Unforeseen RF transmission impairments, such as cordless phones that use the 2.4GHz band, can cause frustration when deploying wireless LANs. In order to maintain happy users, it's a good idea to perform an RF site survey before installing access points. The survey can uncover problems such as RF interference and multipath propagation, two troubles that you should tackle before moving too far forward.
Multipath propagation defined
Multipath propagation occurs when an RF signal takes different paths when propagating from a source (e.g., a radio NIC) to a destination node (e.g., access point). While the signal is en route, walls, chairs, desks, and other items get in the way and cause the signal to bounce in different directions. A portion of the signal may go directly to the destination, and another part may bounce from a chair to the ceiling, and then to the destination. As a result, some of the signal will encounter delay and travel longer paths to the receiver.
Multipath delay causes the information symbols represented in an 802.11 signal to overlap, which confuses the receiver. This is often referred to as intersymbol interference (ISI). Because the shape of the signal conveys the information being transmitted, the receiver will make mistakes when demodulating the signal's information. If the delays are great enough, bit errors in the packet will occur. The receiver won't be able to distinguish the symbols and interpret the corresponding bits correctly.
When multipath strikes in this way, the receiving station will detect the errors through 802.11's error checking process. The CRC (cyclic redundancy check) checksum will not compute correctly, indicating that there are errors in the packet. In response to bit errors, the receiving station will not send an 802.11 acknowledgement to the source. The source will then eventually retransmit the signal after regaining access to the medium.
Because of retransmissions, users will encounter lower throughput when multipath is significant. The reduction in throughput depends on the environment. As examples, 802.11 signals in homes and offices may encounter 50 nanoseconds multipath delay while a manufacturing plant could be as high as 300 nanoseconds. Based on these values, multipath isn't too much of a problem in homes and offices. Metal machinery and racks in a plant, however, provide a lot of reflective surfaces for RF signals to bounce from and take erratic paths. As a result, be wary of multipath problems in warehouses, processing plants, and other areas full of irregular, metal obstacles.
802.11b suffers the most
When comparing FHSS (frequency hopping spread spectrum), DSSS (direct sequence spread spectrum) and OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing), DSSS used by 802.11b networks is the most susceptible to multipath propagation. The frequency elements of a wider band signal will vary greatly in terms of reflectivity as they encounter obstacles in the facility. FHSS uses relatively narrow channels (1 MHz) and changes transmit frequency often, making it difficult for multipath to occur. OFDM (used by 802.11a and 802.11g) transmits information on many narrow subchannels, which also reduces the impacts of multipath.
DSSS, however, transmits information continuously over a relatively wide channel, nearly 30MHz. This leaves enough room for lower frequency elements of the DSSS signal to reflect off obstacles much differently than the higher frequency elements of the signal. The differences in reflectivity will cause a wider range of signal paths. Thus, 802.11b systems are more susceptible to multipath delays.
If radio NIC logs or site survey software provided by wireless LAN vendors indicates that the wireless LAN is retransmitting packets often, then the network may be experiencing severe multipath propagation. Keep in mind, however, that RF interference from an external radio source could be causing these same indications. As a result, you should verify that RF interference is not also causing the problem. The best method to differentiate the problem is to use a handheld tester capable of measuring multipath delays (e.g., Berkeley Varitronics' Scorpion).
Diversity offers some comfort
What can you do if multipath is causing problems? Aside from clearing desks and chairs from your building, diversity seems to be the best solution to combat the perils of multipath. Diversity is the use of two antennas for each radio in order to increase the odds of receiving a better signal on either of the antennas.
Diversity antennas have physical separation from the radio to ensure that one of the antennas will encounter less multipath propagation affects than the other. In other words, the composite signal that one antenna receives may be closer to the original than what's found at the other antenna. The receiver uses signal-filtering and decision-making software to choose the best signal for demodulation. In fact the reverse is also true: the transmitter will then choose the best antenna for transmitting in the opposite direction.
If diversity doesn't solve a severe multipath problem, then consider deploying an 802.11a network. You'll also gain the benefits of higher performance and freedom from RF interference, but of course you'll need to consider interoperability issues and possibly higher costs.
Jim Geier provides independent consulting services to companies developing and deploying wireless network solutions. He is the author of the book, Wireless LANs (2nd Edition), and regularly instructs workshops on wireless LANs.