Maximize Your Wi-Fi - Part 2
Sep 11, 2016
A Little Perspective
In general, people don’t realize how incredibly complex wireless networking is. There are dozens, if not hundreds of software and hardware pieces, not to mention multiples of standards, protocols and connections within and between each and every piece of equipment along the chain that have to communicate with each other in order for you to get a single email. It doesn’t cease to amaze me how an entire document can make it to the other side of the world in mere seconds after I click the Send button. In that way, it does seem a little like magic. So consider that next time you feel like throwing your computer out the window just because your pages take more than a couple seconds to load.
And yes, there are things you can do to make it better...
Location, Location, Location
No matter how much you spent, all wireless routers have to overcome the same three factors:
In spite of the fact that Wi-Fi is invisible, there is no magic involved. Wireless signals are subject to the laws of physics. Actually, they work a lot like sound waves… except that you can’t hear them, of course. Signal levels drop the further they travel, and are reduced every time they go through a wall or floor/ceiling. The more dense the material (like concrete or metal), the more it attenuates. So, in general, you want to locate your wireless router as centrally as possible so that it doesn't have to travel from one end of the building to the other.
Here is a visual representation I borrowed from Roku's web site...
Wireless routers are also affected by other wireless devices, such as cordless phones, cell phones, as well as microwave ovens. Think of it like trying to hold a conversation in a crowded restaurant. The more people who are talking in the room, the harder it is to hear the person next to you. Technicians and acousticians refer to this as the signal-to-noise ratio. There are only two ways to combat it: either (1) reduce the noise or (2) increase the signal level.
Most routers have a fixed signal strength, but with some you can actually increase the output power of the antenna. This might sound like a good idea, but could reduce the performance of other wireless devices nearby, or force them to increase their signal level. Back to the noisy restaurant example, think of what happens when one person raises his/her voice in order to be heard. Then the next person raises his/her voice, and so on, until the overall noise level goes up, and then you are back where you started. This can be bad news for people with health sensitivities to wireless interference, (EMF) but that’s a whole other subject.
It’s not always possible to reduce the noise, but you might be able to separate the “loudest” noise sources by putting them in different rooms. For example, put your cordless phone base in one room and your Wi-Fi router in another. Or at least on opposite sides of the room. If possible, try to locate your wireless router as close to the center of the area you are trying to cover. Some people recommend trying different antenna positions, or even aiming the signal with aluminum foil or a tin can. I have tried some of those techniques, but never noticed much of a difference. There are directional antennas available, but you do really have to know what you are doing to chose the right ones and make them work.
Stay tuned for Part 3 in this series: Extending Your Wireless Signal.