02 Oct Is Your Home Wi-Fi Good Enough for Remote Work?
Check out our latest Nerd Note podcast for a condensed version of this in-depth blog!
While the current state of fairs is pretty screwy to say the least, we’re all trying to move forward with our lives as best we can. There have been big changes, though. A lot of us have been working or going to school from home, and will be for the foreseeable future.
It’s a tough situation for some, having to make adjustments to your routine and carve out a workstation at home. And It’s made harder by troublesome and unreliable internet at home. With daily video-conference meetings and VPN connections to company systems, you need to be sure you’ll have a stable and fast connection at all times.
If you’re having trouble with your Wi-Fi internet, you’re no doubt tired of waiting on hold for support from your internet provider. And guess what—they’re working remotely, too.
So what are you to do when you’re still having problems? Well, it’s time to take matters into your own hands.
With that in mind, we’ve put together this deep-dive into how Wi-Fi networks function and what you can do to get the most out of yours.
Let’s take a look!
The internet is a complicated matter, and connecting to it wirelessly is doubly so. Let’s break down how it works in simple terms.
The Internet runs into your home via cable (or satellite or fiber) and connects to a modem, which translates the signal into a usable internet connection.
When you’re using a Wi-Fi network, the modem then connects to a wireless router. The router takes the connection from the modem and broadcasts it out in all directions via radio waves.
Your devices then connect to the wireless network provided by the router, and voila—you can access the internet.
Your router’s signal can only reach so far, though. It weakens and slows down over distance, and most routers bottom out at 150 feet indoors and 300 feet outdoors. Since it broadcasts in a 360° radius, ideally, your router should be somewhere centrally located in your home.
The signal also weakens significantly if there are any obstructions or signal interference between your device and the router, such as these:
- Depending on the material, barriers like walls, floors, doors and windows weaken the signal to various degrees by deflecting it as it passes through. Drywall and glass are the most penetrable, while wood is more formidable. Brick and metal are both mostly impenetrable. On top of that, insulation and wiring in the walls will further weaken the signal.
- If you’re outdoors, trees, thickets and other natural obstructions will weaken the signal.
- The human body, surprisingly, is a solid barrier for Wi-Fi signals. Our bodies are mostly water, and radio waves don’t penetrate water very well. Don’t sit between the router and your device if you can help it.
- Various household appliances like cordless phones, Bluetooth devices, baby monitors, wireless cameras and microwaves also emit electromagnetic radiation (like your router’s radio signal). These radiation waves create “noise” that can interfere with your router’s own signal.
- If you’re in range of multiple Wi-Fi networks—like in dense neighborhoods and apartment complexes—there’s even more noise and signal interference bouncing around. Think of it like a party where everyone’s talking over music in one room. It’s hard to be heard in such an environment.
So how do you get around these issues? If you’re having trouble with your home or Wi-Fi, consider these factors that affect your network performance.
Single vs. Multiple Access Points
When your device connects to the Wi-Fi network, it connects at an access point (AP), which is basically a gateway to the network. A Wi-Fi network can have one access point (Single AP) or multiple access points (Multi AP).
In a Single AP network, the router itself is the access point. This is your basic home or small-office Wi-Fi setup. All you need is a modem, a router and some ethernet cable to connect the 2. When you connect to the Wi-Fi network on your device, you’re connecting through the router.
If you live in a larger home and need a Wi-Fi range greater than what a single router can provide, or if you need signal on the other side of a solid barrier, a Multi-AP network will solve that issue.
As the name suggests, Multi-AP networks have multiple nodes that devices connect to. These nodes are called Wireless Access Points (WAPs), which are basically just smaller routers.
WAPs connect to a single wired router, switch or hub, either by ethernet cable or wirelessly, and broadcast a Wi-Fi network just like a normal router.
When you move throughout the area of a Multi-AP network, your connected device is passed off between WAPs and you stay connected to the same network.
There are 2 types of Multi-AP networks:
A Hub-and-Spoke network is the traditional and most widely used setup for a wireless network. The main AP—in this case, the router—is the hub. It’s hardwired to the internet, and all devices and WAPs on the network connect to the hub like spokes on a wheel. All traffic between devices and outside networks travels directly through the hub.
Hub-and-Spoke networks can be small and Single AP, like at home or a small coffee shop, or they can be large enough for a corporate office with multiple APs, each of which are wired to a central server.
These networks offer a high degree of security, good performance and simplicity. They’re also inexpensive and easy to maintain.
