So you’ve set up your wireless network but due to an unusually dense wall or large living space, you do not get good signal everywhere you would hope to. The most commonly suggested solution is to wirelessly extend your network. There are many routers on the market that support this out of the box and this works well for households that primarily surf the web and do e-mail. If you however frequently stream video and audio content, and use wi-fi enabled speaker systems this can end up being a frustrating solution.

When you wirelessly extend a network, there is some overhead that uses part of your bandwidth so remote routers can communicate with each other on your network. WiFi already starts out slower than gigabit ethernet, but this is only the beginning of the problem.

wifirangeIf a wall is interfering with a signal, the signal may not be good right on the other side of the wall. What you really need is a way to bypass this signal block but there really isn’t anywhere to place the router where it will have a good connection and extend to the area that has a weak signal. Typically someone extends their network when they have a problem with either a floor or wall and can’t understand why their connection performs like it is weak when it shows up as being strong on their various devices. This happens because wi-fi devices only show the connection quality of the wi-fi extender you are directly connected to, not the connection between the extender and the main router.

Some routers support dual wireless as well. With dual wireless, you will get faster connections on the 5GHz bands, but 2.4GHz has better range. In the above illustration, the inner circles represent 5GHz, the outer 2.4GHz. If you are at the maximum range, the router must use the slower network to connect the two. You will be limited to the slower connection speed limits even if you connect to the faster radio on the extending device. You can move the devices closer, but I’ve found that even this does not guarantee that they will connect to each other using the faster band and it might even be better that this doesn’t happen since it could mean that it doesn’t use up bandwidth on the faster interface.

You can spend months trying to figure out why streaming audio to Airplay devices occasionally stutters even though it’s the only thing running on the network and why the microwave oven consistently shuts it down.

Many users are tempted to extend their network because the signal is a little weak in one area even though performance is good. “Over extending” a network can cause frequent roaming. Some streaming devices, Airplay speakers for example, may have stuttering audio caused by the delay of a device not able to decide which access point to connect to. This was the case with one of my previous networks. Turning off extend network on my Airport Express units ended up improving performance. This may have been improved upon in the current Airport firmware, but a slightly weaker signal will not impact performance as much as the overhead from extending your network.

There are better ways to extend a network. Ethernet connections between wireless routers is the most reliable solution, however most of us do not wish to pay to have our houses wired properly and do not wish to spend hours climbing around in our attics running wires ourselves. If you are up to this task or willing to pay someone else to do this, by all means do it this way, if not, the next best option is to use ethernet power line adaptors to connect the wireless routers. These adaptors usually come in sets. The fastest ones I’ve seen for sale are about half the speed of gigabit ethernet, which is faster than the fastest wi-fi available. Also, with this configuration, your wireless access points will be on different channels. You devices will all be on the same local network, but separate wi-fi networks. This doubles the wi-fi capacity assuming multiple devices split between the two access points.

For this to work properly, one access point is placed in “bridge mode” to prevent it acting as a DHCP server. You only need one running on the network. The main router will then have an ethernet connection from its LAN port to the WAN port on the other. It is also a good idea to manually set the channels on each access point, making sure to use different channels on each. If you have dual wireless routers, you will need to do this for both radios.

Here are some guidelines to keep in mind when configuring your home network.

  1. Never use a wireless connection when it’s just as easy to connect with a wired connection.
  2. “Extend” your network with a wired solution if you want streaming higher quality content to work well.
  3. Do not overdo it when extending a network. A network with too many access points too close to each other can result in frequent “roaming.”
  4. Try to use channels that are not being used by your neighbors. It’s better to be at least two channels away from any routers that are close by.
  5. If you use power line ethernet adaptors, try to use all adaptors of the same brand and model when purchasing more than two. The adaptors are supposed to be compatible with each other, but this is not always the case.
  6. “Pair” power line adaptors to secure the connection. Follow the manufacturers instructions. There is usually a single button on each unit to initiate this.

Reception problems are not always what they seem to be. Test several possibilities for a slow or unreliable network. If you follow these guidelines, you will be able to maintain a much more stable and reliable wireless network.

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This post was written by Tom

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