Do you have problems getting reliable wi-fi at home? Are downloads taking longer than expected or do YouTube videos keep buffering whenever you watch them? This guide looks at how you can improve your wi-fi coverage at home.
Nowadays, an increasing number of devices make use of wi-fi. Our smartphones are wi-fi enabled: as are our games consoles, tablets, laptops, smart TVs, internet radios and e-book readers. If you wanted, you could even find a wi-fi enabled fridge or a wi-fi enabled vacuum cleaner. With the growing number of wi-fi enabled devices, it’s important to have good wi-fi coverage across your whole home.
For smartphone users, there are many benefits to using wi-fi at home. Compared to a 3G connection, a wi-fi connection will typically give faster downloads. Wi-Fi will also extend the lifetime of your device – it’s much more battery-friendly than 3G. Finally, wi-fi can reduce costs by preserving your download allowance until you really need it. By improving your home wi-fi coverage, you can unlock these benefits for your smartphone as well as for other devices.
In this article, we look at the top five ways to improve wi-fi coverage at home.
Wi-Fi signals are omnidirectional: they’re broadcast equally in every direction starting from your wireless router. If your router is placed at one side of your home, half of the wi-fi signals will be “wasted” as they’ll be broadcast outside. By placing your wi-fi router towards the centre of your home, you can make maximum use of the signal.
When choosing a location for your wireless router, you should also try to keep it away from walls, floors and metallic objects. These will all degrade the quality of your wi-fi signal, particularly if the router is placed in close proximity. In homes that were built before the 1950s, many walls were constructed with chicken wire inside. Chicken wire acts like a Faraday cage - it’ll block wi-fi signals from passing through. Metallic objects such as filing cabinets will also cause the same problem. Metal will shield the wi-fi signal meaning less of it will be available to use.
Finally, it’s best to place the router near to the ceiling. Wi-Fi signals are affected by many things: filing cabinets, microwave ovens and home appliances for instance. As these objects are normally located by ground level, you can avoid much of the interference by placing your router at height. On professionally-installed networks, the router is often mounted to the ceiling. In a home environment, placing your router on the top of a bookshelf can achieve the same result.
Wi-Fi was first developed in 1999. It took advantage of ISM radio spectrum at 2.4GHz: a band of radio frequencies that were unlicensed and free for anybody to use. Whereas most frequencies are reserved for a single user (e.g. for mobile networks or for TV stations), anyone can transmit or receive at 2.4GHz. This is great as it’s allowed anybody to set up their own wi-fi network. However, the unlicensed nature of 2.4GHz also means there are incompatible uses. There is also interference between different types of devices.
If your wi-fi network suffers from interference, you may notice a slow or unreliable connection. You can check for interference from the following sources:
With the growth in wi-fi usage, neighbouring networks have become a common source of interference. Particularly in densely-populated areas, there are often multiple networks transmitting on the same frequency. With more than one network sharing the same frequency, speeds are reduced. Changing the frequency of your network can sometimes reduce interference. This will improve the reliability of your network and can boost download speeds.
In the UK, there are 13 permissible frequencies for wi-fi networks. These frequencies are described with a channel number between 1 and 13. Depending on the channels used by neighbouring networks, you’ll want to pick the channel with the least amount of interference. To find the best channel, use a diagnosis app such as inSSIDer for Windows or Wi-Fi Analyser for Android. Both are free.
If you’re using inSSIDer, start by downloading and installing the application. The Home edition is free and is suitable for our purposes. Once installed, open the application and click on the “Networks” tab at the top of the screen. You’ll be presented with a list of wi-fi networks that your computer can see. A graph will also be shown at the bottom of the screen: this shows the channels occupied by each network. The corresponding signal strength will also be shown. Keep an eye out for the channel with the least amount of interference – this should give the best performance for your wi-fi network.
inSSIDer for Windows shows the channels used by surrounding wi-fi networks. It also shows the corresponding signal strength for each network.
If you’re using Wi-Fi Analyser, head to Google Play on your Android smartphone and start by installing the application. Wi-Fi Analyser has a series of screens: you can swipe sideways to go through them. As with inSSIDer, there’s a screen that shows surrounding wi-fi networks and the channels they use. This is shown in the screenshot below. By swiping twice to the left, you’ll be taken to a screen that shows the optimum channel for your wi-fi network. Channels with a greater number of stars should give less interference and better speeds.
Wi-Fi Analyser for Android. The application can show nearby wi-fi networks and the channels used. There’s also a screen which shows the optimum channel for your wi-fi network. Choose a channel with a high star rating to minimise the amount of interference.
Once you’ve determined the best channel to use, you’ll need to log in to your router to change the settings. Your router settings can normally be accessed through a web browser. From your PC or laptop, open the browser and enter http://192.168.0.1/ or http://192.168.1.1/ (refer to the manual if you’re not sure). Once logged in, you’ll be able to change the wi-fi channel within the wireless settings screen. Save the changes, restart the router and all of your devices.
If your router was manufactured recently, check for a dual-band feature. If enabled, dual-band broadcasts your wi-fi network at 5GHz in addition to 2.4GHz. Whilst 5GHz has a shorter range, there’s likely to be less interference as most people still use 2.4GHz. On many of the latest smartphones (the iPhone 5 and the Galaxy S4 included), you can connect to the 5GHz wi-fi network for better performance.
You can boost the range of your wi-fi network using an external antenna. High-gain antenna can be purchased online for as little as £5. They’re longer than normal antenna but they’ll give better coverage and should ensure a more stable internet connection. Download speeds may also be improved.
If you’re accessing wi-fi from a smartphone or tablet, signal strength will normally be lower compared to other devices. Due to size constraints, smartphones normally pack a short wi-fi antenna. Compared to other devices that pack a larger antenna, smartphones may struggle to maintain a connection when you’re a long way from the router.
As smartphones need a stronger wi-fi signal, you’ll need to boost the signal strength that’s available. One way to do this is to buy a wi-fi extender. These gizmos are available for around £30. Plug the wireless extender into the wall and it’ll pick up and re-broadcast your existing wi-fi signal. With one or two repeaters placed strategically around the house, the operating range of your network will be greatly increased. Signal strength will be boosted making it easier for your smartphone or tablet to access wi-fi.
If you don’t want to buy an extender, you can install a programme on your PC which does the same job. Providing you have Windows 7 or Windows 8, try Connectify Hotspot (£26) or Virtual Router (free). Once installed, the programmes run as a service on your computer. They’ll pick up the wi-fi signal and will re-broadcast it as a new network. By connecting your smartphone to the re-broadcasted network, speed and reliability should be much better. See the diagram below for a real world example.
Our office laptop can pick up a “good” wi-fi signal. This gives download speeds of 1.45Mbit/s. From the same location, our smartphone (a Galaxy Note II) only picks up a “poor” signal. This gives one-third of the download speeds. If the laptop is used to create a new wi-fi hotspot, we can connect our smartphone to that hotspot. Signal strength and download speeds are improved. The smartphone can now access the internet at nearly three times the original speed.
Wi-Fi is an important part of everyday life. Many of our gadgets and gizmos now rely on wi-fi including our smartphones, tablets and laptops. With that in mind, it’s important to maximise your wi-fi coverage around the home. This article looked at five ways to improve wi-fi coverage.
Do you have problems using wi-fi at home? Do you have any top tips for improving wi-fi coverage? We’d love to hear from you… please drop us a comment below and let us know what you think!
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