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Complete Guide to WiFi Site Surveys

WiFi site surveys can tell you a lot of useful information about your WiFi network, and this article explains everything you need to know, including how to create them using the NetSpot WiFi site survey app.
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Let’s start our complete guide to WiFi site surveys by answering the most important question you may have at this point: what is a WiFi site survey?

What Is a WiFi Site Survey?

You can think of a WiFi site survey as an in-depth analysis of an area where a WiFi network is supposed to be deployed. The purpose of this analysis is to support informed decision-making during the network’s deployment and its configuration.

Typically, a WiFi site survey report will tell you the following information:

  • The number of WiFi networks present in the surveyed area.
  • Their coverage and signal strength.
  • WiFi channel utilization and interference.
  • Signal level and signal-to-noise ratio.
  • PHY mode (a/b/g/n/ac) coverage.

Once you’re equipped with this information, you can much better decide where you should place your router and which channel you should use, among other things.

WiFi site survey software presents the information it collects in the form of WiFi heatmaps, which are helpful visualization that overlay color-coded data on top of a map of the surveyed area. WiFi heatmaps are superior to graphs, charts, and tables because they locate data in physical space in an easy-to-read manner.

WiFi Heatmap

Contrary to what many people believe, WiFi site surveys don’t require any expert skills to create whatsoever — at least not if you choose the right WiFi site survey software. The little time and effort it takes to produce a WiFi heatmap can help you ensure the best wireless coverage possible, improve your download and upload speeds, and eliminate annoying connection drops caused by the so-called signal dead zones.

Types of Wireless Site Surveys

There are three main types of wireless site surveys you should know about:

  • Passive surveys: Despite the name, passive WiFi surveys actually provide a heap of useful information because they analyze all available WiFi networks in the surveyed location. The reason why they’re called passive is that you don’t actually need to be actively connected to any specific network. Instead, you’re just passively listening to WiFi signals that are bouncing around. Passive surveys can analyze AP coverage areas, signal levels, signal-to-noise ratios, and more.
  • Active surveys: To perform an active WiFi site survey, you must be connected to a specific WiFi network, which is typically possible only if you know the right password. Once you’re connected, you can analyze its actual throughput rates, round-trip time, packet loss, and several other metrics while it’s in operation.
  • Predictive surveys: What is a predictive survey? It’s a simulation done on a computer to mimic the distribution of wireless signals in a virtual version of a real physical environment. To perform a predictive survey, you don’t actually need to collect any data on site. You just need a reasonably powerful computer and WiFi sire survey app with support for predictive modeling.

Passive surveys can be performed at any time. In fact, it’s a good idea to perform them on a regular basis because the wireless environment, especially in densely populated areas, can change very quickly, with new networks not always being properly configured and causing unnecessary interference as a result.

Active surveys are typically performed right after deployment or when there are issues to troubleshoot, such as when connection attempts are timing out or when you’re struggling to achieve the speeds advertised by your internet service provider.

Predictive surveys are performed prior to deployment. When done correctly, they can save a lot of money that would otherwise be wasted on unnecessary access points. They can also considerably shorten the deployment time by eliminating, or at least greatly reducing, the need to optimize access point position and configuration.

WiFi Site Survey Software

As we’ve already explained, WiFi site surveys are performed using WiFi site survey software. Such software is available from a number of different vendors, and there are WiFi site survey tools for all major operating systems.

When selecting the best WiFi site survey software, we recommend you consider the following selection criteria:

  • Accuracy: It goes without saying that WiFi site survey software must be accurate to be useful. There are many applications that create only very basic WiFi heatmaps that don’t visualize the gathered data with fine enough resolution to tell the whole story. Such applications should be avoided in favor of more professional solutions capable of painting a detailed picture of wireless activity around you.
  • Features: WiFi site survey software ranges from simple to feature-packed. While there’s no need to spend a lot of money on an application whose capabilities far exceed your needs, the basics, such as the ability to perform both active and passive surveys, should always be covered.
  • Ease of use: If you’re not a professional network administrator, you’re probably not interested in spending a lot of time just to learn how your WiFi site survey software of choice works. By choosing an application that’s easy to use, you can get straight to business and obtain the results you’re looking for without any delay.
  • Reviews: It’s difficult to evaluate how well a WiFi site survey app is likely to perform in real-life scenarios without using it for a while. You could, of course, test multiple apps yourself, but that would cost you a lot of valuable time. Fortunately, you can rely on online reviews published by professional reviewers and real users alike to give you at least a rough idea of how well different WiFi site survey apps work.
  • Price: What good is a WiFi site survey application if you can’t afford it? Since your budget isn’t unlimited, you should decide how much you’re willing to spend and narrow down your list of options accordingly. The good news is that many vendors offer free versions of their products, allowing you to evaluate them before purchasing a license.

