Wow-Fi: How to Get the Strongest Signal You Can at Home
Ten years ago, getting a steady Wi-Fi signal at home was almost unheard of. People were using routers with hardwired connections rather than trust the fleeting and often flaky connection that most communications providers were offering. It wasn’t until Netflix really started to push the streaming of movies into homes (and the impending demise of DVD deliveries) that Wi-Fi became a huge concern. And now, Wi-Fi is present in almost every home in the country, and part of almost every product in those homes. Cameras, gaming consoles, smartphones—even your printer relies on Wi-Fi.
An increasing concern at the consumer level is “Why is my Wi-Fi so slow?” There are a lot of reasons, and there are just as many solutions to boost your Wi-Fi. We’re going to take a look at some common problems and the ways to fix them.
First, let’s start with the basics. A high-speed Internet connection comes into your house through an Internet service provider (ISP). These communications companies usually provide “package” deals, which include Internet service, phone service, and cable television service. There’s an increasing demand for Internet and phone only, or Internet-only service, as many people are cutting their ties to cable TV companies and going with streaming services like Hulu Plus and Netflix.
The wire that powers your Internet comes from outside your home, and is run (usually by coaxial cable, or in some cases fiber-optic cables) into your home or business. Regardless of how the signal comes in, it’s useless without a device to handle and interpret the signal. That device is called a Modem.
Modems are boxes that do one thing—connect your incoming data line to your computer. They provide no security or protection, but they are the only way to receive the signal inside the house. Other connections to the modem are made to supply service to your phone and TV. And to your Router.
Looking for a good modem? Consider the SB6141 SURFboard DOCSIS 3.0 Cable Modem, which features a 75 Ω F-connector and a 10/100/1000Base-T Ethernet Interface. It supports both IPv4 and IPv6 Internet protocols and can provide up to eight downstream and four upstream channels.
A router is a device that takes the signal from the modem and delivers the signal, both wired and wirelessly, throughout your house or business. Routers come in single-band or dual-band varieties. Bands are the “highways” along which data travels—either the 2.4 GHz or 5.0 GHz band—and like a highway, the older 2.4 GHz is crowded with traffic from everyday devices like wireless phones, speakers, and even microwave ovens. The less crowded highway is the relatively new 5.0 GHz band, which may soon become as choked with traffic as the 2.4 GHz band, but for now delivers a much smoother ride. There are combo modem/routers, but most people are familiar with individual routers, like the ASUS RT-AC68U Dual-Band Wireless AC 1900 Gigabit Router. It uses the fastest protocol to date (802.11ac, three times faster than 802.11n routers) and comes equipped with a host of security features like WEP,WPA2-PSK and WPA/2 Enterprise. It includes two USB ports, five Gigabit Ethernet ports.
Dual-band routers use both bands for added speed. If you connect with a dual band that travels the 2.4 GHz highway at 300 Mbps (megabits per second, which refers to the speed that data travels at optimal conditions) and you also connect to the 5.0 GHz highway at 600 Mbps, then your dual-band router can attain transfer speeds of 900 Mbps (300 Mbps+600 Mbps).
The speed of your router is only as good as your slowest incoming connection, however. If your modem is only delivering a 100 Mbps Internet connection, then that’s the apex of what your router will deliver. If you’re lucky enough to have a Gigabit Ethernet connection, your router will blaze on. If you want speed, buy a fast router—and consider paying your ISP for a faster connection.
Extenders and Repeaters
One way to boost your signal is to add a repeater or extender to your home Wi-Fi network—but beware. Don’t expect immediate boosts in your speeds. These devices do exactly what they say: they repeat your signal and extend the range of your Wi-Fi, but they’re basically chained to the same restrictions as a router. The thickness of the walls, the strength of the connection to your ISP, interference from other devices will all degrade your signal. If you’re finding that the connection in your attic isn’t as strong as the connection in the kitchen, however, consider getting an extender like the Amped Wireless High Power 700mW Dual Band AC Wi-Fi Range Extender. Not only does this model extend the signal, it also uses the 802.11ac protocol for the fastest speeds available. It acts as a mini-router, complete with USB and hardwired Ethernet ports, WPA/WPA2, and WEP protection and access to both 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz bands. You could also use a more low-profile repeater, like the Amped Wireless High Power Wireless-N 600mW Smart Repeater. This extends the signal up to 10,000 square feet and also includes WPA/2 and WPS security and hardwired Ethernet ports. It does not include USB ports, and only employs 802.11b/g/n transfer speeds.
