Like finding the perfect coffee, troubleshooting home Wi-Fi issues is a matter or trial and error. Photo: Jamie Brown
A few simple tweaks can help fix Wi-Fi blackspots around your home.
On Tuesday I wrote about my recent DSL broadband troubles. Thanks to changing the DSL profile set by my ISP, and tweaking the line settings on my modem, I've boosted by DSL sync speeds from 3.2 megabits per second (Mbps) to up about 4.9 Mbps – beyond which the connection becomes unstable. It's a far cry from fibre or HFC cable, but sadly it will have to suffice for the next few years.
Of course a dodgy copper phone line isn't the only cause of a flaky internet connection and I've also spend some time assessing the Wi-Fi blackspots around my home. I recently added an Airport Express base station to my living area, acting as Wi-Fi extender for my home 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi networks. Before you throw money at your Wi-Fi problems, it's worth doing a Wi-Fi survey of your home and trying a few simple tricks to improve your coverage.
Start off with Wi-Fi signal strength software – for a long time I used NetStumbler on Windows but these days I lean towards WiFi Explorer on Mac. You'll find similar apps for smartphones and tablets, but notebooks tend to include more powerful wireless cards so you'll get better results.
Fire up your Wi-Fi monitoring software and you'll instantly see the details of nearby Wi-Fi networks – not just channel, SSIDs and MAC addresses but also a real-time graph displaying signal strength. At this point you can simply carry your notebook around the house and note the signal strength as you move from room to room.
Even within rooms you'll find that the Wi-Fi strength varies. Your wireless network might stretch a long way outside, but that doesn't necessarily mean it does a great job of punching through solid objects inside your home. Keep in mind that 5 GHz Wi-Fi networks might run faster but they don't penetrate walls as well as 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi networks.
If the fridge, piano, aquarium or hot water service lies between you and the Wi-Fi base station then you'll see the signal strength plunge, especially on your 5GHz network. Walls can also present a problem depending on the angles. If you're on the opposite side of the wall from your Wi-Fi base station then the signal only needs to pass through a few inches of plaster and wood or, heaven forbid, solid brick.
Reception gets worse as you walk along the wall and the angle changes so the signal needs to pass through more wall to reach you. By the time you're at the other end of the room the wall could seem to be several feet thick as far as your wireless gadgets are concerned. Also consider what might be inside the walls, such as heating and cooling ducts. Moving your base station out from the wall might help, even if it's now further away from the spot you're trying to fix.
If you've locked away your Wi-Fi base station in a cupboard then you're obviously asking for trouble. Even if it is out in the open, moving your base station will shift your blackspots, hopefully improving the coverage where you need it most. Your monitoring software will tell you straight away if the situation has improved.
Placing your base station higher and in a central part of the house can also help. Don't hang it sideways, as most of the signal goes out the sides of a Wi-Fi base station.
If your Wi-Fi point is built into your broadband modem and you can't move it, one option is to buy a separate Wi-Fi base station, find a good location for it and then connect it back to your broadband modem using an Ethernet cable. If it's not practical to run cables, consider a Powerline AV adaptor which runs a link via your power points. You'll even find Wi-Fi extenders with built-in Powerline AV adaptors – handy for renters because you can take them with you when you move house.
When you fire up your Wi-Fi monitoring software you'll also see your neighbours' Wi-Fi hotspots, which could be interfering with your own. The software should tell you which channel each network is running on – 2.4 GHz networks generally vary between channels 1 and 14, while 5 GHz networks range between channels 36 and 165.
If your neighbour's network is on the same channel as yours, try switching to another. Channels 1, 6 and 11 are considered the best for 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi networks, to avoid overlapping. As for 5 GHz, the channels are spaced further apart so overlapping is less of an issue.
Many Wi-Fi base stations are configured to choose the best available channel by default. Simply restarting your base station might be enough for it to rescan the area and switch to a better channel. If not you can change the channel manually, you'll find these options in the Wi-Fi base station's configuration menus.
While you're poking around in your Wi-Fi menus you might come across settings to improve network robustness as well as an "optimise for 300 Mbit/s" setting which uses 40MHz-wide channels. Making your network more robust can improve reliability at the expense of speed. Enabling 40 MHz-wide channels improves speeds for compatible wireless gadgets but can be more susceptible to interference.
While you're considering interference from other Wi-Fi networks, also consider interference from other electrical gear in your home. Placing other wireless gear such as cordless phone base stations too close to your Wi-Fi base station can cause trouble, even if they run on different frequencies. It's not just wireless gear – any electrical equipment could be throwing off electromagnetic interference and playing havoc with your Wi-Fi network.
Interference works both ways. I've noticed that DSL modems, phone base stations and VoIP adaptors can interfere with other devices, including your digital TV reception. It's even possible for such devices to interfere with your broadband modem, even if it's not running as a Wi-Fi base station. I need to run a few tests to see if this kind of interference could be partly to blame for my DSL issues. Microwave ovens can also temporarily cripple a 2.4 GHz network, which is why I switched to 5GHz for streaming multi-room audio.
If you're still plagued by Wi-Fi issues in certain parts of your home then a Wi-Fi extender could be the way to go. It connects to your Wi-Fi network and rebroadcasts the signal. Of course it's going to struggle if you place it in a dead spot. Instead, try placing it off to the side, basically helping your Wi-Fi signal go around the source of the trouble. You can use the MAC address of each base station to tell them apart using your Wi-Fi monitoring software.
Keep in mind that running too many Wi-Fi extenders can cause trouble if your devices struggle to decide which base station to use. This is particularly troublesome if you live in a multi-story house. Troubleshooting Wi-Fi interference is a process of trial and error, so try to keep things simple.
Have you struggled with Wi-Fi woes? How have you dealt with them?
Read more posts from Adam Turner's Gadgets on the Go blog.