One WiFi site survey software that delivers accurate results, has plenty of features to satisfy the needs of home and professional users alike, is easy to use, has received many raving reviews, and is priced affordably is NetSpot, and we talk more about it later in this article.

WiFi Site Survey Software for Mac

WiFi site survey Mac software is popular because MacBooks are great for collecting WiFi data in the field thanks to their reliability, excellent battery life, and bright screens that are easily readable even under direct sunlight.

WiFi Site Survey Software for Mac

Due to Apple’s restrictive policy, most WiFi site survey software for Mac is not available in the Mac App Store. Instead, vendors typically distribute installation files through their websites and provide a built-in update checking mechanism to keep their products up to date.

WiFi Site Survey Software for Windows

Given its market share, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s no shortage of WiFi site survey software Windows users can choose from. The available software ranges from simple utilities available in the Microsoft Store to professional applications distributed directly by their vendors.

WiFi Site Survey Software for Windows

As is the case with all Windows software, there are, unfortunately, also malicious WiFi site survey software tools available for download on all kinds of shady websites, so you need to avoid them at all costs.

WiFi Site Survey Software for Android

Android devices are basically small computers running a Linux-based operating system. As such, they can be used for all kinds of tasks, including the creation of wireless site surveys.

WiFi Site Survey Software for Android

WiFi site survey Android apps can be conveniently downloaded from the Google Play Store and used to collect far more information than the built-in Android WiFi discovery feature can provide.

WiFi Site Survey Software for iOS

Even though Apple’s mobile operating system greatly restricts what both users and developers are allowed to do, there are some WiFi survey iOS apps that have managed to work around the restrictions and deliver a fairly feature-complete experience.

WiFi Site Survey Software for iOS

NetSpot for iOS is a great example of a WiFi site survey app for iOS that leverages a third-party dual-band spectrum analyzer, the WiPry 2500x by Oscium, to collect WiFi data lesser apps can’t see.

WiFi Site Survey Hardware

Professional network administrators and technicians are frequently equipped with dedicated WiFi site survey hardware tools that provide improved accuracy, better range, and the ability to collect more information about WiFi networks.

For example, hardware spectrum analyzers are used to display the actual radio waves carrying WiFi data packets, and external WiFi adapters with removable antennas greatly enlarge the surveyable area.

The only problem with WiFi site survey hardware is that regular home users don’t have access to it. What sometimes happens as a result is that a technician equipped with a powerful external WiFi adapter performs a WiFi site survey and determines the coverage to be sufficient. But soon after the technician leaves, end-users discover that the coverage actually leaves a lot to be desired because their devices (laptops and smartphones) use weaker built-in WiFi adapters.

The solution? Perform a WiFi site survey using the same WiFi device that end users have, such as a regular laptop with a standard built-in WiFi adapter. To do that, all you need is a WiFi site survey software application like NetSpot, which doesn’t require any additional hardware to work (except for the iOS version of NetSpot).

WiFi Site Survey with NetSpot

Throughout this article, we’ve mentioned NetSpot several times, and for a good reason: it’s the best WiFi site survey software application for Windows and macOS, allowing you to visualize, manage, troubleshoot, audit, plan, and deploy WiFi networks using any MacBook running Mac OS X 10.10+ or any laptop with Windows 7/8/10.

NetSpot’s site survey feature can perform active and passive surveys, and it will soon gain the ability to perform predictive surveys as well, which will make it a complete solution suitable for anyone from inexperienced home users to demanding professionals.

