As you add internet-connected devices to your office, you could be taxing your wireless network. Fifty-four percent of businesses consider Wi-Fi an integral part of their company's network environment, according to a recent report written by IDC at the request of Linksys. Therefore, finding ways to support and enhance that Wi-Fi network has become more important than ever.
Unfortunately, 66 percent of small to midsize businesses (SMBs) are working off of Wi-Fi standards that were established before 2009. With an expected 25 percent increase in connected devices this year alone, companies such as Linksys , its competitors, and its channel partners are pushing Multi-User, Multiple-Input, Multiple Output (MU-MIMO) as an opportunity to deliver Wi-Fi performance improvements.
I spoke via email with Audrey Agahan, Linksys B2B Marketing Manager, about the future of MU-MIMO, what a more connected future means for networking technology, and how service providers should approach small or less educated businesses about making the upgrade to MU-MIMO.
PCMag (PCM): What has stopped SMBs from adopting MU-MIMO thus far?Audrey Agahan (AA): What we've seen with channel partners that serve the 100-employee and under market is that many are still learning about the benefits of MU-MIMO, which means there's still a lot of education to be done with SMBs themselves. MU-MIMO is still an emerging feature of the 802.11ac Wave 2 specification, and it will take a few more years for it to become ubiquitous across all devices. There are currently network devices in market, Linksys being one, that already support MU-MIMO but we need the consumer devices to catch up. Samsung is an example of a smartphone maker putting a lot of support around MU-MIMO.
Currently, if the computer and access points don't support MU-MIMO, you need a simple USB adapter with MU-MIMO to leverage all the advantages MU-MIMO offers. However, the majority of new laptops and computers do include the latest wireless adapters with MU-MIMO technology.
Something else we've observed through our channel partners is that many of their SMB clients are coming to them for solutions to surprisingly old equipment. You'd be surprised how many aren't using equipment that supports 802.11ac. And these aren't necessarily traditional corporate businesses but main street-type businesses such as retail, hospitality, healthcare private practice, warehouse-based operations, and service-based such as nail salons or even bike shops—all across the United States. The opportunity is pretty significant. We wanted to explore this point more, which is why we commissioned the study.
In aggregate, we see this pointing to a major device refresh and, if businesses are going to upgrade, it should be with the latest that will carry them the longest while future-proofing their office environments. So, it's really less of SMBs being stopped from adopting and more one of a lack of awareness of options and capabilities and the broader hardware technology catching up.
PCM: Why does an increase in the number of connected devices bode well for MU-MIMO?
AA: MU-MIMO is like a powerhorse for bandwidth allocation, which is important because the wireless demands at office environments can be extreme. Many small businesses are under-networked as is, especially if self-managing their on-site solution, like many mom-and-pop businesses do for too long. Add in stress of running point-of-sale (POS) systems, free Wi-Fi to guests, wireless connected devices such as printers and phones, and employees accessing on personal devices, and any business can overrun their network.
Having properly networked systems designed to handle our data-hungry world is becoming a critical business function. MU-MIMO's unique ability to simultaneously transmit data to multiple clients is the perfect match for the connected device deluge, especially once IoT [Internet of Things] settles in.
PCM: How does an upgrade to MU-MIMO improve the bottom line for SMBs?
AA: Speed and latency issues are always a top complaint from customers looking for new solutions. When you're dealing with spotty networking support, it kills customer productivity and employee performance. Today's offices have more people and devices than ever before reliant on an efficient network and that's only going to increase. Our printers, phones, sound systems, POS, and employee cell phones and laptops are all examples of everyday devices constantly tapping a network. MU-MIMO directly addresses the latency issues that come with carrying such a heavy device burden. This has a number of tangible and intangible impacts with customer productivity, employee performance, and even security, another top concern from SMB customers.
PCM: How does an increase in connected devices and the need to upgrade to MU-MIMO benefit Wi-Fi service providers?
AA: Hopefully, Wi-Fi service providers will quickly embrace adopting MU-MIMO-enabled equipment themselves as a lot of main street-type businesses often use what's provided to them by their ISP [internet service provider]. This usually precedes the business owner bringing in an IT specialist to upgrade their network and equipment layout after dealing with self-installed, dragging systems.
In theory, if customers have proper device support, it should help on customer service complaints about slow networks, which are often less about actual bandwidth and more a degraded network from overuse. It's important that Wi-Fi providers, channel partners, and device manufacturers educate themselves on MU-MIMO so they can, in turn, educate the consumer.
PCM: What should service providers do now to prepare for this oncoming wave?
AA: Service providers should educate staff and become familiar with the Wave 2 standard in general. They should talk to their customers, and take a good look at their inventory to determine when to start phasing in MU-MIMO-supported networking equipment and how to roll that out to their customer base.
PCM: How should service providers educate customers about the benefits of MU-MIMO? Is it a technology conversation, a financial conversation? Is it about improving work performance?
AA: Because networks are integral to our daily lives, it's important for service providers to spend time and resources educating their customers on MU-MIMO. This means being knowledgeable to lay out the variety of ways MU-MIMO will benefit their business. It means helping them understand what the technology is, why it's important, and why they should want it. As with any new product, they should be highlighting the benefits upgraded technology can bring, including work productivity, client satisfaction, and business operations efficiencies.