It’s frustrating to run a speed test and discover that you’re only getting half the Wi-Fi speeds advertised for your broadband plan.
Luckily, optimizing your Wi-Fi network for faster speeds isn’t rocket science.
All it takes is a basic understanding of how your network operates. In most cases, you can boost your speeds significantly for little or no extra money.
This post will break down the basics of how your Wi-Fi network operates and walk through some steps you can take to boost your Internet speeds.
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Home Network 101
Here are the three main pieces of hardware you need to understand:
- Modem: The “gatekeeper” between your ISP and your home network, connects to cable or DSL wall outlet.
- Router: The “traffic control” that routes data traffic and broadcasts Wi-Fi.
- Ethernet cables: Cables that connect your modem to your router. Also connects stationary devices to the router. (Example: desktop computer.)
Quick fixes for network issues
95% of the time your network feels slow, simple fixes can solve the problem. Try these before you dig deeper:
The simplest solution if you’re having latency issues is the cliche of IT departments everywhere — “have you tried restarting it?” Rebooting your router once in a while helps it perform better.
2. Use wires
Another easy way to solve trouble with latency, ping, and other speed-related issues is to always wire in as many devices as possible. If your desktop computer is close enough to your router to run an ethernet cable, you’ll almost certainly get faster speeds by doing so — not to mention optimizing the speeds on your Wi-Fi network by freeing up bandwidth for other devices.
3. Call your ISP
If you don’t think the problem is on your end, don’t be scared to pick up the phone and call your Internet service provider. Getting a technician to look at your network can save hours of trouble — particularly if the trouble turns out to be on their end.
Boosting vs. Segregating your network
In the Wi-Fi age, boosting and optimizing your network is the ultimate key to high speed and low latency.
Wi-Fi is a broadcast medium, radiating in a spherical bubble from your Wi-Fi router. Every device connected to your Wi-Fi network uses up a piece of your bandwidth, limiting the bandwidth available to other devices.
What each device is doing also affects overall network speeds, with streaming devices sucking up more space than basic browsing. (Which is why your Internet slows down when someone on your network starts streaming Netflix on the other end of the house.)
Methods of optimizing your Wi-Fi network fall into two categories:
Signal boosting strategies
1. Optimize router placement
The first and most obvious fix for optimizing your Wi-Fi network is the physical placement of your Wi-Fi router. Because the Wi-Fi signal radiates out from your router’s antenna in a spherical direction, the best place to put it is the direct center of your house.
Even if positioning the router centrally isn’t an option, it’s important that the router isn’t on the floor, in a closet, in a corner, or directly next to any thick solid barriers. Concrete, brick, and stone are all very difficult for Wi-Fi signal to penetrate. The ideal placement for a router is often in the middle of the ceiling, but anywhere elevated like a desk or shelf should work well.
If optimal positioning and environmental barriers prove to be an issue, skip down to the section about Powerline adapters and repeaters, which can help boost the signal in specific areas.
2. Boost router antenna
The appearance of routers varies widely from brand to brand, but the concept is always the same: a box with one or more antennas on top. The antenna is the broadcast point of your Wi-Fi network, sending the signal out in all directions in a spherical shape; that’s where the expression “wifi bubble” comes from. Most modern routers are compatible with external antennas designed to boost the range of your Wi-Fi network.
External antennas come in two flavors: omnidirectional and directional. They are rated by dBi (decibel isotropic), with higher dBi corresponding to a greater range boost.
Omnidirectional antennas boost the signal in all directions, and are effective in situations where the signal is generally weak on the edges of the bubble.
Directional antennas boost the signal in a single direction, useful for oddly-shaped buildings or if your router cannot be centrally located.
3. Update router firmware
Disclaimer: always update firmware via an ethernet cable. Updating router firmware over Wi-Fi can damage the device.
Firmware is the software that runs on your router — sort of like an Operating System. Similar to OS updates, firmware updates contain small fixes to improve the security and performance. The savings aren’t huge, but it’s a good idea to be up-to-date for security purposes regardless.
Newer, nicer routers should have information about how to update your firmware available through the network admin panel, allowing you to check for updates and upgrade with just a few clicks. Older, less nice routers require you to manually check the website and do some digging, or even download a ZIP file to your router manually.
Because the process for determining what firmware you have and what updates are available varies by manufacturer, be sure to follow the manufacturer guidelines for performing updates.
4. Powerline adaptors
Powerline adaptors allow you to use your existing electrical wiring as a data network. While they don’t technically optimize your wireless network, they can take a load off your bandwidth by effectively wiring devices that otherwise would be struggling to get by on a weak signal. They’re a great solution for desktop devices like TVs and computers that you might normally hook up to an ethernet cable — but instead of dragging a cable all the way across your house to the TV den, you can hook the devices through electric sockets in either room.
