Networking & wireless forum: How can I improve the range on my Wi-Fi setup?

by: Lee Koo (ADMIN) June 28, 2007 4:13 PM PDT

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How can I improve the range on my Wi-Fi setup?

by Lee Koo (ADMIN) ModeratorCNET staff - 6/28/07 4:13 PM

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Hello. I recently moved into a three-story townhouse, and I want to improve the signal from my Linksys wireless router so that each area of the floors we can get a decent signal (some area are either too weak or nonexistent). It would be great if I could get the signal from my yard as well. What is the best location to place the router in? Is there hardware or software that I can use to improve the signal? There is one shared wall in our unit. What special considerations should I be aware of in terms of security? Thank you.

Submitted by John of Chicago

Answer voted most helpful by CNET members

WiFi that really Works

John, wireless networking can often end up seeming more like black magic than science when it comes to troubleshooting range and coverage problems. Wireless signals are affected by the distance between the router and the receiving computers, the type of wall and ceiling construction, objects in the room and interference from many other electronic items that could be in your home or a close neighbors. Depending on these and other factors, it is not uncommon to experience wireless ranges from as little as 20 to well over a hundred. But have no fear, with a little time and patience anyone can put together a good, reliable wireless network with limited resources.

You did not mention whether you are using laptops, desktops, how many total computers, if any of the computers will be in fixed locations or how important network speed is to you, so I will try to cover all the bases and take into consideration as many factors as possible. So let me apologize in advance for probably way more information then you had asked for. Many of the decisions you make will be affected by your exact wants and needs out of a wireless network. There are many ways to extend the range of a wireless network including: High-Gain Antennas, Repeaters, Power Booster, Multiple Access Points and upgrading to the newer N routers and cards. Regardless of the technologies that you may end up using to accomplish your networking goals, I would still recommend using the information below to find the optimum location for your router. I personally would prefer to have one well placed router than trying to configure a repeater or deal with aiming directional antennas.

The key to success is in the planning and the exact location of the router can be the most important part of the wireless installation. The very first thing you need to do is to perform a complete survey of the area that you want to have wireless coverage.

NETWORK SURVEY

1. Router Locations Map out all the possible locations for your modem and router. General guidelines for router placement usually recommend placing the wireless router as high as possible at a centrally located point in your house. Depending on the type of broadband internet service you have, how your house is wired now and your ability or willingness to run some extra Ethernet cable, you may have several viable locations for the placement of your modem and router. For example: If you have DSL service and your house already has phone jacks in every room, then any of these rooms could be potential Modem/Router locations. On the other hand, if you are using broadband through your cable company, your placement may be more limited. Depending on your cables signal strength and how your house is wired for cable, you may have only a few possible locations or maybe only one. The reason for this is that the cable modem often requires a direct cable line without any splits. The modem can give you problems if used on old or inferior wiring or on lines that have too many splitters. This is why the cable company will often run a clean new cable line just to the modem with only one signal split. The preferred wiring method for a cable modem is to have the cable come into the house and go into a high-quality 2-way splitter. One line from the splitter goes directly to the modem with nothing else on that line and the other side of the splitter goes to all of the rest the TVs in the house. This way the modem receives the best possible signal. If you house or neighborhood happens to have really good signal strength from the cable company then you might get away with other configurations. NOTE: It is normally recommended to have at least one computer hard wired to your router. This will allow you to easily setup and maintain your network as well as troubleshoot problems later on.

2. Access your Home for possible interference - Many wireless networks fail due to interference from other wireless networks and/or cordless devices commonly found around the average home. In some cases, interference can even come from a close neighbor or attached apartment. The most common culprit is 2.4ghz cordless phones. These phones operate on the same frequency as most wireless networks and can reduce the effective range of your network or even prevent it from working altogether. Even though it is possible to get these two devices to play together, I recommend replacing any cordless phone systems with either the newer 5.8ghz models or the older 900mhz type. NOTE: To disable cordless phones that may be causing interference, you must unplug the base station and also remove the battery from all handsets. There are also many other wireless devices and appliances found around the home that you must take into account: Wireless alarms systems, Microwave Ovens, Wireless Video and Audio systems and baby monitors or intercoms. Typically only the items that use the 2.4ghz band will cause problems, but you should try to avoid placing all electrical devices too close to your router or wireless computers. Keep in mind that many wireless problems can be intermittent. I have had scenarios where everything was fine until a cordless phone rang, someone made a phone call or used the microwave oven. Some devices such as cordless phone can change channels automatically causing interference to come and go.

3. Survey the Area with a Wireless Laptop - If you have or can borrow a wireless laptop, this can be used as a tool to evaluate your entire home before you even start setting up your network. Most all wireless laptops have a wireless utility that will show you the signal strength of all nearby networks. If you are lucky, some utilities even display the wireless channel for each network which is real helpful when it comes to deciding what channel to set your router to. If your laptops built-in wireless utility is really lacking, you can also download a tool such as NetStumbler http://www.netstumbler.com/downloads/ . Without installing or even connecting your router to your broadband modem, simply plug the router into any electrical outlet. Most models will start transmitting within a few minutes and you can walk around the house with your laptop to evaluate the signal strength in various locations throughout the house. Try moving the router to different locations and test again. Once you find the ideal location, you can then run the wires and install the modem. Your laptop may find other networks in the area, so be careful to make sure you are checking your router and not the signal strength of someone elses network.