When looking to extend the range for business purposes, consider Access Points. Access Points act as repeaters, but usually feature more stringent security control. You also need a hardwire connection to your router in order to power and communicate with Access Points. Models like the Cisco WAP321 Wireless-N Selectable-Band Access Point support both bands, and support 802.11 b/g/n speeds with transfer data at speeds up to 300 Mbps, but there are no USB or hardwired ports to prevent unwanted access. It supports Power Over Ethernet (PoE) so once you have an Ethernet connection established, you don’t need an external power supply. It can connect up to twenty users and also includes QoS (quality of service) features that let you prioritize the bandwidth traffic. If you want streaming video to take precedence over streaming music, you can set the access point to deliver on your demands. If inconspicuousness is your goal, the EnGenius EAP300 Indoor Long Range Wireless-N Access Point mimics a smoke detector and transmits on the 2.4-2.484 GHz band and includes a 10/100 Ethernet port and omnidirectional antennas for greater range.
Another way to get a signal without complicated setups is to use a Powerline adapter. These plug-and-play adapters simply plug into the nearest outlet and act as an extender. They use the electrical layout of your structure to deliver your signal through your home or business. Are you going to see blazing-fast speed with a Powerline adapter? Probably not, but if there is a dead spot in the house, these adapters will cover it without installation CDs and complicated menu navigation. If there’s a power outlet near a device through which you want to deliver your Internet, these are the answer.
The Netgear WN3000RP Universal Wi-Fi Range Extender is one such device. You simply plug it and connect to your network. No CDs, no complicated menus, no fuss. It also includes an Ethernet port, so if you plug this near your home entertainment system, you can jack right into the device. It delivers 300 Mbps data-transfer speeds on the 2.4 GHz band.
The ZyXEL 500 Mb/s Mini Powerline Ethernet Adapter is a set of two wall plug adapters that deliver 500 Mbps in a tiny, compact form factor. You hardwire your router into the wall plug, plug it in, and hardwire another device into the second wall plug, spreading the signal through your home electrical network and connecting the devices to your Internet.
Linksys has a similar product with the Linksys Powerline AV Wireless Network Extender Kit. It works the same: plug an Ethernet cable from your router into the adapter, plug that adapter into the wall, and use any other outlet to attach the second adapter for instant access to another Ethernet connection with 300 Mbps speed on the 2.4 GHz band.
The Actiontec PWR511K01 500Mbps Powerline Adapter Kit works in a similar fashion. It delivers 500 Mbps over the electrical circuit and has up to a 300-meter operating range. It’s perfect for connecting network devices like wireless Blu-ray players, wireless speakers, or just about anything that needs a boost in Wi-Fi speed.
Tips and Tricks for Slowpokes
So, how’s your signal strength at home? Finding dead spots? Ghost zones, no-signal blackouts? Before you buy anything on this list, go through this checklist to make sure the problem isn’t you.
Checklist for Wow-Fi
Upgrade your Router’s Firmware
You won’t believe how many times I’ve repaired a friend or relative's Wi-Fi by simply upgrading the router’s firmware. Even recent routers, straight out of the box, should have their firmware updated (many routers ship as the firmware becomes available—keeps the cost down of adding a CD to the product).
This is a big one, especially if you’re using a single-band router on the 2.4 GHz band. Check your phones, microwave, and other devices, turn them all off or disconnect them through the router’s control panel. Then check a single wireless device and see if the slowdown abates. Other things you can do: move your router away from any device that may be interfering with the signal.
Are your kids constantly watching Netflix? Are you always playing Guild Wars 2 at the same time? Is your teenager downloading tons of torrents of music? These are all Bandwidth Hogs.
Just because your router worked great when you bought it and placed it on top of your desk doesn’t mean that’s the optimal spot. If possible, move that puppy around and see if your Wi-Fi strength increases. There are also apps that can help you determine where your signal is the strongest. If moving it isn’t possible, look into extenders.
Check the Channels
Wi-Fi routers operate on different channels. Just because the factory set it to deliver on Channel 2 doesn’t mean that’s the best for you (especially if you live in an area where everyone’s router is set to Channel 2). Switch the channels up through your router’s administration page and see if the signal weakens or strengthens.
The Biggest Loser: Someone is Stealing Your Wi-Fi
Let’s not get paranoid. This isn’t always the case. But almost 80% of the time, signal is degraded by someone piggybacking on it. Make sure you secure your router as much as you can; change the default password (if you're using admin as your password, you’re in big trouble). Again, there are apps that can help you locate a signal bleed, but the best thing to do is go into your router administration pages and check the “Attached Wireless Devices” (it may be called something else on your page). If you see something unfamiliar, block it. And change that password every six months.
So there you have a comprehensive look at how to turn your Wi-Fi into Wow-Fi. Remember that speeds advertised by manufacturers will not always be what you get. There are so many things that can throttle the optimal speed of Wi-Fi delivery products.