The Last 50 Feet – WiFi

Summary: WiFi is a real benefit when it works right, but there are many pitfalls that can result in very bad quality of internet experience, learning how to avoid those may help you enjoy your internet services in more places in your home.

In today’s highly mobile-centric and connected world of laptops, tablets and the ubiquitous smartphone, all leveraging wireless connections over WiFi in our homes, it is important to know the abilities and limitations of this wireless technology.

We often rail at our devices or our internet service provider when we can’t get our Facebook feed to load, or that web site to fully render, or that streaming video to run. But often, it’s not the device or even the ISP (although they frequently are a culprit), it is the ability of your device to get a good clean WiFi signal.

Just as in real-estate, with WiFi it’s all about location. The distance and obstacles between your wireless computing device and the WiFi Access Point (AP) / Router is what will determine whether you get a good or bad experience. In a large, mostly vertically stacked homes, distance also has a vertical dimension that adds even more challenges. Distance has a big impact on not only speed, but more importantly on how well the connection actually performs. 

To illustrate this, here are two speedtests taken within minutes of each other using the same MacBook Pro laptop. The only difference was I moved 15’ closer to the WiFi AP (one less wall to go through as well).

The difference in usability is huge, from annoyingly unpredictable to smooth as silk.

Bad WiFi

Bad WiFi

Good WiFi

Good WiFi

Good WiFi

The bad location test has more than 10 times worse lag (delay over 6 seconds)) than the good one (delay of less than 50ms), meaning that all kinds of problems will be experienced; forget streaming from that location.

Note that actual download speed doesn’t vary much, so don’t overly focus on speed, what matters is how usable the connection is.

To further illustrate the challenges, this graphic shows just how varied signal strength can be within a home. The red areas have unusable WiFi, and the orange would have some serious issues.

home-wifi-heatmap

Did you know:

A WiFi radio in the access point will talk to each device at varying speeds, which means if you have one or more devices that have poor connections, they slow down everyone else’s speed. This is because on WiFi, only one device can ‘speak’ at a time, so slow ones take longer to finish saying their piece. Which also means that the more devices on WiFi, the more they can interfere with each other.

As an example, say you are watching a Netflix streaming movie with the spouse, then in the middle, the spouse pulls out the smartphone and decides to check their Facebook feed, but the smartphone has poor reception, and connects at a very slow speed, which now means the Netflix streamer is having to wait longer periods of time to get movie content. It starts to stutter, pause and maybe even stall out to the point it doesn’t play anymore. As soon as the smartphone is shutoff and put away, streaming resumes as before.

Wireless is a nice convenience, but it is not magic. It is a radio frequency transmission system prone to interference; it loses signal strength dramatically with distance, obstacles and ultimately is very compromised to the point most people struggle with the effects of poor coverage and range. So use a wire if you can, and if you must use WiFi, then follow some of these recommendations to improve the performance of WiFi-connected devices.

  • Here are some suggestions to help you improve your results:
  •  First, is to try and place your WiFi access point as centrally as possible to the locations where you use WiFi the most in the home
  •  Locate the access point at least 4 feet off the ground and ensure the antennas are straight up
  •  Keep it away from metal surfaces, so right next to the Stainless Steel fridge is bad.
  • Look for WiFi connected devices like set top boxes, smart TV’s, photo frames and such that are in locations that might drive down the WiFi speed with their poor connections.
  • Power down devices like set top boxes or streaming audio players when not in use.
  • Consider adding additional WiFi Access Points in your home to provide better coverage
  • Ideally, connect them to the main router with a wired connection
  • If no other choice, use a powerline extender to providethe link
  • Be wary of WiFi extenders that depend on wireless, they often are slow and tricky to locate so they work well.  The good ones are expensive.
  • Be aware that many other wireless devices, such as cordless phones, can potentially interfere with WiFi, so locate the wireless phone base station away from the access point.
  • Set-top boxes and smart TVs should ideally be on a wired connection for best streaming results.

I have found that the standard Router / Access Points the ISPs hand out are low-end units with weak WiFi signals. A modern good quality Access Point will have much better coverage, so even if you use the ISP’s Router, you can improve the WiFi coverage with a third-party access point.

Tips on testing your WiFi:

  • You can see just how strong (or weak) a WiFi signal is from a mobile or tablet using a WiFi analyzer app; this greatly helps when re-locating AccessPoints.
  • Run the DSLReports.com/speedtest from a laptop at locations you suspect have poor connectivity, if the bloat rating is a C or less, that would explain difficulties in streaming or reliably loading web pages.

In conclusion, WiFi is a convenience that comes with some constraints we need to deal with, and if we do, it can deliver highly usable internet experiences.

Published on by Jonathan Foulkes.