Secrets to Good Home Wifi

You open up your laptop, enter your password, and then start your browser. Maybe you click on a movie.

What happens next? For far too many homes, what happens next is your browser starts playing and then rebuffers the movie. Maybe you get kicked off your wifi completely. The ISP gets blamed – and may be at fault, but probably not for the reason you are yelling at them. The problem is most likely not your internet connection. It’s your wireless network. These tips are for experienced IT people who are comfortable reading IT system manuals, but who don’t have strong expertise in wireless 802.11 networking. Wifi is, sadly, not a “plug-and-play” technology – certainly anyone can learn about it and become an expert, but sometimes it’s better to hire an expert. If you need your Wifi to work like your home’s electricity, and always be there when you need it, sometimes you’ll need to hire experts in the field. But I’m going to assume that you are more of a do-it-yourself type of person who is comfortable learning more about their technology, and are able to read and understand your network devices’ manuals. With that in mind, how do we fix this?

The first step is to figure out what the problem really is – is it your Wifi or something else? The best way to do this is to plug a computer into your wired network via an ethernet cable and determine if the problem still exists. Ideally, this is a computer that had a problem on the wireless network so you can be sure you’re really testing the network technology rather than your browser, the streaming site, or even your internet connection. If your computer doesn’t have ethernet, use a USB-to-ethernet adapter such as this one). When you do your testing, make sure you disable any wireless networks that are active on your PC, to ensure you really are using the wired network.

If you’re still having trouble, fixing your wireless probably won’t be enough to fix your problems. But let’s assume that this does “fix” it, but you don’t want to be tethered to a cable forever! Here are some things to try:

1. Use the wire, Luke!

I know, this is about fixing your wireless, and wiring everything kind of defeats the point. However, because radio bandwidth is much more limited (and shared with all your computers, your neighbor’s computers, etc), a quick win is to reduce the amount of bandwidth you need to reduce congestion on your wireless network. Anything that has an ethernet port that doesn’t move around your home should generally be wired, as should some things that don’t have an ethernet port. For instance the Nintendo Wii gaming device doesn’t have an ethernet port, but insists on using old wireless standards to connect to your network, impacting performance for your entire network. Fortunately, the Wii does support USB adapters (check compatibility online before purchasing one). Your set top box and even television might support being wired – if they do, wire them!

Yes, this requires running ethernet cables throughout your home. However, this one-time investment of labor will pay dividends when you’re trying to use your wireless, and will improve the performance of both the device itself and anything using the wireless network. Now your iPad use won’t be competing with the kids’ set-top-box streaming a movie, which is good for both the iPad and the set top box. It’s fine to run just one cable from your router to each location, even if there are multiple devices – you can use cheap ethernet switches (like this one) to “expand” that one port into however many you need, with very little impact on bandwidth (since it’s very unlikely you have multiple devices that constantly fill the gigabit pipe they will share) – you could easily stream video to 100 devices connected through one gigabit ethernet port, provided your internet connection is also up to the task. If you’re like me, anywhere you have a desktop or a TV with a game console or set top box is a good place to put an ethernet switch.

For things like Apple TVs, printers, etc, disable the wireless and configure the wired interface where this is an option. Even if you print from the wireless network, your printer still can be wired.

While actual network cables are the best way of extending the wired network, powerline ethernet might be an alternative. Powerline ethernet can be nearly as fast as wired ethernet, and avoids using precious Wifi spectrum. Here’s one example of a powerline ethernet extender (note that if you need to extend your wired network to more than one place, you can buy additional extenders and connect them to ones already installed – just make sure you check compatibility via the internet ahead of time).

2. Use modern technology

Ethernet standards have changed over the years. An 802.11n capable device is better than an 802.11b or 802.11g device. And an 802.11ac device is even better. This is true for both wireless routers/access points and for tablets, phones, and PCs. A must-have today, in my eyes, for any wireless device doing media streaming (and your router) is 802.11n (or better – 802.11ac is better) and 5ghz band support. If you’re using a router that is more than 5 years old, it almost certainly isn’t up to modern standards. The newer devices not only support newer standards (which are faster) but almost always include better radios that can pull the signal out of the air better, so an 802.11ac router/access point will probably perform better than an 802.11n one, even for old 802.11g clients! Whew, that’s a mouthful – but the point is simple: with wireless, the new stuff really is improved.

In many cases, you may be better off using third party routers rather than the equipment your ISP provides. For instance, my ISP (Comcast) provided me a rental modem that only does 80 Mhz channels in the 5 Ghz band and which has no transmit power adjustment – see below for why this is bad. It’s got great specs, but it’s just not as configurable as needed for good wireless.

