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Is wireless for door controller communications reliable?

July 11, 2023
Cable-free door controller endpoints are now available for building owners looking to expand or update their physical security infrastructure, but they might not always be the right choice.

Business owners looking to install physical security door controllers might find the availability of power at the planned locations, but not the cabling to connect the controllers to a centralized network management system. To help resolve this challenge, manufacturers now sell wireless door controller endpoints that communicate over wireless mediums, including Wi-Fi and Zigbee. Let’s examine how these wireless door controller architectures work and if they can become a reliable part of the physical security infrastructure for a building or plant.

How wireless door controller systems work

Instead of a hardwired connection running to each controller across thousands of square feet of space, wireless door controllers can communicate with a proximate management controller strategically placed by installers to provide wireless coverage to an area with multiple door controller units.

Communications between the door controller readers and centralized management controller can use standard Wi-Fi, Ethernet, or other wireless protocols, such as Zigbee, which offers a greater range of coverage. This wireless connection is used to transmit access-request communications to the management controller, which connects to a centralized database to determine if a request to unlock a door should be accepted or rejected based on the received credentials.

Pros and cons of wireless door controller communication

As with any wireless technology, building owners must consider benefits and drawbacks. Installing a wireless system is easier and costs less than that for wired systems because the former does not require the installation of any data or communications cabling within the facility. This can be useful when attempting to integrate door controller technologies in older buildings that do not have defined horizontal and vertical cabling paths.

A second benefit of wireless door controllers is that their readers can be moved from one location to another without concern for rerouting or installing new communications cables. Thus, for businesses or building tenants that continuously change the door locations that require higher security access, wireless systems are ideal.

However, wireless door controller systems are not without their limitations. For instance, door access readers and locks must have a strong signal back to the management controller. In some cases, a single door controller may be required in a distant location where Wi-Fi or Zigbee signals from the management controller cannot reach. Additionally, physical obstructions and other wireless communications in the vicinity can interfere with connectivity and cause intermittent problems that are difficult to troubleshoot. This is particularly applicable in manufacturing plants and warehouses where large quantities of material are moving around regularly and in areas where neighboring businesses have wireless “bleed over” into the targeted facilities.

Some businesses may also worry about cyber threats to wireless technologies that may disrupt or disable door controller systems. While this can be a risk, enterprise-grade Wi-Fi and Zigbee wireless systems provide fully encrypted communications from door controllers to management gateways that deliver wirelike security if properly configured.

However, the cost of enterprise-grade wireless door controller systems is significantly higher than that of wired alternatives. While you may save on the installation due to the reduced cabling, the price of the controllers themselves will quickly cut into those savings.

Recommendation: Wired when you can, wireless when you must

In 2023, using wired access controllers whenever possible remains the wise choice. The lower hardware cost and higher reliability are still too hard to ignore. That said, plenty of use cases exist in which installing door controller communications cabling is impossible or cost prohibitive, such as multitenant flex space facilities and historical buildings that prohibit hardwired cabling. In these situations, wireless becomes the better choice.

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About the Author

Andrew Froehlich | Contributor

As a highly regarded network architect and trusted IT consultant with worldwide contacts, Andrew Froehlich counts over two decades of experience and possesses multiple industry certifications in the field of enterprise networking. Andrew is the founder and president of Colorado-based West Gate Networks, which specializes in enterprise network architectures and data center build-outs. He’s also the founder of an enterprise IT research and analysis firm, InfraMomentum. As the author of two Cisco certification study guides published by Sybex, he is a regular contributor to multiple enterprise IT-related websites and trade journals with insights into rapidly changing developments in the IT industry.

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