Here’s how to perform a WiFi site survey using NetSpot:

  1. Launch NetSpot and click the Survey button.
NetSpot — Start a New survey
  1. Click Start a new survey.
Start a new survey
  1. Enter project details and load or create a map of the surveyed area.
NetSpot — New survey
  1. Calibrate the map by clicking on any two points on it and inputting the actual physical distance between them.
  2. Select the WiFi networks you want to include in your survey.
  3. Methodically move across the surveyed area while taking measurements until the entire area is covered.
NetSpot Stop Scan
  1. Click the Stop Scan button when you’re done.

NetSpot will then let you turn the gathered data into heatmaps, making it easy to spot areas of signal weakness and diagnose causes of WiFi problems.

screenIndex

Visualizations

NetSpot offers numerous visualizations to assist you in WiFi signal comparison. You can easily and efficiently compare various network parameters thanks to the utter accessibility of visual approach. Some visualizations are only available on macOS, so don't forget to look into the User Manual for more details.
Passive scanning
Signal-to-noise ratio macOS
This visualization shows the ratio of the WiFi signal level to the noise level in the background. Noise level is the amount of outside interference at each measuring point.
Signal level
Shows the strength of the current WiFi signal. This value is efficient when used with other values, such as noise or interference.
Signal-to-interference ratio
Here it shows how the WiFi signal correlates with signals from other radio transmitters occupying the same or neighboring channels.
Number of access points
Shows the network access points currently detectable from each measuring point.
Noise level macOS
Use this visualization to see the level of outside interference at each measurement point.
Frequency band coverage
Good for visual analysis of different frequency coverage.
PHY mode coverage
Visualizes coverage by WiFi protocols/modes and shows where 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac/ax modes are used.
Active scanning
Upload speed
This visualization demonstrates the rate of data transfer from computer to the Internet.
Download speed
This visualization demonstrates the rate of data transfer from the Internet to computer.
Wireless Transmit rate
Demonstrates the rate at which the data is transferred from an AP to a wireless device.
Iperf3 upload, download, and jitter visualizations macOS
Helps analyze network performance with Iperf3 or custom speed test servers for UDP and TCP data streams.
Troubleshooting
Issues with SNR macOS
The Issues with SNR visualization helps you troubleshoot and figure out a solution to the low SNR level that might be affecting your network connectivity.
High level of noise macOS
When the noise levels are high, they can greatly interfere with the strength of your network signal and potentially block connectivity altogether creating "dead zones".
Low signal level
When the signal is not reaching all areas in a surveyed space, it is clearly visible in the visualization helping you find a solution to the poor connection with certain access points.
Overlapping channels (SIR)
Demonstrates whether any neighboring APs use the same channels therefore causing undesirable interference.
Low download and upload rates
Shows the areas with low download and upload speeds and helps finding the solution to a possible slow connection and unsatisfactory quality of content streaming.

Finally, you can export the generated WiFi site survey report, while given the option to select exactly what you want the report to contain.

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WiFi Site Survey FAQ

Which is a WiFi site survey tool?

A WiFi site survey tool is a software application whose purpose is to collect information about WiFi networks to help you with their deployment and optimization.

How much does a wireless site survey cost?

The cost of a wireless site survey can range greatly depending on whether you hire a professional and do it yourself. If you go with the DIY approach, then you can expect to pay around $100 for leading WiFi site survey software.

How do I survey WiFi coverage?

To survey WiFi coverage, you need a WiFi-equipped device, such as a laptop running Windows or macOS, and a WiFi site survey software application. From there, you simply launch the application and let it do the hard work as you methodically walk from one part of the surveyed area to another.

What is the purpose of a wireless site survey?

The purpose of a wireless site survey is to provide you with enough information so that you can achieve the desired coverage and throughput.

How do you do a wireless site survey?

Wireless site surveys are done using wireless site survey software like NetSpot. The software automates the collection of data, and it makes it possible to turn it into easy-to-understand visualizations, heatmaps, and graphs with a few simple clicks.

Have more questions?
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Read next in All about Wi-Fi

If you want to dive deeper into this Wi-Fi thing, check out the following articles about Wi-Fi security, the best apps for wireless networking, inflight WiFi, etc.
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Wi-Fi Site Surveys, Analysis, Troubleshooting runs on a MacBook (macOS 10.10+) or any laptop (Windows 7/8/10) with a standard 802.11a/b/g/n/ac wireless network adapter.