These networks are newer, but have grown a lot in popularity. Like a hub-and-spoke Multi-AP network, mesh networks have several WAPs that users can connect to.
Instead of each WAP connecting to the central hub, mesh WAPs connect directly and wirelessly to each other. Only one needs to be directly connected to the internet.
Mesh WAPs automatically discover each other and intelligently route traffic, so data hops from one WAP to the next until it reaches the one wired to the internet and exits there.
Mesh networks are great for very large networks like those found on university campuses and in small towns. The nodes are fairly inexpensive, sturdy, and can be set up quickly and on an ad-hoc basis.
However, they’re not as seamless as hub-and-spoke nodes. If you’re moving around the network area connecting to different nodes, your connection is more likely to drop as you move between coverage areas.
Whole-Home Wi-Fi mesh systems are available for those who really need full coverage throughout the entire house or office. They’re a few hundred dollars for the setup, but they work great.
Since Wi-Fi was released to consumers in 1997, its standards have been continually evolving over several generations. Each new standard typically improves speed, coverage area or both.
As new standards were added to the original IEEE 802.11 build, each new edition became known by its amendment (“B” for 802.11b; “G” for 802.11g, etc.).
Thus it progressed over 5 generations, bouncing around the alphabet from B and A to G to N to AC to AX (which just released last year).
In 2018, the Wi-Fi Alliance, which governs such things, declared new naming standards for simplicity’s sake. They anointed version AX “Wi-Fi 6,” and versions AC and N were retroactively dubbed “Wi-Fi 5” and “Wi-Fi 4,” respectively.
What It Means
All this is to say that when a new version of Wi-Fi is released, new routers that can accommodate the improvements come with them.
Wi-Fi 6 dropped last year, but it’s not yet as widespread as Wi-Fi 5, which was released in 2014. As such, most routers purchased since then are compatible with Wi-Fi 5, but not Wi-Fi 6.
Wi-Fi 6 is notably faster than its predecessor, and it’s better in crowded and noisy environments. While these are important upgrades, they come with a fairly hefty price tag.
Wi-Fi 6 routers will run you $300–$600, while a serviceable Wi-Fi 5 router can be had for under $100—and a great one for under $200.
How Much Speed Do You Need?
As a general rule of thumb, you want at least 10Mbps of download speed and 1Mbps of upload speed for each person working from home. That’s enough to handle each person doing a few different things at the same time without issues.
ISPs generally offer different tiers of speeds:
- 25Mbps is your most basic high-speed connection. It supports 1–2 users at a time.
- 100Mbps is right around the national average for internet speeds. It supports 3–4 users.
- 200Mbps is considered a “fast” high-speed connection and supports 4–5 users.
- 500Mbps is considered “very fast” and supports 5+ users.
- 1,000Mbps (also known as Gigabit) is about as fast as it gets for Wi-Fi 5, and it can support 10+ users.
- 2,000Mbps is the upper limit for any sort of wireless connection, though Wi-Fi 6 is theoretically capable of nearly 10Gbps (10,000Mbps) speeds.
Make sure your internet package can support all the users in your home. Note that these are “advertised” speeds in ideal conditions. In reality, your speeds will almost always be lower than what your ISP says.
Compatibility & Backwards Compatibility
Just because you have a Wi-Fi 5 or 6 router doesn’t mean you get those speeds from any device. There’s an issue of compatibility and backwards compatibility.
New devices are capable of using later Wi-Fi versions as well as the earlier ones. Older devices are not able to use newer Wi-Fi versions.
Unfortunately, this means that unless you purchased your computer or mobile device within the last year, you won’t be able to take advantage of Wi-Fi 6 without upgrading your device. You’re “stuck” with Wi-Fi 5 (but it’s not a bad place to be).
Likewise, if your computer is over 6 years old—and bless it for lasting this long—you’ll likely be relegated to Wi-Fi 4.
If you want to check what your device is capable of, or if you’re shopping around for new tech, you can check the manufacturer’s product page for your specific device under the network specifications. You might have to do some digging, though.
Speaking of shopping around for new home internet equipment, we’ve got some advice and recommendations that will help you make the best decision for your situation.
Beware Signal Boosters, Repeaters & Range Extenders
It’s common for a house to have Wi-Fi dead zones. If your router is on the first floor and you need coverage upstairs, your signal might not be that great, especially if there are multiple walls and floors to pass through.
In these situations, many people think—or are (often incorrectly) advised—that a Wi-Fi signal booster will solve their issue.
