An insight from NEBRC Trusted Partner CyberShelter: WIFI – a non-technical overview

Here, CyberShelter MD Martin Hart sets out some advice around business related WIFI, explaining some of the useful technical details, while aiming to keep it as friendly as he can….

Logo for company Cyber Shelter

OK, so we all know how convenient WIFI is, once connected it’s something that (generally) just ‘works’, allowing us to get on with whatever it is we need the connectivity for. But there are, of course, things to look out for. First off, security.

Most people use WIFI when out and about. Who hasn’t sat in a café, pub or restaurant and asked for the WIFI password? The thing is, when you join someone else’s WIFI you have no idea about what they have set up for their customers in terms of the connection. For instance, have they paid any attention to security? Is your connection considered a standalone connection or are you sharing a small network with everyone else in the room? And if so, why would this be an issue?

Well, just imagine you’re in a small room where everyone in that room can hear everyone else’s conversation. Under those circumstances you’d of course be happy enough chatting about last night’s TV or what you did at the weekend. You wouldn’t, however, discuss things like access codes to your building or car park or have a chat about passwords that you like to use – only common sense, right…?

For most WIFI that is available to the public this is exactly how the connection works. Admittedly it does take someone with the skills and equipment to listen in but, to the right people, listening in is very easily done.

So, when out and about just remember that the best advice is ‘you shouldn’t put anything out there that you wouldn’t happily write on a postcard before posting’.

Of course, WIFI is also available at the office too. In the context of this article, we’ll assume that the office WIFI has been professionally set up for the users. This would mean you have a guest network and a business network (generally speaking). The guest network will be very much in the same vein as a public network, whereas the business network will have encrypted traffic between your connection and the main network.

The guest network should not only be just used by guests, but also be in use for employees’ mobile devices. This means you can more easily control who has access to the business WIFI.

Next, the actual connection. Now then, as I mentioned previously, WIFI should just ‘work’, however we all know this isn’t always the case. So why does it sometimes work and sometimes become ‘difficult’? This is mainly due to the distance you are away from the WIFI access point (the unit that generates the radio signals that WIFI relies on). Even with a good connection, the further away you are from an access point, the worse the signal gets. Your computer copes with this by slowing the connection down – this is why streaming can become jumpy or ‘blocky’. An easy fix is simply move closer to the WIFI access point, or in a business that needs better coverage, just add more WIFI access points around the building.

Now that we’re talking about having a number of WIFI access points in a building, this opens up another issue to be aware of. If you move around the building, even if you have one single WIFI provided over a number of access points, you may notice you get a really, really bad signal. This is caused by your device hanging on to the connection it originally made with the closest access point. As you move further away your device still hangs on to that access point as long as it possibly can, even though there are better and stronger signals closer to you. This is called a ‘sticky’ connection in the trade. This can be easily fixed by closing and opening the connection again. More modern WIFI networks will actively manage the connections and force your computer or phone onto a closer access point when they detect a poor signal.

If you don’t have an IT contact and want to set up your own WIFI then this can usually be done but there are things to look out for. Firstly, NEVER set the WIFI as ‘open’ i.e., with no password to connect. This would mean anyone can connect, and of course you wouldn’t let anyone walk in and connect a computer using a cable into a wall point, would you? It’s the same thing with an ‘Open’ WIFI network.

Secondly there are two types of WIFI almost always provided on WIFI routers, 2.4GHz and 5GHz. The difference is that 5GHz is faster (bigger number so it must be faster, right?) but 2.4GHz has a better range and penetration through materials. On the face of it you’d think 2.4GHz would be preferable but having said that in an ideal world you only want WIFI within your building, making 5GHz a better choice in most cases.

One thing to remember when setting WIFI up though is that safety glass stops WIFI, almost completely, so if we have a user in a nice glassed-in office, they pretty much won’t get WIFI unless the door is open…

A final thing to look out for (Law Firms, listen up!) is users with a bad signal deciding to bring in their own WIFI. unit and hooking it up to the business network in their own office. We’ve seen this multiple times and it’s usually done as a ‘Open’ network so that the culprit can easily connect. The best way of preventing this is to ensure that all users know if they have a bad WIFI connection then the business will happily fix it for them.

For further information on WIFI security speak to the NEBRC who can work with our Trusted Partners to support your needs.