As explained in the definition for Wi-Fi, it is wireless networks in the office and home that have freed computer, cell phone, tablet and pad users from sitting in a single location tethered to a cable in order to browse web sites, download videos and make internet telephone calls. However, Wi-Fi may have become the victim of its own success. You may notice that your connections time out or are completely dropped, downloads are slower, VoiP telephone calls are dropped and the range of the network isn’t as great as it once was. This is usually because there are so many more devices now on the network which are attempting to use the same bandwith to do more and more things, often simultaneously. Not just computers, but also iPhones, game machines, telephones, televisions, set-top boxes, pads and tablets or any other device with an ethernet port or Wi-Fi.
If you’re reading this, you have now probably reached the point where this conflict has become noticeable and are pondering how to fix these problems. Fortunately, fixes are available, although there will be some thought and possibly some expense required.
FIRST, check your ISP provider’s plan. If you signed up for the slower speed of internet access, perhaps figuring that it was more than enough for your needs, you may now have reached the point where you do need a faster (and, yes, more costly speed) plan, and nothing written after this will help you. Read on only if you’ve verified that you are on the higher speed plan:
Before you upgrade any hardware, you should try two things: (1) Make sure that the firmware for your hardware (like routers and switches) is up-to-date. Go to the manufacturer’s website and download and install the latest versions. Believe it or not, this can make a big difference. (2) A second major contributor to Wi-Fi problems is signal interference. Everything from garage door openers to kitchen appliances (refrigerators, microwave ovens), baby monitors to wireless phones can cause your Wi-Fi signal to be dropped or distorted. You should even look outside of your premises for interference: Airport and emergency vehicle and construction communications radios have been known to cause interference. Moreover, if you live in a multiple dwelling building or just in a crowded community of office complex, you may be experiencing overcrowding resulting from having too many users on your given frequency. Most home routers tend to automatically use channels 1, 6 and 11 and, while they’re generally supposed to switch over to another channel if they’re overcrowded (“polluted”), they usually don’t, so you have to do this manually, usually through the router’s internet settings panel (read your instructions). You can check for overcrowding by using one of the many free apps for computers and cell phones which will show you not only which Wi-Fi routers are in your immediate area, but also the channels that they are broadcasting on. If you detect overcrowding, switch to a channel with less use.
If that didn’t work, read on:
Now, lets look at the signal strength and coverage of the network itself. If you’re still using an older wireless router that is set to the 802.11b or 802.11g standard, you may want to consider upgrading the router to the latest WiFi standard, 802.11n, which transmits data at twice the speed of the “g” routers and five times faster than the older “b” routers. For example, if you’re using the old wireless router that your ISP gave you when you signed up for Internet service, it may be time to request a new one or just buy a separate one of your own. Like cell phones, it’s a good idea to keep up with new technology and replace the hardware between two and three years. Recently the “ac” series of routers has become available, which ups the speed and coverage even more. The “ac” standard was approved by the IEEE in 2014, with “ad” following. While the routers are readily available (e.g. TRENDnet's AC1750 Dual Band Wireless Router, with speeds up to 1300Mbps on “ac” and 450Mbps on ”n” and Netgear ‘s Nighthawk X45AC2600 Quad Stream Smart Router), the problem is, at least that in the very beginning (which, I think, has now passed), fewer devices can be connected to it, so until the market expands, you’ll not be able to take advantage of the increased speeds with your “n” and “ac” series devices. And, if you do upgrade, don’t forget to go into the control panel and disable the option to go to “b” or earlier bandwidths. Most tests have shown an average 33% increase just replacing an old “n” series router with a newer dual-band “ac” one.
If the problem is with the range of your network (e.g. it won’t make it to the back bedroom or the second floor), you should consider purchasing a “repeater” that will extend the existing router’s Wi-Fi signal. If you have an ISP like BrightHouse, they offer a service like Echo that installs extenders in your outlets to solve this problem, so check that first. If you must make separate purchases, Linksys sells a range expander for it’s “g” and “n” routers for under $100. Hawking Technologies sells range extenders for “b” and “g” routers for about $60, and for “n” networks for around $100. You could also consider the portable Mi-Fi wireless hotspot that will allow up to five simultaneous connections. Or a signal amplifier, perhaps combined with a good directional Wi-Fi antenna, if the problem is with the original signal. That is, if the original signal is weak, this will amp it up and may permit it to be extended with a repeater or you may not even need one. Some companies (Hawking, EnGenius, TP Link, etc.) make outdoor wireless repeaters that can be mounted at various points on your property, providing you with complete wireless everywhere at your place. Or you could use an extra router, if you have one around, or an “access point,” to extend the network. Finally, you could use a “bridge” which reduces traffic on a network segment, speeding up transmission between a device and the network. But you have to know what you’re doing - you must be cabled, have DHCP disabled in the second router, and have an IP address that’s different from the first box.
