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Everything you need to know about Wi-Fi
Say goodbye to wires with our comprehensive guide to wireless technology.
Wires suck. They twist themselves into Gordian knots, they trip you up when you're not looking and to top it all off, they're always just a couple of inches too short. The obvious solution is to go wireless, but that comes with its own set of headaches.
How many times have you carried your laptop from one room to another only to have your four bars of Wi-Fi replaced with a red X? Or for someone in your house to use the microwave and cause your Netflix stream to turn into a pixelated mess? What happened to the hassle-free future your Wi-Fi router promised?
To better understand the shortcomings of Wi-Fi and how to address them, let's run through how the technology works.
Using radio signals, Wi-Fi devices transmit data to each other through the air, typically relaying them through a wireless router. When many devices connect to a single router at the same time, they form a Wi-Fi network. Through this network, the devices are able to share files and make use of a communal Internet connection.
To establish a Wi-Fi network, two key components are required: an Access Point (AP) and a client device.
As the name implies, an access point is a device that enables other devices to connect to the same Wi-Fi network. An access point can be a number of different devices, but the most common is a wireless router. A router acts much like a telephone exchange operator back in the 20th century, coordinating communication between different devices connected to the same network. All data passes through the router on the way to its final destination, making the router the centre of any network. For wireless networks, a Wi-Fi router is also constantly broadcasting its SSID, your Wi-Fi network’s name. This allows new devices to connect to it.
In addition to routers, you can hook up standalone access points to regular, non-Wi-Fi routers so they have the same wireless functionality.
A client device is any device that connects to an access point. It could be your mobile phone, your laptop, your smart TV or even your fridge. Most modern computing devices come with Wi-Fi antennas built in, making connecting to a wireless network a breeze, but you can still make older PCs and laptops Wi-Fi compatible by plugging in a USB Wi-Fi adapter.
Now, let's take a look at some of the more advanced concepts involved in wireless networking:
Since Wi-Fi operates using radio signals, it needs to designate a particular frequency for devices to send and receive data on, much as traditional radio stations require listeners to tune in to hear their music. Standard Wi-Fi transmits within the 2.4GHz frequency band, though many modern devices also support the 5GHz band.
Access points can be configured to broadcast on different channels within their designated band; for 2.4GHz, the spectrum between 2.412GHz and 2.484GHz is split up into 13 overlapping channels of 22MHz each, theoretically allowing for multiple 2.4GHz networks to co-exist peacefully in proximity to each other, such as when you and your neighbours all have your own wireless networks running at the same time. Different regions across the world recommend sticking to particular channels for the best performance; here in Australia, channels 1, 6, and 11 typically offer the least interference.
As Wi-Fi's popularity has grown, so too have the standards governing its operation. IEEE 802.11 is the body of rules covering the wide array of different Wi-Fi network types, with each type dictating the speed and operational frequency of the devices connected to it. Most modern devices, both clients and access points, support backwards compatibility, falling back on slower, older connections when faster ones are unavailable.
802.11a. Introduced in 1999, 802.11a is an obsolete standard that operated on the 5GHz band, supporting a max speed of 54Mbps.
802.11b. Also introduced in 1999 and now deprecated, 802.11b operated on the 2.4GHz band and was capable of a max speed of 11Mb/s.
802.11g. Adopted in 2003, 802.11g brought a speed increase of 54Mbps to the 2.4GHz band.
Wi-Fi 4 (formerly 802.11n). Arriving in 2009, Wi-Fi 4 expanded the Wi-Fi standard to support both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, resulting in the rise of dual-band access points capable of broadcasting two networks simultaneously, one at each frequency. Speeds can reach upwards of 300Mbps, depending on the power and number of antennas installed on both the access points and the client devices connected to it.
Wi-Fi 5 (formerly 802.11ac). Finalised in 2013, Wi-Fi 5 ditches the 2.4GHz band and widens the channels in 5GHz, allowing for speeds up to 2167Mbps when broadcasting across four streams at once.
802.11ad (WiGig). Developed in 2009 but only recently integrated into consumer electronics, 802.11ad is practical only for a very particular type of wireless network. Operating at the 60GHz band, it has an effective range of around 1/10th of 802.11ac and requires line-of-sight to function optimally. Under the right circumstances, though, 802.11ad is tremendously fast, peaking at speeds of 7Gb/s.
