If you’ve read Part 1 of this series you’ll know that I don’t advocate for investing in upgrading your Wi-Fi until you’ve addressed the cable network that feeds it. There’s no point in spending hundreds to get Gigabit wireless when your cabled network only runs at 100mb/s, your router is too slow to keep collisions and congestion at a minimum, and your ISP only provides 10mb/s. In my opinion, your money and time is better spent on upgrading the core infrastructure of your network first.
Once you’ve gotten your cabled network up to spec you’ll probably want to address your wireless network. In my home, wireless devices far outnumber the cabled ones. All of my family members have tablets, smartphones, portable game systems, and they all connect to Wi-Fi. At last count there were 51 devices logged on to my SSID. That’s more than a lot of small businesses. You’d think they would all be lagging like crazy, but that isn’t the case. In this article we’ll talk about how I’m able to do that.
The secret is in understanding how wireless network signals are broadcast. They leave the antenna in your wireless router like ripples through a pond. The antenna on your device only picks up a fraction of the waves being transmitted. Think about a toy boat floating in those pond ripples; only a small fraction of the waves actually touch the boat. Now think about something in between your toy boat and the source of the ripples an even smaller fraction of the waves will hit your boat. This is the more or less the same thing that happens to Wi-Fi in your home or office. The fewer Wi-Fi waves that hit your device, the less data those waves can transfer to and from it. This translates into lagging connections, slow web pages, and a bad experience. Just like those waves in a pond, the further you get away from the rock that made them, the smaller and weaker they become.
So what do we do? There are quite a few things you can do to increase the amount of signal waves that reach your device. One of the most important is to place your Wi-Fi access point in an optimum position. The ceiling is a great place if it’s an option for you but generally the higher, the better. Remove as many obstructions as possible; walls, furniture, and other electronic devices all degrade the signal as it travels through space. Sources of magnetic interference like microwave ovens are notorious for disrupting wireless access. Contrary to popular belief, setting your Wi-Fi access point right next to your device does not result in a better signal. Again, picture those ripples in the pond, there’s always a blank space or eye right around where the rock hit, right? You need your devices to be 4 or 5 feet away at a minimum.
If you have a large area to cover with Wi-Fi or if your neighborhood is crowded with a lot of signals (there are 17 networks in range of my home) you’ll want to tune your system. Usually, this involves logging on to the console with your web browser and accessing the available menus. You can adjust the channel your Wi-Fi uses (there are 14) and pick the least crowded; most systems will show you how many networks are on each channel. You can also adjust the amount of power pumped into the radio on some devices. Google will be your friend here. Basically just ask the question and read the anwser.
If your wi-fi access point doesn’t have advanced options like upping the power, you may be able to replace it’s software with something that allows you to access those functions. DD-WRT and Tomato are two of the most popular firmware replacements. Both are far more advanced than what comes on stock devices and let you crank up the power. In certain cases, they even let you overclock (run faster than normal) the memory and CPU. Just be aware that this often leads to a shorter lifespan; more electricity equals more heat and that kills electronics faster. Once you gain access to the advanced options another thing to adjust is the channel width; a bigger number is better for Wi-Fi but will cause interference with things like bluetooth (they both use the same size waves).
That covers most of what you can do without spending money. If you’re willing to part with some cash to get a better experience, you can do a lot more. We’ll look at some options ranked from least expensive to most.
- Upgrade your antennas. Contingent on the brand and type of Wi-Fi access point you own, it may be possible to upgrade your antennas. If your antenna is external and screws into your access point, you can replace it with something like this.
- Replace your mediocre device with something more advanced. If you’re running the all-in-one Modem/Router/Wi-Fi device your cable company gave you, the experience you’re getting is the same as comparing a Toyota Camry with a Corvette. If you want to stay under the $200 price point I highly recommend the ASUS RT-3200.
- If you’ve got the funds and want the Ferrari instead of the Vette; go mesh. Mesh networks use multiple access points, all sending the same signal to your devices. They can divide your devices up between themselves to split the load, over-ride rogue signals from other networks, hand off to each other as you move through a large space, and essentially make your Wi-Fi run like cables. If you work in a large office you’ll notice they have a lot of smoke detector looking things up on the ceiling, those are mesh Wi-Fi access points. You can cover an unlimited distance with them (whole towns even). Mesh is the ultimate Wi-Fi experience but it comes with a big price tag and requires some expert knowledge to get working.
If we take our ripples in the pond example, Mesh would be the equivalent of multiple people tossing rocks and causing ripples all over the place. The boat is bound to be saturated with them. In terms of wireless access that means plenty of signal to transfer data with, fewer dark spots, and the ability to cover your entire building or home. Until recently, mesh networks were the domain of corporate class equipment and priced out of range for homes and smaller businesses. Now that demand for better Wi-Fi has taken off, most manufacturers offer a mesh system. Google, ASUS, Linksys and some companies you’ve probably never heard of are all jumping in the mesh pool. PCMAG.com has an excellent comparison of the most popular models.
Personally, I use equipment made by Ubiquity. They were one of the first companies to make an affordable mesh system (I’m always an early adopter). They offer some features that other manufactures don’t; outdoor access points, roaming, guest wi-fi with banner support (think coffee shop or hotel), and their system is infinitely expandable. Their devices are POE (power over ethernet, means you don’t need an electrical outlet close by) and support wireless uplinking (they can talk to each other without cables). The software has had more time to mature than the competition and as a result offers more intuitive reporting, problem resolution, and control of specific wireless devices. The system is commercial class, but costs the same or less than some of the more popular residential solutions. If you’re in the market I highly recommend them. https://unifi-sdn.ubnt.com/