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Wi-Fi troubleshooting checklist for mobile devices

With an ever-growing mobile workforce, Wi-Fi is an essential part of business today. But all mobile devices can hit Wi-Fi snags. Luckily, IT has plenty of ways to untangle the mess.

Troubleshooting Wi-Fi on mobile devices can be complicated.

Wi-Fi is based on a physical layer that consists of invisible energy, so it incorporates a degree of uncertainty that isn't a factor elsewhere in IT. Proven, effective tools and techniques for dealing with almost any wireless disorder on mobile devices do exist, however, and are working their magic daily.

Don't underestimate the need to make appropriate wireless choices in the initial setup; getting it right from the start can avoid a lot of Wi-Fi troubleshooting down the road. All too often, admins discover issues related to essential failures in planning, deployment, configuration, and ongoing management in Wi-Fi on smartphones and tablets.

Have a big tool belt

When it comes to Wi-Fi troubleshooting on mobile devices, IT admins must understand what tools and capabilities are provided in the wireless vendor's management console. These features vary widely, but most vendors provide easy access to throughput statistics, an indication of failed access points, authentication errors and more. Many vendors provide hands-on classes in addition to written documentation. Vendor community sites where users can exchange tips and advice are also extremely useful in resolving Wi-Fi troubleshooting issues that are unfamiliar.

The spectrum analyzer tool

Keep all relevant client and infrastructure software up to date.

A valuable tool for troubleshooting Wi-Fi on smartphones and tablets is a portable spectrum analyzer covering the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. bands. These kinds of tools work on both mobile devices and desktops, are available from a number of suppliers today, including AirMagnet and MetaGeek. They are usually inexpensive and cost-effective when exploring connectivity and performance issues.

Many analyzers are simply software running on a PC or mobile device. Some analyzers use an associated USB sensor, and some are available as hand-held stand-alone units. Features vary widely, but the ability to sense energy from both Wi-Fi and non-Wi-Fi sources is essential for IT admins.

A spectrum analyzer makes it easy to find interferers -- for instance, unauthorized devices that also represent a security concern -- as well as to evaluate Wi-Fi range and coverage challenges. Think of it like this: The spectrum analyzer evaluates the condition of the road that wireless runs on.

Third-party assurance tools

Some companies, such as AirMagnet, offer additional monitoring capabilities, or third-party assurance tools. There's still a role for these tools, either as a single unit consisting of specialized software or as sensors that look like Wi-Fi access points (APs) but act as receivers. These sensors can't transmit anything but rather monitor for illicit Wi-Fi traffic or interference. These make network-wide wireless troubleshooting, including spectrum analysis, very easy to accomplish and can also enhance security.

Some wireless LAN system vendors also offer limited monitoring capabilities as part of their product lines using standard APs. Capabilities such as traffic analysis and packet/frame capture can be invaluable. Both commercial and free tools are available for every mobile OS platform.

Wi-Fi analytics tools, such as those from Extreme Networks and Nyansa, many of which are available as cloud-based services, can also be very useful in Wi-Fi troubleshooting. These proactive applications might eliminate some problems before they become evident and are becoming popular for that reason.

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Watch out for end users

An additional major challenge in Wi-Fi troubleshooting is end users who think they can optimize the performance of their mobile devices and the network all by themselves, changing driver and similar settings without authorization to do so. Mobile device management (MDM) and clear statements of policy as to what users may and may not adjust -- even on their own devices -- are the solutions here. An acceptable-use policy can easily detail what end-user actions are acceptable, and MDM tools can lock down those items that users shouldn't tinker with.

The IT checklist

Finally, IT should always do the following:

  • Check system logs regularly for signs of emerging or unrecognized problems;
  • Have help desks report unusual patterns of problems or issues to network operations;
  • Use tools such as ping alerts to quickly determine the nature of a given problem and/or resolve it with minimal fuss;
  • Use identity management consoles, which provide a wealth of information to isolate connectivity failures based on security and credential issues;
  • Keep all relevant client and infrastructure software up to date;
  • Maintain adequate service via the installation of products based on newer standards (such as 802.11ac Wave 2);
  • Have denser deployments of APs to eliminate the possibility of slow service resulting from inadequate capacity -- perhaps still the biggest end-user complaint of all.

Wi-Fi system vendors in general do a very good job of automatically handling load balancing, interference and other common disorders for mobile devices. But the more you know, and the better your tools, the faster you'll have everyone back on the air when troubles arise.

Next Steps

What to do with iPhone and iPad Wi-Fi snags

Ten common wireless connection problems

How to handle typical Android Wi-Fi issues

This was last published in April 2017

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