Solving Home Wi-Fi Woes

“My home wi-fi sucks, how can I fix it?”

“What router should I buy to fix my home wi-fi?”

And so it goes. I get questions like these all the time when it becomes known that I’m a wi-fi expert (really! don’t take my word for it, CWNP and a panel of my peers said I was!) Since I get asked this a lot, I’m creating this post as a handy guide to making your home wi-fi better. 

While by day, I’m a mild-mannered field engineer for a wi-fi consulting company, and deal mostly with large-scale enterprise systems (often fixing their bad wi-fi), many of the same principles apply, because it all boils down to best practices.

First, you’re going to need a couple of basic tools to see what your wifi environment looks like. 

  • Mac: Wifi Explorer Lite
  • Windows: InSSIDer
  • Android: Wifi Analyzer
  • iOS: AirPort Utility

All these tools do is give you a listing (usually with a graphical representation) of the wi-fi channels in use in your environment. 

What causes my wi-fi to suck?

Generally speaking, if you have bad wi-fi, it’s because the device and the access point can’t hear each other very well, or it’s so busy neither one can get a word in edgewise. Wi-Fi can only have one device on a channel talking at once. When it wants to talk, it listens on the channel to see if it’s clear, and if it is, it says its piece and gets off. If it’s not (because someone else is talking), it pauses for a moment and tries again. On a busy channel, that can take a while (and in terms of computer networking, “a while” may only be a few milliseconds, but any delay slows you down. Sometimes a device says its piece, and the intended recipient couldn’t acknowledge it because it was too noisy because of interference from something that isn’t wifi (like bluetooth, microwave ovens, zigbee, etc.)

Let’s get a little terminology out of the way, first, so we’re all speaking the same language. 

router in terms of home wi-fi is an all-in-one device that contains not only a router, but also an ethernet switch and an access point. the access point is the piece that actually does your wi-fi. They just happen to all be stuffed into the same box together. Sometimes they’ll stuff a cable modem or a DSL modem in there too…

mesh is a means of connecting other access points to the network wirelessly. You have probably seen home “mesh” systems that incorporate a couple of access points in some sort of plug and play fashion. 

Your wi-fi is a wireless local area network. It is not internet access. It is entirely independent of your internet access, even if the router box you got from your ISP does wi-fi (usually badly). 

So the first thing you’ll want to do is check out your channel environment. The tools listed above will highlight the channel and AP you’re connected to, and show all the others, with the signal strength of each. It’s doing this by listening for beacon frames that are sent out approximately 10 times per second by every AP on every SSID.

There are two things you’re looking for: YOUR signal above -65dBm, and everyone else’s BELOW -82dBm. In the 2.4GHz band, you also want to watch out for anyone on channels in between the non-overlapping channels of 1,6,11 (many devices will automatically choose channels that aren’t 1/6/11, which they need to stop doing). 

So what if one or both of those tests comes back outside of those parameters? There are a few things that affect your signal strength:

  • Proximity to the access point
  • objects between you and the access point
  • the access point’s output power
  • the access point’s antennas

Your access point should be located somewhere fairly central in your home. It often isn’t because the ISP/Cable company was lazy and put the cable outlet on an outside wall. It should also be out in the open and not behind anything (I’ve seen many stuffed behind a TV, which does nobody any favors). The top of a bookshelf in the middle of your house is a great spot. 

If it has external antennas, they should ALL be pointing vertically. This is not an art piece where they go every which way, and they are not magic wands where wi-fi comes shooting out the ends (in fact, the axis of the antenna has the weakest signal.) If you mount it on a wall, they should still be vertical. 

One caveat to this is that if the antennas are detachable, you can keep your access point near the edge of your home and get a directional antenna.

If your access point lets you set power levels, set it to the lowest you can go and still cover what you need to cover, and nothing more. This keeps your neighbors from getting your wi-fi, and having yours interfere with theirs. If you go too high, you may be able to reach the far corners of your house, but your AP won’t hear your device’s responses. 

Which brings me to extenders. There are many of these on the market, and they’re all junk. Because of the whole “one device may speak at a time” thing, you now have a conversation where another person is repeating it loudly for the people in the back. Don’t do it. If you need more coverage, get one of those residential mesh systems, but connect it up with wires if at all possible (otherwise they act mostly like repeaters and murder your performance). 

I mentioned channels earlier. If you’re on 2.4GHz, you should only ever be on channels 1,6, or 11. But really, you shouldn’t be on 2.4GHz at all. There are lots more channels to work with in 5GHz. If you must be on 2.4GHz, minimize your use of it, and whatever you do, don’t use a 40MHz channel unless you live in the middle of a cornfield with no neighbors. 

If you’re on 5GHz, try to avoid 80MHz channels, 40 is OK if you don’t have many neighbors, and 20 is best when you have lots of neighbors. Many devices default to channels 36/40/44/48 and 149/153/157/161. I’m gonna let you in on a little secret: there are a whole lot more channels you can use. If your device supports them, you can use 52/56/60/64, 100/104/108/112/116/120/124/128/132/136/140/144, and 165. Chances are those channels are WIDE OPEN where you are. use them! 

And now, for cutting through the marketing hype:

“Tri-Band” is NOT A THING. (at least, not as of late 2018 when this is being written) Those devices are all a 2.4GHz radio and two 5GHz radios. That’s only two bands. However, if you have a tri-band radio, your best use is to set up one of the radios with a dedicated SSID and channel for your streaming equipment like Smart TVs, AppleTV, Roku, etc, and use your general internet access on the other. 

Gigabit wifi is A BIG FAT LIE. At most, you’re going to see a couple hundred megabits on a channel. Many vendors’ marketing people like to add up the theoretical maximum of all the radios in the device and claim that as the maximum speed, which is why you see absurd things like “5300Mbps” and “6400Mbps”. Those speeds will NEVER HAPPEN, because wi-fi doesn’t add them up. 

More antennas does not mean a better AP. a 4×4 AP is all well and good, but most of your clients are 2×2 with a small handful of high-end Macs that do 3×3. This refers to the number of MIMO spatial streams. There is ONE 4×4 client device on the market from Asus, and it is a PCIe expansion card for desktops. 

Power levels are limited by FCC rules (in the US – national communications authorities in other countries impose similar limits) , mostly at 100mW. Any device claiming high power wifi is lying to you. 

The current generation of WiFi is 802.11ac (sometimes called WiFi 5). The previous generation is 802.11n (WiFi 4). Anything older than that should be replaced. The upcoming 802.11ax (WiFi 6) standard is still being developed and won’t be official until at least late 2019. 

Questions? Comment below!

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