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Business WiFi On A Budget

The modern enterprise-grade WLAN is feature-packed, complicated, and expensive. WiFi has become  a preferred access method -- and a significant budget line item. Not everyone can afford market-leading WLAN, but that doesn’t mean going without business-class WiFi.

There's a tier of low-cost WLAN products that provides interesting options for WiFi customers on tight budgets. This is where determined SMB do-it-yourselfers go, as do many of us WLAN architects when consulting for customers that simply have to have wireless, yet have nearly no budget for it.

It’s a realm of tradeoffs and a place where we accept odd ways of doing things that we’d curse about if we spent more on them. Yet it’s also where we find interesting feature sets that typically are beyond reach for small budgets.

Who's who in low-cost WiFi
With 11ac access points under $300, and dual-band 11n gear well under $100, Ubiquiti Networks comes up frequently as a contender for cash-strapped wireless projects. UniFi has a respectable feature set, no ongoing licensing costs, and manageability that works well for basic client access.

On the downside, Ubiquiti gear can have weird power requirements; some runs on 24V and others on 48V, while some can do PoE and others cannot. Bakeoffs against higher-end APs have shown that Ubiquiti APs don’t well handle lots of users all doing heavy video streams. You also won’t get granular reporting, spectrum analysis, or application visibility. Ubiquiti has no formal support and relies on user forums and crowd-sourced customer assistance.

But you’ll also pay a fraction of the cost of “better” systems for Ubiquiti to get a product that arguably equals the best enterprise WLAN of a just a few years ago.

Cloud-managed Open-Mesh is another strong contender in the low-cost WiFi market. If you’re familiar with enterprise WLAN products from Cisco, Meraki, Aerohive Networks, or AirTight Networks, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how rich of a feature set Open-Mesh offers, especially given that all you buy is the hardware (currently all APs are under $100, and some are under $50).

There are no license or cloud management fees, and Open-Mesh uses common radios that you put in different enclosures to “build” APs the way you want them (indoor or outdoor, etc.).

While I think Open-Mesh offers incredible feature value, there are tradeoffs. Open-Mesh currently has single-band APs of lesser horsepower than the big players like Aruba, no 11ac, and no support for 802.1x with external RADIUS. At the same time, Open-Mesh is actively evolving its products, so this is one to watch.

There are many other low-cost WiFi vendors that are not quite enterprise grade, but above mall-grade SOHO gear. Many wireless ISPs run their business on MicroTik gear, which is inexpensive, but also requires a good handle of Linux to leverage fully. Netgear, D-Link, Pepwave, and EnGenius all have what they consider business-grade products with decent feature sets and price points that fall between Open-Mesh-type products and entry-level products from Cisco, Meraki, and Aruba. The options are many, and if you choose well, you can get more than what you pay for.

WLAN design still matters
It’s worth noting that with budget WiFi, you still need good design. Whether a single access point or 30 APs are deployed, RF principles still matter and transmitted signals must be properly stewarded into a channel and power arrangement that make sense. Where top-end systems usually have “auto RF” mechanisms, at the lower end it’s up to the person deploying the gear to manually get it right. If done wrong, then cheap WiFi is hardly a bargain, as it won’t work.

But if you know what you’re doing as you set up a low-cost WiFi system, most wireless clients won’t know whether they're on a Cadillac system or one more akin to a Chevrolet Spark.

Market impact
The growth and popularity of low-cost WiFi appears to be having an effect on top-tier WLAN players that don’t want to be seen as beyond affordable for those with less budget.

Cisco, Meraki, and Aruba have all recently introduced entry-level APs that have far less TCO than their mainstream products, with accompanying reduced feature sets. The assumed benefit is that you'll get the inherent reliability that comes with the brand-name logo in the form of better hardware than the cheapest out there.

However you spend dollars on WiFi when you don’t have many to spend, it’s nice to know you have options.