A signal booster, also called a range extender or repeater, is placed some distance from the router. The booster takes in the signal being broadcast by the router and re-broadcasts it out, extending the signal from the original router. Sounds perfect, right?
Not quite! The important thing to note here is that signal boosters are not Multi-AP networks. While signal boosters can help in certain situations, they have their drawbacks. The main one is the strength of the signal coming from the booster.
Full Bars Doesn’t Always Mean Full Speed
A Wi-Fi signal decreases in strength (and thus internet speed) the farther it travels from the router. As we said earlier, a router’s range tops out around 150 feet indoors, but it becomes unusably slow and will drop the connection even before that.
At the same time, a repeater can only rebroadcast the signal at the strength it was received. If you place the booster at a distance where the signal strength is 50%, the booster will send that signal out again at 50% strength—not the full signal strength from the router. If you put the booster near the edge of the router’s radius, the booster’s signal is useless.
That means even if you’re sitting right next to the booster with a great signal and “full bars,” you’re still not getting the original signal strength and the speed that comes with it. At best you’re getting whatever signal strength the booster picked up, just with a stronger connection that won’t drop. And as you get farther from the booster, performance will again decline over distance.
Boosters will work in a pinch. If you need a bit of signal to reach a corner of the house that’s not getting any, a booster placed close enough to the router to get a decent signal may help, but not if the distance between the 2 is too great or too many obstructions are in the way.
Upgrade Your Router
Before you go shopping around for signal boosters or whole-home Wi-Fi solutions, consider upgrading your router first.
If you’re using the modem and router provided by your ISP, you should stop doing that and buy your own. The reasons are twofold:
- That equipment from your ISP is just not very good.
- You’re likely renting that equipment from your ISP for a monthly fee—usually $10–$15 per month, or $120–$180 per year for something you don’t own.
You can buy a really good modem and router, or a modem/router combo, for under $200. It will be much better than your ISP’s equipment, it’ll pay for itself in a year or two with the rental savings, and you can take it with you if you move.
When looking for a new router, make sure it has at least these specifications: It should have…
A good name brand
The best home routers are made by a handful of manufacturers:
- Google Nest Wi-Fi
Go with a decent model from one of these brands and you should get everything you need.
A multi-core processor with >128mb of ram
More processors and more RAM means better network performance.
A dual-core processor with 256MB of RAM is the sweet spot between cost and performance.
You can get quad-cores with 512MB–1GB of RAM if you really want the best performance.
Dual-band or tri-band broadcasting
Both dual-band and tri-band routers have multiple frequencies that they use, essentially creating multiple Wi-Fi networks with one router. You may have noticed this before if you’ve seen two Wi-Fi networks in an area with the same name, one with “-5G” appended to the end.
Dual-band routers use 2.4Ghz & 5GHz frequencies. Tri-band routers use a 2.4 GHz and two 5Ghz frequencies. Both types allow for multiple devices to connect to the different frequencies without interfering with the other frequencies or devices.
The 2.4GHz frequency works for devices capable of Wi-Fi 4 or Wi-Fi 6 (but not Wi-Fi 5). It’s slower but reaches farther.
The 5GHz frequency works for devices capable of Wi-Fi 5 or Wi-Fi 6 (but not Wi-Fi 4). It’s faster than 2.4GHz but doesn’t travel as far.
A number higher than 1200 in the name.
Most Wi-Fi 5 routers are named something along the lines of AC1200, AC1750, AC1900, AC3200 and so on. Wi-Fi 6 routers have AX in their name with even higher numbers. The numbers refer to the router’s maximum theoretical bandwidth, but they aren’t standardized measurements and are largely meaningless.
That being said, don’t buy anything below AC1200 (like AC750 or AC900). These are older routers with outdated technology.
On the other hand, higher numbers don’t automatically mean one router is better than another (unless it’s AX vs AC). Do your research before you buy—which, if you’re here, you’re already doing. Go you!
“Advanced Quality of Service (QoS)” or something similar, not just “QoS”
Different manufacturers will have different names for it, but “Advanced,” “Intelligent,” or “Dynamic” QoS all do the same thing: they manage how bandwidth is split between devices automatically, continually optimizing network traffic for better speeds for everyone.
Regular QoS requires the user—that’s you—to set everything up. It’s near useless unless you know what you’re doing.
If you have smart devices in your home, getting a compatible router will help you manage them better and allow you to do more with them.