If your problem is that your network is handling too many devices, you may have to upgrade the series of the router. Because the 2.4GHz band used by the older wireless networks can support only three non-overlapping simultaneous connections (this includes smartphones, microwaves, cordless phones and bluetooth devices), you are severely limited. Similarly, if your neighbor is using a 2.4GHz network, it may also be competing for the use of the airwaves on that same frequency. The result if what’s known as “channel overcrowding”. Someone is bound to get knocked off the network. See the discussion above about how to detect this. If you can’t get around this problem by reconfiguring your settings (i.e. switching the channel on your router to a less used one), the hardware upgrade to a 5GHz “n” network will allow you to support a dozen non-overlapping channels. If you have lots of older equipment and don’t want to upgrade the entire network, try adding an “n” wireless access point (such as Netgear’s WNHDE111 5GHz draft-n access point (only about $59) and first see if it reduces wireless congestion. If you’re technically proficient, there are sniffer programs out there that’ll show you who is near you and the channels they are using (again see above), so that you can avoid them and move to the less-traveled road. Try FarProc’s Wi-Fi Analyzer for Android (free at Google Store) or NetSurveyor for Windows (free - site), just to mention a couple of choices.
Keep in mind that, when upgrading to the “n” or “ac” series router, it can transmit on two frequencies, either the 2.4GHz or 5GHz band, or both. When possible, it’s best to use the 5GHz range because there is less interference on it, but both the 2.4GHz and the 5GHz ranges are nearly the same. But the 5Ghz routers don’t have as much range, so get one with dual channels. While the single 2.4GHz frequency routers are less expensive ($75-$125), it may be more cost effective only if you’re not having severe problems with downloads or dropped connections. Dual band routers are probably worth the $150-$200 price tag, especially if you’re experiencing interference issues.
However, saving money by purchasing an “n” series router that doesn’t use the multiple antennas that make 802.11n so fast and far reaching would be a big mistake. If possible, stay away from Belkin’s N150 Enhanced Wireless Router (at $50) or the Linksys WRT110 Range Plus-N Wireless Router ($65). You’ll probably be disappointed. A better choice would be the Linksys WRT400n (About $129) or the Linksys WRT610 (at about $179).
Of course, in order to optimize the significant increase in both range and speed using the “n” router, you would have to upgrade all of the equipment on your network to the “n” frequency, and not just the router. This would mean (eventually) replacing the network card (“NIC”) in all of your networked computers as well as printer servers and any other network equipment. Otherwise, the network will connect at the speed of the slowest equipment being used. Luckily, most of the newer computers, especially the laptops, come with at least built-in 802.11n capability.
You can also consider the idea of a wired ethernet connection to some or all of the computers in order to increase speed and range. Almost any wired connection will be considerably faster than a wireless one (100mbps wired vs. 54mbps wireless on the average).
You could also think about a powerline network or a “hybrid” powerline network. A powerline network uses the electrical wiring in your home or office to create a network. You plug the LAN port of your router into an adapter which is then plugged into a wall outlet. You can then plug additional adapters into any other wall outlets to connect any other network device. Most adaptors have built-in lights showing the link rate of the connection in the particular outlet, i.e. red, yellow or green, so you can determine the best place to plug it in. In addition, you can create an access point for a wireless network by connecting a Wi-Fi access point to a powerline adapter plugged into a wall outlet (or use a single device such as Zyxel’s PLA-450, at about $100).
Powerline products have been around for over a decade. The newer technology is far better than the original. It has 500Mbps capability, versus the 75 and 200Mbps for the older models, which can provide real-world transfer rates of 70 - 80Mbps in one direction and more than 100Mbps in both directions at once, as the result of built-in gigabit Ethernet ports. They must be plugged into “unmodified” wall sockets (not UPS or other devices). The best technology is the HomePlug AV, which not only resists interference from other electrical appliances and devices, such as hair dryers, cordless phones, cell phone chargers, microwaves, washers and dryers and refrigerators, but runs about as fast as 802.11n. Also I hear that the Amped Wireless AV 500 kit and TP Link TL-PA410 (both around $100) are quite good.
Vendors like Netgear (AV 500 Model XAVB5001 Powerline AV Ethernet Adapter Kit) and Trendnet both offer a network kit with two starter adapters for about $150. No doubt, Cisco, Belkin and D-Link aren’t far behind. And in 2013, Trendnet offered a 4-Port Powerline 500 AV Adapter TPL-4052E which allows you to connect up to four devices instead of separate adapters for each device. BUT remember: The entire network must use the same speed adapters, otherwise the transmission rate will revert to the slowest adapter on the network! However, when it works, not only does the speed rival a wired network, but if you create a “roaming” network (the SSID is the same for each piece of equipment), mobile clients such as phones and laptops will simply connect to the access point with the strongest signal. And you have the design flexibility to put various items of equipment, such as printers, storage drives and video players in rooms that you want them in and that have high transfer rates, particularly for streaming video.
The only true way to use the powerline network is to try it out. It doesn’t always work if you have a home or office that has completely separate electrical circuits (as where additions were constructed onto the original structure), or modifications have been made to the electrical system, particularly where zones are established. Make sure that if you purchase one of these network systems, you can return it if it doesn’t work as intended.
Of course, nothing beats the speed and reliability of a wired connection. Many of the newer homes and offices now come pre-wired with ethernet. Smart homes come wired with “monster” cable, which can accommodate many types of connections in the same outlet. A type of coaxial cable technology known as MoCA claims to be best for streaming multimedia for those homes which already have cable wired throughout (try Netgear’s MCAB1001 MoCA starter kit, with two adapters, at about $200).
The solution to your network issues depends on the nature of the problem itself. It may not always require establishing an entirely new technology throughout the network, or not all at once.