Wi-Fi 6 (formerly 802.11ax). Currently in development, Wi-Fi 6 is the successor to Wi-Fi 5, with a predicted max speed of 10Gb/s. It is expected to be available sometime in 2019.
While the freedom of being untethered is one Wi-Fi's biggest draws, it's also one of its greatest weaknesses. Because all wireless devices transmit data through the open air, anyone within range can theoretically pick up that data and use it for their own purposes. Since nobody wants uninvited guests breaking into their Wi-Fi network and chewing through their data cap or snooping through their personal files, wireless security is an absolute must. There are a few different options available:
WEP. Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP) is a type of data encryption introduced along with the first 802.11 standard. Though it's still supported by modern devices, WEP has been obsolete since 2004 thanks to a number of gaping holes in its security protocols. Unless you have absolutely no other option, don't use WEP.
WPA. In response to WEP's vulnerabilities, the Wi-Fi Alliance developed the Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) security protocol in 2003. To address one of WEP's most glaring flaws, WPA used the Temporal Key Integrity Protocol (TKIP) to encrypt every data packet sent across the network with its own unique key, making it far more difficult for network attacks to decipher the encryption key by snooping on wireless traffic. TKIP also incorporated a stronger message integrity check than WEP, ensuring that attackers could not intercept and alter data packets as they're being transmitted through a wireless network.
WPA2. WPA2, introduced in 2004, enhances WPA with the inclusion of the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) block cipher, a more secure protocol for encrypting data packets as well as providing additional authentication protocols for ensuring only legitimate devices can connect to the network. WPA2 is the default security protocol for modern networks.
WPS. Securing your network can be tricky, as anyone who's looked at the security page of their router will know. This is where Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) comes in. Developed by the Wi-Fi Alliance and released in 2006, the protocol aims to simplify the process of connecting new devices to a secure network. Rather than setting up a password and configuring router settings, WPS-supported access points have a physical button on them you can press to indicate you want to connect a new device. You then have a brief window to connect your device to the network without entering a password. Once connected, network traffic is automatically encrypted using the WPA protocol.
QoS (Quality of Service)
Tucked away inside your router's configuration settings, the Quality of Service (QoS) feature allows you to define what kind of network traffic your router should prioritise. Here you can add rules for specific applications; if you're a big online gamer, you might assign a High level of priority to World of Warcraft while dropping Skype and Spotify to Low. The same priorities can also be set for network protocols like FTP and VPN connections.
The problems with Wi-Fi
Now that we've covered the fundamentals, let's dig into the most common causes of Wi-Fi frustration.
Problem one: Poor placement
The primary cause of all Wi-Fi headaches is poor placement of the wireless router. Since typical routers broadcast in a radial pattern, you should position them at the physical centre of your network to achieve optimal coverage. Barring potential sources of interference, signal strength will be relatively equal at the same distance from the router in all directions.
The catch here is that your router needs to be near (or combined with) your modem in order to share its Internet connection. Since a modem must itself be close to the telephone or cable outlet providing your Internet connection, this can cause problems if said outlets are located in the far reaches of your house. If that's the case, a hefty portion of your wireless range will be going to waste.
Solution: There are a few ways to improve your wireless range, even if you're stuck with badly positioned outlets. The simplest and cheapest solution is to purchase a long Ethernet cable for connecting your router to your modem, freeing you to move your router to a more central position in your house. The downside here is finding a way to run the cable through your house without it becoming a tripping hazard. If you've got the means to run it under the house or behind the walls, it's a quick and dirty solution, but if not, you might need to consider hiring an electrician to install a new outlet at the centre of your house.
A second solution to the outlet problem is to purchase a set of powerline adapters and use your electrical power outlets as a wired network. Simply plug one of the adapters into an electrical outlet near your modem, connect it to your modem via an Ethernet cable, then plug the other adapter into an outlet close to where you want your router situated. Connect that one to your router via the Ethernet, and the adapters will take care of the rest.
Problem two: Interference
Wi-Fi networks don't operate in a vacuum. Not only are they susceptible to interference from your neighbours' Wi-Fi networks, but for those using the 2.4GHz band, interference from other devices clogging up the airwaves can have a drastic impact on network performance, too. Mobile phones, microwave ovens, Bluetooth devices, and many other consumer electronics share the 2.4GHz band with Wi-Fi, and if more than one device is using the band at the same time, you might find your Internet connection slowing to a crawl or your Wi-Fi dropping out completely.