Support for mesh Wi-Fi
If you’re not quite ready to set up a mesh Wi-Fi whole-home internet system, it’s still a good idea to get one that’s compatible so you don’t have to upgrade again later.
If your current router has removable antennas, you can replace those with high-gain antennas. It’s a potentially cheaper alternative to replacing the whole router, depending on your situation. They typically range from $25–$100.
High-gain antennas offer a few benefits:
- Increased broadcast range: Antenna output is measured in dBi. A higher dBi correlates to a larger broadcast area.
- 2.5 dBi → 300 foot indoor range
- 5 dBi → 500 foot indoor range
- 7 dBi → 800 foot indoor range
- Broadcast control: You can get an omnidirectional or directional antenna. Omnidirectional antennas send a signal out in all directions. Directional antennas send a signal out farther—but only in one direction.
- Faster speeds: You can potentially get a boost to overall data throughput for better efficiency, thus gaining speeds.
Keep in mind that high-gain antennas go bad over time and will eventually need replacing after a few years.
Did You Know…
If the above advice and information doesn’t fully improve your internet situation, consider these other issues that could be the culprit.
Internet Node Overload
The internet is delivered to different areas via an “internet backbone” or “trunk line.” These high-capacity data lines (usually fibre optic with 100 Gbps bandwidth) branch off into smaller lines that end in nodes. Homes and offices then connect to these nodes.
The issue here is nodes can become overcrowded if there are too many connections trying to use the internet at the same time. Take this next scenario for example:
Say an ISP runs a 10Gbps (10,000Mbps) branch from the trunk line to a node in an area with 100 homes. If each home has a 100Mbps connection, then those homes could collectively use the entire bandwidth of the node (100 homes x 100Mbps = 10,000Mbps). When more homes or offices are built in the area, the chances of a node overload at any particular time increase—usually during peak hours (7pm–9pm).
If this is the case in your area, and there’s really no way to know without asking your ISP, there’s nothing you can do unless they run more or higher-capacity branches to that node.
Wireless Frequency Overload
As we mentioned before, routers can operate on either 2.4GHz or 5GHz frequency bands (and dual- and tri-band routers can do both).
Within each of these bands, there are smaller bands called channels, and your devices send and receive data through these channels. A 2.4GHz band has 11 channels. A 5GHz band has 45 channels. Ideally, each device has its own channel, but that’s not always the case.
Channels can get crowded with interference, and the time it takes to transmit data increases. There are 2 types of channel interference:
- Co-channel interference: Multiple devices are competing for “talk time” on the same channel.
- Adjacent-channel interference: Some channels overlap with each other, and traffic on adjacent channels interfere with each other.
- On 2.4Ghz frequencies, there are only 3 non-overlapping channels: 1, 6 and 11
- On 5GHz frequencies, there are 24 non-overlapping channels
If you know what you’re doing, you can tinker around in your router’s administrator settings to choose the best channel to use, but it’s best to leave it alone if you’re unsure.
Most routers scan for the best channel each time they boot up, but they don’t always make the best choice, or the channel later becomes crowded. If you’re experiencing trouble, try rebooting your router and let it rescan.
Good routers continuously scan for the best channel and automatically route traffic through it.
Signal-to-noise ratio (SNR)
We briefly touched on signal noise from other common household devices. Each of these devices use or emit electromagnetic radiation that create noise, which can cause issues with your Wi-Fi signal:
- Microwave ovens
- Cordless home phones
- Radios and stereos
- Bluetooth devices
- Wireless video cameras
- Wireless game consoles and controllers
- Fluorescent lights
Note that noise here is different from co- or adjacent-channel interference, which is measured by the signal-to-interference ratio.
The SNR measures how strong a signal is against the presence of any background noise. A lower ratio represents more noise and lower performance.
An SNR of 10–15dB is the minimum threshold for establishing a bad connection. 25–40dB is considered a good ratio, and 41dB and above is considered excellent.
There’s no easy way for you to personally measure this, but it’s still handy information to have. The takeaway here is to be mindful of your router placement and your position relative to it:
- Pick somewhere central in your home to put your router
- Try placing it up high in the room, like atop a bookshelf
- Avoid placing it next to other electronics
That covers it!
Whew—thanks for hanging in there with us. We hope this exhaustive guide has been helpful. When it comes to working from home, a solid and fast connection is critical for staying on top of things and not missing a beat.Setting up a good Wi-Fi network isn’t as easy as it sounds. If you need help optimizing yours or setting a new one up, MAXtech is here to help! Contact us here or call us at 614-401-8800 for a free consultation!