3. Use 5 Ghz!

This is probably the single thing you can do to improve your network – make sure all your devices support 5 Ghz. If you have a 5 Ghz router, it may be beneficial to give the 5 Ghz radio a different name (also called SSID) than you use on 2.4 Ghz, so your laptops, phones, etc, that support 5 Ghz can be “forced” to use your 5 Ghz network (if you use the same SSID on both bands, devices will sometimes pick 2.4 and sometimes pick 5 to connect to). 5 Ghz isn’t better because it’s a bigger number, it’s better because the signal doesn’t go as far (which is actually a good thing – see below) and because it’s much less crowded, so you’re sharing those frequencies with less devices. On 2.4 Ghz, you’re streaming video is competing with your neighbors’ computers, baby monitors, and microwaves! Not everything yet supports 5 Ghz, but even for devices that only support 2.4 Ghz, getting more stuff on 5 Ghz will make the 2.4 Ghz devices work better.

At my home, I might use SSIDs as follows:

  • 2.4Ghz – DigitalBarbedWire-SLOW
  • 5Ghz – DigitalBarbedWire-FAST

That makes selecting the network easy for non-technical users – if you see the “FAST” network, use it. If not, use the “SLOW” one because you don’t have a choice.

4. Use 20 Mhz Channels

When you see routers advertised, you’ll see claims like “1.3 Gbps router!” or “4 Gbps router!” In reality, these claims are lies for many reasons, and no computer is going to see more than 500 Mbps (that is, in bytes, 62.5 MBytes/sec) or so of throughput no matter what router it connects to via wireless. That’s because there is a lot of housekeeping that the wireless router (or access point) has to do, as well as requirements in the protocol to ensure fair access if multiple wireless networks exist on the same frequency.

Typically routers will come configured to use 80 Mhz channels on 5 Ghz if they are 802.11ac capable. They’ll often use 40 Mhz channels on 2.4 Ghz. While it’s true that an 80 Mhz channel can be 4 times faster than a 20 Mhz channel, a 20 Mhz channel is almost certainly fast enough – it can do 288 Mbps over the air. Roughly 1/2 of that 288 Mbps is actually useable, so we’re talking 140 Mbps transfer speeds. Is your internet connection faster than 140 Mbps? If not, you probably want 20 Mhz channels because anything more is wasteful. Even if it is, you might very well still want 20 Mhz channels.

I can hear the techies now: “People don’t just access the internet via wireleess!” Sure. If you routinely transfer multi-gigabit files over wireless to wired devices on your network (not to/from the internet), and you need absolute speed for this, you might want wider channels than 20 Mhz. But even if you think you’re in this group, know that if you do so you are going to increase your wifi problems by configuring wider channels.

But let’s assume you agree 225 Mbps is fast enough to download things. It’s certainly fast enough to watch 4K video across the internet, after all, and you won’t get your game updates any faster than this. What is wrong with 40 Mhz? Even if you don’t use that speed, what’s wrong with it?

Put simply, if your wireless card and your router can focus their attention on 20 Mhz of spectrum, it doesn’t need to be concerned about noise anywhere else in the spectrum, because that noise won’t impact the 20 Mhz chunk the devices are interested in (yes, I know about intermod and similar thing, but that’s generally not your home wifi’s problem). So a 20 Mhz channel will hear 1/2 the interference that a 40 Mhz channel will. And it will hear 1/4th the interference of an 80 Mhz channel.

It also means that on transmit, all your transmitter’s energy will be focused on 20 Mhz of bandwidth, so your signal will be 3 dB stronger (twice as “strong”) to the receiver on any given part of that 20 Mhz. It’s just like doubling your transmit power – it is more likely to overcome any noise. It’ll make your wireless more consistent and reliable.

5. Limit Your Range

Do you have a 2,500 square foot house with one wireless router (and no stand-alone access points)? If so, contrary to what every Wifi manufacturer needs, you have a problem. You simply can’t cover a medium or large house with wireless with just one access point.

Look around your house. Where do you really use your wireless? Sure, it’d be great if it worked 20 miles from home, but where are you actually using it? I’d suggest that in most homes, this is the living rooms, bedrooms, office, and living rooms. If people are honest, they’ll probably also include the bathroom.

How many walls does your router’s signal need to pass through to get to each of these places? Which ones are particularly important? For my house, the most important rooms are the living room and the office. So I have an access point in each location, because otherwise the signal would need to travel through 3 walls, two of which have mirrors (which are particularly bad for wifi signals!). Remember when I said that the 20 Mhz channel only allows 1/2 the bandwidth of a 40 Mhz one? You might have thought half the speed sounds like a really big loss. Well, if that’s big, connecting to your “central” router from your living room 3 walls away is probably worse – you’re probably not connecting to your 20 Mhz channel at 288 Mbps, you’re probably connecting at more like 15 Mbps. Doubling 15 Mbps to get 30 Mbps in a 40 Mhz channel is still way slower than 288 Mbps in a 20 Mhz channel. It’s also way more prone to interference.

