WiFi has achieved the status of being pretty much ubiquitous with modern life. Yet you only have to go back a few years and the majority of devices used in the home still had a wired network connection to transmit and receive data. Unfortunately the truth about WiFi is that it simply can’t offer the performance, range and reliability of a wired network, and there are plenty of reasons why. Here are a few of them.
Any devices not operating on the latest WiFi standard (802.11ac) will still be using the 2.4GHz frequency band to transmit and receive data. Because of the limitations of this band the maximum throughput in ideal laboratory circumstances is 600mbps, compared to 1000mbps for your modern home cabled network.
Even then, the 600mbps figure is purely scientific – it’s the maximum speed that two devices could transmit data to one another in perfect conditions, with no barriers between the two and no other devices causing interference. A much more realistic speed on a 2.4GHz network is between 50mbps and 200mbps in a home environment – potentially between 5 and 20 times slower than a cabled environment.
It is true that the 5GHz band used in 802.11ac gives a much greater theoretical throughput to compatible devices, up to 1.7Gbps in ideal circumstance. But this too is a pipe dream compared to what you can reasonably expect in a home environment, where a more likely throughput is between 400mbps and 1000mbps.
You can see that these estimates are quite wide, and they have to be, because WiFi is incredibly susceptible to the environment in which it operates:
Seeing as WiFi is essentially a radio wave, it is susceptible to interference both from physical objects (the walls, ceilings and furniture in your house) and from other radio signals present in the same area.
The former is because, even in free space, radio waves lose their power over increasing distances, with the majority of the power being lost fairly early on as the signal travels through the air.
What this means is that as you travel further from your WiFi router less signal is being received on your WiFi enabled device, and this is without any obstructions such as walls or furniture involved.
Solid objects create a lot more of the signal to be lost over a shorter distance (they attenuate more). This is because in a solid object the atoms are closer together than they are in the air, and more of the WiFi signal is reflected or absorbed by the material as it passes through.
It’s perfectly logical then to assume that denser materials, such as concrete, would attenuate the WiFi signal much more than a less dense material such as wood or plasterboard. This is why WiFi signals in some buildings appear to be weaker than in others. The overall construction type of the building has a massive impact on how the WiFi signal is able to travel around, with good old-fashioned steel reinforced concrete being among the worst materials for blocking WiFi signals.
But that’s not the only issue. As well as the problems caused by the materials through which they’re passing, WiFi signals also have to compete with other radio waves present in the same environment. This can be particularly difficult in the modern home, especially in the 2.4GHz band as this is used not only for WiFi, but for Bluetooth, wireless baby monitors, cordless telephones and any number of other devices, in addition to other WiFi networks operating in the vicinity.
This can be a particular problem in areas where there are a large number of domiciles in a small space, such as apartment blocks. In these situations it’s likely that the number of visible networks in any given area will go into double figures, and all of those networks are competing for the same piece of the radio spectrum, leading to an unavoidable drop in speed as each network has to wait their turn to send and receive data.
In theory it should be the case that less interference occurs in the more modern 5GHz band, as these signals travel less far than their 2.4GHz compatriots and therefore other networks are less likely to interfere with yours. But, this strength is also a massive weakness as it has a huge impact on the usable range of your own 5GHz network. In fact as a rule a 5GHz network inside a solid concrete building will not generally be usable outside of the room the router is placed in.
If all of the above issues weren’t enough to contend with, it’s also important to realise that even within your own WiFi network all of the various devices connected will compete with each other for your routers attention.
This is because WiFi does not allow multiple devices to send and receive data at the same time. Instead, all of the devices on your network use a protocol called Carrier Sense Multiple Access (CSMA). CSMA works on the basis that only one device can transmit information at a time. Before a device will transmit any information it will listen to the network and ensure no one else is talking before it sends its data. If it detects another device transmitting it will wait for a while before trying again.
So, in a busy network with lots of devices transmitting and receiving, WiFi performance can be impeded even further by devices having to wait for someone else to finish their conversation before they can have theirs.
This is becoming more and more of a problem in the modern home where almost all consumer devices are WiFi enabled. Even when sitting idle they will pass small amounts of data back and forth to keep in touch with the router and other devices on the network, and in doing so they take up more and more of the available time available for actual user data to be transmitted.
How to fix it
Without sounding like a jackass, the simplest way for you to avoid problems with your WiFi network is to avoid WiFi all together. If a device has a network port and it’s reasonably easy for you to plug into your network then you should always do so.
Connecting devices such as your streaming media boxes, smart TVs, games consoles and PCs to your wired network will mean that much less data is being transmitted on the WiFi network, so when you need to use it for your WiFi only devices it actually works better.
Reposition your router
Because of the points mentioned above relating to signal loss over distance the placement of your router is an important consideration to ensure good coverage. Putting your router inside a cupboard or in a seldom used room will immediately reduce the range and signal quality of your WiFi network.
Generally routers should be positioned in a central location, not blocked in by furniture or other items and as high as possible within the room. The combination of these things should ensure good coverage throughout the property, but it’s important also to consider the layout and consistency of your walls. Placing a WiFi router immediately next to a thick concrete wall will significantly restrict how much signal travels in that direction, leading to a much worse experience overall.
Upgrade to a “AC” router
The latest WiFi standard – 802.11ac – allows for much better performance through the use of the 5GHz band. And while the points above mention that overall the range offered by this band is a lot less than 2.4GHz, it still gives you much more bandwidth for those devices that can support it and that are within range.
Generally speaking upgrading to a AC router is a good idea, because they also include more modern features such as parental controls and the ability to add shared network storage via a USB port.
Get multiple access points or a mesh network
Generally speaking the less complexity you can have on a home network the better, and if you can receive adequate coverage throughout your home with a single WiFi router then you definitely should.
But, if a single router won’t provide you coverage throughout your home then there are solutions that can help. The simplest solution, though not always the best, is to invest in a simple range extender. These relatively inexpensive devices act as a relay to extend the range of your network. You simply place the extender within the range of your current WiFi router and the extender will act as a relay, retransmitting your signal further than your router could on its own.
The downside to this is that you’re effectively introducing another WiFi network to your home, which as I mentioned above is a bad thing. It means more interference and more complexity to your network, and because it has a separate network name and password you have to remember to manually switch between networks as you move around the house in order to maintain the best signal.
A better, but much more expensive, solution is to use a mesh network. Mesh networks are different to a range extender in that the equipment is designed to operate as a single network, with multiple nodes.
Most mesh systems come with two or three nodes as standard, with the option to expand your network with more if needed. Each node generally has a lesser range than a reasonable WiFi router, but put a number of them across your property and they form a single cohesive network, with intelligent protocols that manage signal strength and ensure that each device connected to the mesh network always connects to the node to which it has the strongest signal.
Love it or hate it, WiFi is here to stay. It is almost unfathomable to not have a WiFi network in your home or at work these days. It’s ubiquitous, a social requirement, and if you’re not careful a massive headache to setup and maintain.
Hopefully this guide has given some insight into why you might be struggling with your own WiFi demons, and maybe even offer some ideas on things you might do to improve matters.
Before you spend any money, consider the ideas put forth above about how you might improve things with the equipment you’ve got, but if all else fails a modern router, range extender or mesh network are surefire ways to improve the coverage and throughput of your WiFi network – but be careful not to make things too complex or else you may have different problems on your hands.