Similarly, physical obstructions can weaken your Wi-Fi signal, too. While you might not need line of sight to maintain a strong connection to your router, if the signal has to pass through heavy materials like brick or concrete, or powerful conductors like foil and copper, it's going to be considerably weaker by the time it finally reaches you.
Solution: Addressing physical interference can be as simple as repositioning your router or as complicated as realising every room in your house is surrounded by signal-blocking insulation. In the former case, moving your router to a high vantage point clear of immediate obstacles can make a big difference as can shifting fish tanks, metal furniture, and other dense objects away from high-network-traffic areas. As for the latter, short of taking a sledgehammer to your walls, you're probably going to have to let go of the wireless dream.
To combat signal interference, relocating the router away from interfering devices like TVs and microwaves is the simplest option. If that's not feasible, try switching to a less-congested channel within your network band. To determine the best channel to switch to, you can use a program like NirSoft's WifiInfoView, which finds all Wi-Fi networks in the vicinity along with their signal strength and the channel they're operating on.
Pick a channel with a sizeable buffer between it and the bulk of the network traffic, then hop into your router's configuration settings (typically located at http://192.168.0.1), find the wireless settings page, and select your new channel. The router will likely need to reboot, after which you should test it to see whether your interference situation has improved.
Alternatively, if you've got a dual-band router but you're only using the 2.4GHz band, switching over to 5GHz is almost certain to deliver a big improvement. Fewer devices operate at 5GHz, drastically reducing the chance of interference. If your router only supports 2.4GHz, shelling out for a new dual-band router isn't a cheap solution, but it's better than missing the victory-sealing goal on your World Cup live stream because your housemate wanted to microwave some popcorn. Just make sure that your phone, tablet, and all other devices support 5GHz before reaching for your wallet.
Problem three: Short range
Even with your router in the centre of your house and all potential sources of signal interference banished, sometimes a router's range simply doesn't cut it. If that's the case, steel yourself; it's time to spend some money.
Solution: Before you go and buy a whole new router, it's worth considering an antenna upgrade. So long as your current router uses external, detachable antennas, replacing them with bigger, high-gain antennas might provide the range boost you've been looking for. Make sure to pay attention to the antenna type; you don't want to inadvertently purchase a directional antenna instead of an omnidirectional antenna since, as the name suggests, they transmit in one direction only. For most networks, that wouldn't be particularly helpful.
To really boost your Wi-Fi network, you're probably going to need a new router. The ones ISPs pack in with their Internet bundles tend to be average at best, and springing for a decent replacement can make a world of difference.
What to look for when buying a new Wi-Fi router
1. Supported frequency bands. You'll want at least a dual-band router supporting both 2.4GHz and 5GHz to avoid interference and maximise your wireless speeds. If you're really keen, there are also tri-band routers that broadcast a second 5GHz band, allowing for more devices to connect simultaneously without slowing down the network.
2. Supported Wi-Fi protocols. Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n) should be a bare minimum, with Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) worth investing in if you plan on using the 5GHz band and have devices that support it.
3. Antennas. The more the merrier. External antennas are the way to go, as they suffer less interference and broadcast more powerful signals than internal ones.
4. Speed. Higher speeds are clearly better, but remember that all speeds are theoretical maximums, and the kind of performance you'll see in practice may be significantly lower than what it says on the box. At the bare minimum, you'll want a router that touts at least 300Mbps on the 2.4GHz band and 1000Mbps on 5GHz.
Sometimes, even buying a fancy new router isn't enough to solve your Wi-Fi coverage woes. Fortunately, you're not out of options just yet. By installing additional access points throughout your premises, you can extend your network coverage far beyond its original limits. Routers, range extenders and Wi-Fi repeaters can all serve as secondary access points, connecting to your main router with an Ethernet cable or over Wi-Fi and rebroadcasting the signal much like signal fires carrying messages over long distances.
While installing additional access points can dramatically improve a network's range, it's not a perfect solution. Because these secondary access points rebroadcast the original signal in all directions, they're bouncing that signal back to your main router, too, clogging the airwaves and increasing the chance of interference. In these areas of signal overlap, network performance can be even worse than with just a single access point.
If you've tried all these solutions and your Wi-Fi is still doing your head in, check out our comprehensive guides on optimising your network for Netflix streaming and testing for Internet congestion.
Channel diagram: Michael Gauthier, Wikimedia Commons
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