Another nice thing about powerline adapters is that they don’t require much technical know-how to set up. All you have to do is connect plug one in by your router and connect it via ethernet cable, then plug another one in at the target device and connect it via a second ethernet cable. The Powerline devices connect through your electrical wiring automatically, and the speeds delivered — while not quite gigabit — can get darned close.
Pro tip: Make sure the outlets you hook your Powerline adaptors to are on the same side of your circuit breaker for optimal performance.
Also called repeaters, extenders are devices that pick up and amplify your Wi-Fi signal. The difficulty with extenders is that the signal they’re boosting is already diminished, often providing limited speeds by the time the boosted signal reaches your far-flung devices.
A Powerline system and/or additional routers over extenders will generally provide better results, but extenders can work in a pinch if you’re looking for a quick fix to extend signal to a specific area.
6. Upgrade your router
If you’re using an old router, sometimes the simplest solution is to replace it with a new 108.11ac model.
High-end routers with beamforming can automatically concentrate the signal to work around problems that require hours of tinkering in older routers, and are a great investment if you have or plan to purchase a new laptop or smartphone that supports the latest 108.11ac Wi-Fi standard.
Signal segregating strategies
For signal segregating strategies, it’s important to understand the basics of how your router functions. (Spoiler: it’s not “magic!”)
Wi-Fi routers function just like cordless phones, baby monitors, Bluetooth, and any other wireless connection between two or more devices. Your router is the “base,” broadcasting the Wi-Fi signal; your laptop/phone/tablet is the “receiver,” which picks up that signal.
Just like Bluetooth, Wi-Fi only works on a device that has an embedded Wi-Fi chip. Virtually all laptops, smartphones, and other consumer digital devices come with Wi-Fi chips.
Routers broadcast over a variety of wavelengths and channels, and the channels available to your network are determined by the Wi-fi standard your router and devices support.
The Wi-Fi standards change from year to year, with the most recent standard being 802.11ac (catchy name, right?). The common standards you’ll see on the market (or printed on your router) are:
802.11 “ac” and “n” both offer some compelling advantages when it comes to optimizing your Wi-Fi network speeds, allowing you to segregate devices and divide your bandwidth with much more precision and range. However, even an older “g” or “b” router can get a boost from analyzing your Wi-Fi and changing the channel.
1. Pick the optimal channel
Begin by scanning your area for other networks. Using a tool like the wireless diagnostics tool on a Mac or Wifi Analyzer for Android will give you a picture of the other networks in your area, allowing you to switch channels to avoid interference. Here’s an example of a scan by the built-in diagnostics tool on a mac:
As you can see, some of the channels on the right are more crowded than others. On the left, we even get an automated recommendation of optimal channels. Looks like we could switch for a speed boost.
For most routers, changing the channel is as simple as navigating to the router’s IP address in your browser and selecting a new channel from the dropdown. Simply type in the IP the same way you would a dot-com website address. The IP should be available from your router’s manufacturer, and the most common are:
Netgear, D-link: 192.168.0.1
2. Segregate older and newer devices
Because it is a broadcast medium, home Wi-Fi networks are limited by the slowest device connected to a network. An 802.11g device will slow down an 802.11ac network, so long as all the devices are lumped together regardless of Wi-Fi standard.
The solution: 802.11n and 803.11ac routers both offer the ability to segregate your devices between two networks, called “dual-band,” running newer devices on the more advanced 5.0gHz Wi-Fi band and older devices on the more dated 2.4gHz band. Slower devices still receive their fair share of bandwidth, while the faster devices can take advantage of a less congested 5.0gHz network.
Using the 5.0gHz band for your newer devices has the added advantage of avoiding the trouble with channel congestion common in apartment buildings and other densely populated areas; while the 2.4gHz band only has three channels, the 5.0gHz band give your devices room to spread out over 24 channels, and is removed from the competing signals from baby monitors, microwaves, and etc. that can interfere with 2.4gHz Wi-Fi networks.
The only notable disadvantage to 5.0 networks is that they have a limited range compared to 2.4, making it challenging to implement them in irregularly shaped spaces where thick walls and other obstacles can block the signal.
QoS (Quality of Service) comes in two flavors: traditional QoS, which allows you to prioritize traffic types manually; and intelligent QoS, which prioritizes traffic automatically. With both, the concept is that you can reduce latency and network clutter by prioritizing streaming and other latency-sensitive data. For intelligent QoS, the term to look out for on router packaging is WWM, the Wi-Fi Multimedia standard.
Optimizing Wi-Fi networks is all about targeting specific devices
The Wi-Fi standard is constantly evolving, but so long as it remains the dominant wireless Internet option for consumer goods, the goal of network optimization will remain the same: avoid obstacles, and allocate bandwidth for specific devices.
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your home Internet network is like a pie, with each device on your network requiring a slice. Even if you use a cutting-edge 802.11ac beamforming router, getting the most out of your Internet service is a question of selectively wiring your devices, and deciding which devices deserve the bigger slices of remaining Wi-Fi bandwidth.