Sigh, it happened again, I was in the middle of streaming a movie over the home WiFi network while simultaneously making toast in the kitchen, and suddenly it stopped. Moments later a little icon pops up to torment me with the news, “Internet Connection Lost!“, it exclaims while clearly oblivious to my snorting sounds of frustration. Where did it go? Who took my Internet? And if its lost, how can I find it again?
Thankfully the answer soon presented itself in the form of a shrill cry from my wife upstairs, “Keith, I can’t get online and oh.. the cat is sitting on our router again!“. Eureka! You see if there’s one thing that wireless radio signals don’t like, it’s penetrating through the thick fleshy torso of a mildly overweight, if tremendously cuddly, feline called Pebbles, who over the years has developed somewhat of a fondness for the flashing lights and warm curved outer surface of our router.
I’m pleased to report that we have since solved this problem, largely by encircling the router with orange peel and removing Pebbles to a new location under the radiator (apparently inside a pair of my trousers.. and yes, they are clean). But lately Pebbles has taken to eating the Orange peel and so going forward we might require a new solution.
But the episode did get me to thinking, what other ways might there be to improve the reception of our home wireless network? After all, let’s face it, WiFi connectivity problems are perhaps one of modern technologies most common plagues. But there are quite a lot of things you can try in order to resolve this and most of them are free.
Before we get started I feel as if an important piece of general advice is not to buy the cheapest kit you can find and never buy an imported router with an unrecognised brand name. Many of the cheapest WiFi routers are poorly built and often struggle to handle more than 5 devices at any one time, which can result in repeated disconnections or other performance woes. Some routers from other countries may also harness different power levels that aren’t strictly allowed in the UK.
Generally good routers can be had from around £30+ and so for most people they’re not going to break the bank, although this will somewhat depend upon precisely what you want to do with the kit. The top-end home routers will set you back up to £200 for lots of features and the highest specifications, but most people don’t need all the extras.
But if you don’t fancy using WiFi at all and want something different then have a read of our earlier article – The Best Home Alternatives to WiFi Wireless Networks. Take note that WiFi also adds a little extra latency to your Internet connection (slightly slower response times), although this is less of an issue with modern kit.
1. Consider the Radio Spectrum Choice
Generally speaking home WiFi networks most typically operate over two radio spectrum frequency bands, 2.4GHz and 5GHz (Gigahertz). Future networks may also make use of the 60GHz (802.11ad) band but we’ve yet to see those. Some routers will allow you to use either 2.4GHz or 5GHz, while others make an automatic decision on your behalf, but in both cases you need to know the key difference.
Lower frequency spectrum like 2.4GHz is the most commonly used and also penetrates further through walls, although it can’t carry as much data. In other words you’re more likely to connect using 2.4GHz and that’s especially true at the edges of your networks reach. Meanwhile if you live in a busy urban area then there could similarly be a lot of congestion in the airwaves and this can hamper performance.
By comparison 5GHz can carry more data (faster), yet the higher frequency means that it will struggle to penetrate through walls and thus the coverage is lower. On the other hand, fewer people currently have 5GHz capable kit than 2.4GHz. Put another way, if your router gives you the choice and the lower coverage still works for your needs, then it may be better to use 5GHz as fewer nearby networks will conflict (this is also a bonus for security and lowers congestion for your neighbours).
However, in order to take advantage of the above selection, your adapter, laptop, smartphone, tablet computer or other WiFi capable device will need to also support the chosen spectrum band in order to benefit. For example, selecting 5GHz is pointless if your Smartphone only supports 2.4GHz etc.
But remember, the performance of your network will reduce based upon how far you are away and how many physical obstacles (walls etc.) are placed between you and the router. We’ll come back to discuss spectrum again when we talk about channel choice in point no.4.
Pro Tip: When buying a router the WiFi speed claim they give (e.g. 300Mbps, 900Mbps, 2.3Gbps etc.) is usually a combined aggregated score for both bands together, but if you can’t make good use of the 5GHz band – or vice versa for 2.4GHz – then a big chunk of that may not be available to you.
2. Pick the Right WiFi Specification
One of the single most frustrating things about WiFi is the often perplexing array of different standards and performance claims involved. Apparently it was too much to have a simple version number designation like 3G and 4G on mobile networks (4G is newer than 3G etc.), so instead we get things like 802.11g, 802.11n, 802.11ac, 802.11ac-2013 and so forth.
The Fixed Broadband Wireless page explains this in more detail, but as a general rule the most commonly sold hardware today goes a bit like this (experiences do vary due to different implementations and custom enhancements): 802.11g (up to 54Mbps+), 802.11n (up to 300 – 600Mbps) and 802.11ac (Gigabit / 1000Mbps+ speeds).