So, you are on the go and you suffer through terrible cellular network speeds all day. Then you come back home and the feeling of superfast and more importantly free Wi-Fi is priceless. Let’s admit it, we need Wi-Fi daily and it has gone from being a commodity to being a necessity quickly. 4G capabilities, costs and coverage is gaining ground but Wi-Fi is going to become more important than ever with Internet of Things on the rise. And the fact that we need our devices to be constantly connected and use large amounts of data on a daily basis is going to be important for the growth of Wi-Fi. Even cellular networks offload to Wi-Fi indoors these days. So here are a few things you should know about your home network since Wi-Fi is so important and it should just magically work.
Your Home Network:
Your home network consists of basically 4 parts. A modem that is usually provided by your internet provider. This is basically a dumb device that converts external signals over cable or fiber to signals that a computer can understand. Then there is the router. A router is the most important networking equipment and will be the brains behind your network. Simply put, the better the router, the better your network will perform when you connect multiple devices to it. Slow, buggy routers will usually give you problems and you will do more of ‘reset the router’ to solve issues temporarily. Then there is the switch, which is basically something that allows you to connected multiple devices to a router. This will be built into your Wi-Fi router as well and you probably don’t have to worry about slow switches (unless you are connecting a lot of computers to a single switch). And then finally there is the Wi-Fi access point which is the end point of most of your connections at home. The Wi-Fi access point is kind of a big deal. Simply put cheap Wi-Fi routers have cheap access points and will definitely have connectivity and bandwidth issues. Also you should be better off with latest Wi-Fi standards. There are 2 frequencies: 2.4 GHz which can penetrate through walls easily and reach far, but have interference issues and limited speeds. And there is 5 GHz, which is much faster, has less interference but doesn’t reach very far. The good part is that the latest Wi-Fi access point standard will usually support everything.
For the most part you will have a modem connected to a Wi-Fi router. If you are using a single device provided by your internet provider you are likely using a Wi-Fi-modem-router and you shouldn’t be using this unless its provided for absolutely no cost by your provider and you really don’t care about your Wi-Fi because all you have is one or two devices connected and don’t worry about how fast or good your Wi-Fi is. But you should still consider changing this setup because these boxes are a serious security threat to your network.
The whole point of this post is that today, the most likely scenario is that you live in a large house, where each person has at least one or two (a laptop and a phone) personal devices connected to Wi-Fi along with other common devices connected (like TV and what not) and either the coverage of you Wi-Fi is poor or you are experiencing terrible Wi-Fi speeds although you have a decent internet connection. As time passes you will have more devices connected (like wearables and home appliances) to the Wi-Fi and it will only get worse if you don’t have suitable networking gear in place. And yes, it will almost always be your networking gear and not your internet provider causing trouble (unless its down).
Let me explain a simple scenario. Let’s say you have a 10mbps connection (which is actually not that bad and should be easily available in metros today). At 100% usage, unless someone is downloading something and taking up all the bandwidth, 5 devices should be able to constantly work at 2mbps speeds. And if someone is idle or chatting or just reading, the number of active devices falls and the maximum speed of other devices increases. As you can see having a 10mbps connection is not all that bad given how dynamic the usage is. And everything is handled by the router. Smart routers will automatically detect this and will give each device the required bandwidth to make sure all the devices get what they want when they want. And if someone is being a spoilsport by taking up all the bandwidth the router will detect that too and will restrict it until someone else requires the connection. If your router is not good enough, it will either not be able to do this or will do this poorly, giving everyone trouble on the network.
The Wi-Fi (access point) part of your home networking gear (most likely inside a Wi-Fi router) works in the same way. It works on limited airtime (the time each device will have when connected to Wi-Fi during which it can transfer data) and each device only gets some portion of it. If one device is using too much, other devices get dropped packets or poor connection and this will cause issues like poor Wi-Fi because someone has used up all the time available. Now let’s say you have 20-30 devices connected sometime in the future (My home has 10-12 today and its just phones and laptops and a couple of TVs). Each device is constantly transferring data over the internet. You may have a 100mbps or faster internet connection but due to poor networking gear you might still experience issues (like dropped packets).
What can you do to solve bad Wi-Fi?
So here is what you can do today to solve this problem. Firstly, I will again mention that you must get a separate modem and a router in case you are using a single device for both. Now depending on how big your place is, here are a few options I can suggest:
In case your house is something close to 1000 sq. ft. you should be good with a single access point or a single Wi-Fi router. But a cheap Wi-Fi router will not do the trick. A cheap Wi-Fi router will not have enough antenna power to penetrate through brick walls. You will need a good strong router if you want a strong connection and placed in a central position at a considerable height above the floor. There are plenty of ~200$ that perform well in this category. Their latest firmware is also stable enough to not have any connection drop issues and because these have powerful ‘router’ part in them you won’t have to worry about multiple devices connecting to them and slowing down the internet.
Now for something like a 1500 sq. ft. or bigger house with maybe even multiple floors, Wi-Fi gets tricky. In this case the first thing you should consider is getting the place wired. I will strongly recommend getting access points connected by a semi-professional to a single good router. You might need more than two access points but some access points like the ones sold by Ubiquiti are really cheap (75$ or so) and once you get everything wired and connect to these access points, the extra money spent will be totally worth it. These single access points are designed to support up to 200 devices at once and you are highly unlikely to notice wireless connectivity issues after getting these. One of these can easily cover 1000 sq. ft. of space even with brick walls. I personally use a single Ubiquiti UAP-AC-Lite connected to an ER-X 5-port router and the whole setup is less than 150$. It can cover a 1500 Sq. Ft. brick-walled house easily even on 5GHz and I get 100mbps connection in every corner. The only problem is complicated setup process but once installed it shouldn’t require any troubleshooting.
The third option is the easiest one and hot in the market today. Mesh router. But again, before you settle on this option you should consider getting a wired connection and multiple access points connected to a single router.
I’ll explain mesh networks quickly. A mesh network is basically a network where each individual mesh device is in itself a Wi-Fi router. And this router has two Wi-Fi radios inside it. One talks to the devices connected to it and the other talks to other mesh routers in the network. This way the inter-router communication doesn’t slow down the network. The mesh routers are not only fast but work smart. They shape the traffic smartly due to some really good software (and it will only get better over time) and really speedy router hardware. Their access points are good enough to support a lot of devices at once and adding these to your home will probably solve your Wi-Fi issues easily. But they are not cheap. These are usually appropriate in packs of three and cost around 300$ to 500$. Think of this simple relation. A connects to B. B connects to C. So A connects to C. This is the same logic behind these devices to not only get you more coverage but also better speeds due to two different radios. If you don’t have wired connectivity at home and simply cant afford to run Ethernet cables through existing wall connections you should definitely consider this.
There are plenty of routers in the market. You probably have one already and wondering ‘why do I need to change since everything is going great’. But that will soon change. Your home network will be put under a lot more pressure very soon as you buy more connected devices and your ISP technician will suggest you to buy a faster router because ‘everything is working fine on their end’. Before you run off to the market for a new networking equipment you should spend some time considering how you want to go about it. Wiring your home with cat6 cables will be a permanent solution (existing cables will soon support 2.5Gbps instead of 1Gbps) and in the future you will only have to upgrade your access points in case you need more than 1Gbps speeds. Getting something like Google WiFi or Eero is great but it will be costly though it will save you from changing cabling in your home.
Consider this. The Wi-Fi in Offices and Universities never slows down. It doesn’t need to be reset regularly because its performing poorly. The Wi-Fi never goes down because too many devices are connected. The problem is not with the technology, it’s with your equipment.