to help optimize and troubleshoot existing wireless networks by creating a heat map of the wireless network coverage, throughput, interference, channel overlap, etc...

How they work:

A wireless site survey is conducted using a survey application, running on a laptop or tablet as well as a wireless measurement device, to continuously scan and collect metrics about the RF environment.There are different types of surveys that can be performed to measure and validate various aspects of a wireless network and how it is performing.

  • Passive surveys use one or more wireless radios to continuously scan wireless channels. By listening for beacons being transmitted from nearby wireless access points, the information received is then recorded onto a map and a heatmap is generated to visualize the data.

  • Active surveys use a wireless radio (typically the built-in Wi-Fi adapter) to connect to the wireless network and validate that the network works. It also measures how it is performing by continuously conducting a ping or throughput test. The results will reveal how the network is performing by generating a heat map that visualizes network round-trip time, jitter, packet loss, and throughput.

Before a survey can be performed, accurate floor plans need to be obtained, imported into the survey application and calibrated to set the scale. Connect the measurement device and physically walk the site while clicking on the map to record the location of where the metrics were collected by the survey device. After you’ve finished collecting...

Things to consider:

• An ultra-lightweight device with good battery life for surveying. Your back and arms will appreciate it.

• Multiple radios to speed up scan times, as well as enable simultaneous passive and active surveying.

• A purpose-built Wi-Fi measurement device, rather than an off-the-shelf USB wireless adapter, which is not factory tuned and will provide inconsistent results.