WiFi – Still A Patchwork Network Solution?

Back in January 2016, I’d drawn up an article expressing my concerns about the abilities and scalability of WiFi networking. At the time, I was living in an apartment of reasonable size in a complex, and had constant problems with WiFi signal not quite cutting it for most of my endeavors.

Fasting forward to the present, I’m now living in a house. Life in terms of WiFi must be all “sunshine and rainbows” by now, right? Well..   not quite.

While I’ve hardlined most all devices in my house to keep up with the data throughput levels I need for both my day job and for Otaku Central, I went back to the WiFi situation recently thinking that perhaps in the absence of dozens of devices all fighting for wireless access within a confined space now that I’m in my own house, perhaps my wireless woes would finally be past. What I found was that my wireless download speeds rarely exceeded 15Mb and averaged around 3Mb, but not for the reason I expected.

Intrigued? I certainly was! Sounds to me like it’s high time for Round #2 of determining if wireless simply can’t cut it for me at all, or if there are other factors that need to be taken into consideration.

The Setup

My home consists of two floors, one at ground level and one in the basement. The whole house generally has a poor WiFi experience with the exception of the living area in the central basement since it’s directly adjacent to the wireless router. That room tends to get 15Mb download speeds, while the rest of the house averages around 3Mb. The garage has no workable WiFi signal at all due to the cinderblock walls that it’s made out of.

My challenge was to attempt to get the wireless signal to permeate the house better, and get a more usable signal since I had at least “four bars” of signal throughout most of the house, but still poor performance.

The Troubleshooting Process

The first thing I immediately noticed about the wireless router my ISP gave me as part of my internet service (a Windstream-rebranded SagemCom modem/router) is that it only supports the 2.4GHz wireless band. It’s not unheard of for ISP-offered modems to be 2.4GHz-only in order to save on manufacturing costs, not to mention that the ISP usually gives you such a modem for free along with your service package these days. Well, you get what you pay for – and in this case, we paid the grand total of nothing.

Going back to my house, which was first built in 1971, I found that most of the pipes for hot water, cold water, and draining were all made out of either copper or steel. This is a bit of a different setup from a house built, say, 15 years ago and newer because these pipes would almost entirely be PVC in a newer home. Do you see the issue when it comes to WiFi here? Wireless signals have a really difficult time getting through solid metal pipes, and I have a decent amount of those pipes running both horizontally and vertically through my floors and walls.

Combined with a cheap, crappy WiFi router, these pipes were effectively what was killing my wireless experience throughout the house. Since I can’t easily change those pipes without shelling out a few thousand dollars, what options did I have left?

The solution…    was to divide and conquer.

Avoid WiFi “Range Extenders”

Before I mention my multi-access point approach to getting good coverage in my house, let me very quickly clarify what I DID NOT do – I DID NOT use a “WiFi range extender”.

​Many people see devices branded as “WiFi range extenders” in their local tech stores and believe these devices will fix their poor WiFi coverage woes in their homes. The truth about these devices is that their recommended use scenarios are highly situational, and you wouldn’t want to use them in 98% of cases. Why?

While they do extend a wireless network’s usable range, they do this optimally if they’re placed within the outer 15% of the coverage range of any other wireless router or access point you have. If you’re within that outer 15%, your overall wireless performance throughout your house will be degraded by 40% for every range extender you use. If you mess up in your device placement, and that range extender is within the inner 85% of your coverage area, it degrades overall performance by 70% per device.

This is the case because you’re using range extender(s) to chew through a large portion of the available signal bands for WiFi technology to work in in order for the range extender to work – which means other devices in your house can’t use those bands, and thus suffer vastly degraded performance in WiFi up to the point where they may not even reliably work.

To make a long story short and get back on topic, don’t use these devices unless a technical expert (someone who has a degree in IT, or does enterprise networking as a day job) tells you it’s the best option you have. Geek Squad is not a technical expert source.  🙂

The Less Technical Solution (recommended for most folks)

The easy solution to getting better wireless coverage in your house if you’re stuck in a similar position to me with an ISP’s modem performing poorly? Simply buy your own router, and put your ISP’s router into “bridged mode”. Putting your ISP’s router into bridged mode is usually something you can give your ISP a quick phone call to have them do, if you’re unsure of how to do it yourself.

Buying your own wireless router, though? Where to begin? There’s a ton of devices on the consumer market today that claim to offer great performance, so which one should you go with?

Some time ago, I was contacted by Reviews.com regarding my thoughts about wireless technologies in general, and had a good chat with one of their people about this. Reviews.com is a fun site that harbors a veritable armada of vendor-neutral reviews about different products available today both inside and outside of the tech industry, and they’ve drawn up a fantastic article detailing some of the best home routers on the market based on an extensive study they’ve done. If you’re looking for a great home router, this article covers some of the industry-leading models and can give you a birds-eye view of some great options for you.

​Just getting a newer router with multiple antenna sets, AC-level wireless capability (this allows for better channel multiplexing; faster speeds, in layman’s terms!), and better traffic balancing can go a long ways towards improving your WiFi service in your home, even if you have a few older metallic pipes in your walls!

The More Technical Solution (for networking folks)

What I did to fix my WiFi woes in my home was to purchase a half-dozen in-wall UniFi access points using the existing Ethernet wall plates and cable runs in my house, and install them catty-corner-style throughout my house where the signal was bad and they wouldn’t overlap each other. After that, I audited my signal levels and adjusted each access point to be fairly low on signal strength, because I can’t have them overlap much and had direct line-of-sight in each room the access points were in to the client devices, anyway.

​If you’ve never used UniFi’s wireless systems before, they’re my go-to WiFi solution for home offices or small businesses because they’re incredibly affordable for what they are, and are relatively easy to work with if you’re a tech person – just set up a central server using their software component that runs on Windows, Macintosh, or Linux, and connect all your access points into it for configuration and administering.

​You might be asking at this point that “If Caleb used UniFi and thought it worked better than buying a single name-brand router, why shouldn’t I do that, too?”. Great question!

Allow me to comment that my UniFi system took me about 20 labor hours to implement, partially because I manually ran an Ethernet line out to my garage to put a UniFi access point out there, although it had a little coverage from the house with the new setup beforehand. I also spent close to $1,200 to get my setup working and compliant with building code, whereas a single beefy home router would run you around $250 at a maximum.

The Verdict

​If you’re looking for a quick and easy fix for better home WiFi, buying a name-brand router will generally always give you a step up in performance over your ISP’s freebie router; in some cases, several steps up.

If you want to fully shoot your wireless troubles dead, it’s worth consulting with a professional to install a more distributed multi-unit wireless system in your home (or install that system yourself, if the network professional in question is you!).

I’m happier with wireless now; distribution throughout the house is even, and I can get at least 25Mb download speeds in every room. It’s nice to know that when I have coworkers or friends over to brainstorm technologies or market ideas, everyone can get decent WiFi for their devices.

Now if only I could get them to bring their own beer…

Caleb Huggenberger is a 31 year-old systems engineer, old-school guitar and amplifier builder, and Eastern culture enthusiast. Outside of long work days, he enjoys electronics engineering, cast iron campfire cooking, and homesteading on his acreage in the Indiana countryside.

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