By Wayne Newton

Whether it’s a start-up with a staff of connected millennials, a doctor’s office transferring files and images, or a coffee shop offering free network access to guests, small businesses of all kinds rely on Wi-Fi to run their business. Unfortunately, when it comes to having the appropriate networking solutions to handle today’s increased data usage needs, most of them fall behind.

The result is frustrating situations with slow speed or dropped connections.  These situations can put important business data at risk.

Here are five ways to tell if it is time to ditch your current equipment and upgrade.

1)—If your router has dust on it: We’re half joking, but a router or access point is one of those pieces of equipment that people tend to ignore until it stops working. According to an IDC survey, almost 50 percent of surveyed IT channel companies say their small business customers are using wireless technology that is 8+ years old. 8 years ago, Uber was founded, Michael Jackson passed away, and Google introduced Gmail from beta.

The first thing a business owner or manager should do is take a look at their router.  If it only supports 802.11a/b/g/n networks, it’s time to upgrade. There have been major advances in wireless technologies over the past several years. To be current with the most advanced technology, and to support you for years into the future, equipment should comply with the 802.11ac Wave 2 standard, which is built to handle more connected devices. More about this technology later.

2)—If your payroll has increased: More employees means more bandwidth needs. Most employees have at least two devices logged on to Wi-Fi networks. Multiply that times 10 employees or guests using the network and before you know it, you’ve easily maxed out a standard router. This is one of those times that high-end consumer routers won’t foot the bill and business-grade equipment is needed with access points (APs) mounted throughout the site.

Access Points help distribute the load across the network to better handle the influx of new connections and stresses on bandwidth, which directly impact speed and range. And, with data usage only trending upward, it’s better to have more bandwidth than you need, than to scramble fixing it when there is a meltdown during a crucial time.

3)—If you (actually) have an IoT-powered office: When was the last time you made a list of your office equipment that relies on Wi-Fi? Business owners are quick to introduce new products into the office, such as a VoIP phones, Wi-Fi-enabled sound systems, IP-powered lights, POS systems, Apple TVs, printers, and IP-enabled security cameras, but most don’t think about how these devices add up and degrade network performance.

According to a Gartner study, businesses are on pace to employ 3.1 billion connected things in 2017. Business Insider predicts total business spending on IoT solutions will reach $6 trillion by 2021. That’s a lot of connected devices!

The increased number of wireless devices in the office, as well as the proliferation of Internet of Things (IoT), requires a high performance wireless network;  so it’s more important than ever for businesses to have the latest wireless standard in place. The 802.11ac Wave 2 standard was designed to be compatible with supporting these data-hungry devices.

4)—If You’re Upgrading Everything Except Your Router: Businesses invest a lot of money upgrading certain types of office technology – laptops and VoIP phones being most common. We often see offices upgrade their entire office with the latest laptops featuring the newest technologies but if you’re working with outdated Wi-Fi, the new equipment won’t run at its optimal level.

For example, the new Wi-Fi standard 11ac Wave 2 supports MU-MIMO, which stands for Multi-user, Multiple-Input, Multiple-Output technology. MU-MIMO technology helps routers and access points be more efficient with bandwidth, allowing multiple devices to communicate with the router or access point simultaneously. MU-MIMO allocates a dedicated stream per device versus several devices sharing the same signal. Devices can get on the network quickly, and stay connected. MU-MIMO is currently being integrated into next-generation laptops and other devices to keep up with the voracious data appetites we all have.

That means, when shopping for new Wi-Fi equipment, you’ll want to make sure it includes support for this standard.  This way, when you do your next laptop refresh, you’ll have standards that talk to each other. If you’re looking to extend the life or your older equipment but have upgraded your router or access points to the MU-MIMO standard, you can buy a simple USB adapter to convert the laptop to be MU-MIMO Wi-Fi compliant.

5)—If Your Router Came With Your Broadband or Phone Service – Now there is nothing wrong with the majority of routers delivered via cable and phone companies, but many small businesses, especially those in the service industry, rely on that little router to do too much. It’s one thing if you only need a Wi-Fi connection to support a few people, but if you start offering free Wi-Fi in a nail salon or spa or restaurant, you will quickly hit your bandwidth limits, and your network will crawl.

Take a detailed account of the average number of devices that connect to your Wi-Fi over the course of the day, including any on-site equipment that operates over Wi-Fi. How many employee cell phones are automatically connected as they check social media or watch YouTube videos on their server breaks? How many coffee-shop guests ask for Wi-Fi and are connected at one time? If the total answer is over 10 connected devices, it’s time to invest in a different solution that likely includes an access point to extend the reach of your router.  

There are a number of IT firms and specialists who focus on helping small business owners figure out what they need. If you’re not sure what’s the best set-up, find a local resource to help scout things out – like an interior designer for Wi-Fi. Having a healthy Wi-Fi signal is mission critical to any business – it’s one area to not skimp. There are a wide range of options that won’t break the bank and that will carry you through the next wireless wave.

Wayne Newton is the director of commercial markets, Americas for Linksys. @Linksys.