So, what do you do?

You do two things:

First, you lower the power on your access points/routers. I’d suggest lowering it to the minimum power and only increasing it if you truly have a dead spot. The reason for this is counter-intuitive, but the idea is that you’re going to need more than one wireless router (or access point) in your house. Most Wifi devices will connect to a strong signal, so you want to be sure your Living Room signal isn’t strong in your Office, if you have access points in both. You do this by lowering the access point (or router’s) power. When you’re in the same room – even the next room – from the router, even at it’s lowest setting, you’ll probably connect at the maximum rate (assuming you followed my other suggestions).

Second, you need more than one router/access-point. You’ll notice I’ve used “router” and “access point” interchangeably so far, but there is a difference. Your router is needed for your wired and wireless connections to work. Most of the time, a router in a home network also has an access point built in – that is, it has wireless radio(s). An access point doesn’t have the router piece. In general, you only need one router on your network (and more will be problematic for things like Apple TV mirroring, file sharing with your family, etc), but you will probably need more than one access point. Most “routers” marketed to home users can be configured in a mode that disables the “routing” side of things, and makes the device essentially only an access point. That’s what you want everywhere but your primary “router” (see your router’s manual). You’ll then want to wire (see #1!) your access point to your main router. On your access point, you’ll want to use the same SSIDs and security configuration as you use on your main router. This lets your laptops and phones move from one access point to another without your involvement as you move around your house (but note that you definitely need to make sure your router functionality is turned off everywhere but your main router for this to work right). And, if you’re a perceptive reader, you might have noticed that your router has a bunch of ethernet ports on the back – yes, you can plug TVs, computers, etc, into the LAN side of those when these are configured as access points, so you might not need to buy the switch I mentioned in #1 after all!

I know this is confusing – take a look at one manufacturer’s solution here. Note rather than running wires, this uses a device that extends the Wifi over your home’s electrical wiring, which is fine. It’s basically an ethernet extender and access point in one device, in each “satellite” room.

Don’t go overboard with putting APs in every room – just identify the major rooms that aren’t right next to each other, and put an AP in each area of the house. Generally two or three should be plenty. You’ll want to make sure no nearby access points use the same channels (and also note that on 2.4 Ghz, only channels 1, 6, and 11 should be used). Also note that if you use 40 Mhz or 80 Mhz channels, against my advice, they use more than one actual channel (80 Mhz channels are really just four 20 Mhz channels), which you may or may not see in the user interface of the access point. If you have two access points on the same channel, and there is any chance they can hear each other, they’ll both reduce the others’ capacity.

Use Good Equipment

Unfortunately, low price and high price access points often work very differently, with the high priced ones often being significantly better than low priced ones. In my experience, what you can buy at the big box store is generally the worst performing. What you can buy from mid-tier manufacturers like Ubiquiti and Mikrotik is somewhat better (although the big box stuff is getting competitive and sometimes outperforming this tier). And what you can buy only if you call and get a custom quote from someone used to selling to big IT departments is the best performing. Obviously the last option costs a lot more than the first one, so I would generally recommend starting at the lower end and only spending more money if you need to. That said, today wireless is as important to my productivity as my laptop is – so I tend to spend with that in mind.

Summary

It’s not easy to build a reliable wireless network. For my own home, I run an enterprise-like solution, with 4 APs (one each in the living room and office, one in an outbuilding I use as an electronics lab, and one in a detached garage where I want to be sure to be able to look up online manuals for fixing engines) and one “wireless LAN controller.” That’s way overkill for anyone but the most dedicated geek (it’s complex to setup), and definitely not the cheapest way to do wireless – but I can say that I’ve never had wireless problems since going this direction (I replaced 3 Ubiquit AP Pros with this – they just couldn’t deal with the noise on the wifi bands in my area).

If I was doing it again, and needed the absolutely highest quality network, I’d probably look at Meraki. I’ve never used this line, but I’ve heard great things about it. That said, they end up being, from what I can gather, $400 or so per access point plus a $100/year license per access point. But if you’re an IT professional, go listen to one of their webinars and they’ll send you a free AP to try out (read their terms and conditions). From what I’ve heard (again, I’ve not used their stuff), they are outstanding and reasonably simple to configure. But if you’re not willing to spend thousands, take a look at what Linksys, Netgear, and TP-Link (among others) sell. You’ll probably need a router and some access points, as well as some powerline extenders if you aren’t going to run cables everywhere. Anyone can spend tons of money and get good equipment and then learn how to configure it – but a really good network person can build a network which meets the needs while controlling cost, which often might mean using cheaper equipment that isn’t as nice as the really expensive stuff, but which will meet the need and cost a lot less.

Did I get anything wrong? Feel free to yell at me below!

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