4. Still Can Not Get a Good Signal If you still can not find an ideal location for the router that gives you full wireless coverage, then you will have to resort to the following other options:

a. Upgrade Router Only If you find that your wireless range is borderline, meaning that you have some signal everywhere but maybe just a little low in spots, you may benefit from the added range of an 802.11N router. Many of these routers will give you added range when used with regular B and G computers without having to purchase the matching cards. I have had great luck with the Belkin Pre N and now the N1 router.

b. Upgrade Router and Adapters If the range is still not acceptable or you just want some added speed, you can upgrade both the router and the wireless adapter in each computer. You could also upgrade the router and then upgrade the just the adapters in the computers that are out of range, having trouble or need extra speed.

c. Repeaters/Extenders Another option is to install a Wireless Repeater or Extender. These units are typically placed about half way between the router and the receiving computer(s) and picks up the wireless signal from the router and retransmits it onto the rest of the house. Some of these can be difficult to setup and may require that you have matching equipment from the same vendor. Note: Repeaters/Extenders will generally cut your network speed in half. http://www.hawkingtech.com/products/productlist.php?CatID=32&FamID=105&ProdID=293 or http://catalog.belkin.com/IWCatProductPage.process?Product_Id=278082

d. Extended Range Antennas I personally have not had the best of luck with many of the add-on antennas that claim increased range. But the theory is that many of these antennas focus the transmission into a more directional pattern thus improving the strength of the wireless signal where you need it. If you have just a marginal signal you may find some improvement with some of these antennas. But if you are getting no signal at all, then I would probably not bother. Here is an example of a super long range adapter from Hawking Technology http://www.hawkingtech.com/products/productlist.php?CatID=32&FamID=60&ProdID=280

e. PowerLine Networking There are also both Wireless and Wired versions of Powerline adapters that can send network signals through your electrical wiring in your home to remote rooms that are out of range. They consist of two plug-in units where one plugs into your current router and into a wall outlet and the other unit plugs into an power outlet in another room. Signals are then transmitted through your homes electrical wiring. Note: You can find more information on these at Netgear http://www.netgear.com/Products/PowerlineNetworking.aspx?for=Home+Networking or http://www.dlink.com/products/?sec=1&pid=533

f. PhoneLine Networking You can also extend your network using existing phone lines that may already run throughout you home. This was popular a few years ago but seems to be losing ground to powerline networking.

g. Second or Third Access Point Another option is to add a second or even a third Access Point (Wireless Router Set to AP mode) to your network. This is probably the best method of extending your wireless network although it will require some wiring between units. If you happen to have Ethernet jacks throughout your home, this could be very easy to implement. You could even send your signal to another location using a powerline Ethernet adapter and then run that into Access Point or just purchase this Powerline Wireless Unit from Netgear http://www.netgear.com/Products/PowerlineNetworking/PowerlineWirelessAccessPoints.aspx

You can mix and combine almost all of these technologies into single working network to fit almost any needs. In your particular case of a 3 floor townhouse, your best bet would normally be to place the wireless router on the second floor (directly in the middle of the coverage area). But if that is not possible and you can not run any wires, then you might try a wireless extender.

WIRELESS NETWORK SECURITY

You had asked about what you should be aware of when it comes to security? Let me first say that the default setting for most all wireless routers is NO SECURITY at all. So if you just plug it in and start using it, your network will be wide open for anyone to use or exploit. I highly recommend leaving all security OFF until after you have your network up and running. Make sure everything is working and stable before implementing security. It is a lot easier to troubleshoot problems and make changes without having to deal with security settings. Once you have everything working just the way you want, it is time to setup security. Depending on your level of paranoia, you can get as carried away as you want with implementing various security settings. You need to read the instructions for your specific router, but the basics are as follows:

SSID BROADCAST = This is the name that is sent out to identify your network. You have the choice to turn off broadcasting this name, making it more difficult for the casual user to find your network. At the very least, make sure you change the name of your network from the default setting which is usually something like linksys or netgear. I cant tell you how many times I have found people connected to their neighbors network by mistake because they had the same default SSID name. I would normally suggest that you do not use anything that will identify your network as belonging to you, such as using your name or address. Just like I mentioned with security, I would not recommend turning off SSID broadcasting until you have made sure your network is working properly.

MAC FILTERING = Each Network adapter has a unique MAC address which is similar to having a serial number on each computer. You can tell your router to only connect to computers with a specific MAC address, thus limiting the ability of others to connect to your network. You just have to remember that if you purchase a new computer, change a network adapter or a friend stops by and wants to use your network, that you have to enter that computers MAC address into your router before use.

ENCRIPTION = There many types and levels of encryption and equally as many opinions as to which method is best. New methods are being developed all the time. WEP, WEP 64 bit, WEP 128 bit, WPA and WPA2 are just a few of the options. I would suggest using a minimum of WEP 128 or better still, WPA. See your router manual for details on how to change these settings.

TIME OF DAY = Many routers have the ability to set time of day usage, so I guess if you limit the amount of time your computers are connected to the internet, you are reducing your exposure.

FIREWALLS
Many routers today have a built-in hardware firewall, but for increased security you should consider a software firewall such as ZoneAlarm.

NOTE: Regardless of what you do, and given the time, if someone really wants to get into your network, they can. The usual goal is to make it as difficult as possible, keep out the casual hackers and prevent the neighbors from barrowing your Internet.


NETWORK SPEED

A few things to keep in mind if network speed is an issue. All the computers on your wireless network are sharing the total bandwidth, so the more you have connected wirelessly the slower. This would not normally be an issue for 3 or 4 wireless computers that are simply surfing the internet and retrieving email. But if you have heavy users or plan to use the network to move large amounts of data between computers, than you may want to take speed into account. Just to give you an idea, I performed some simple network speed tests a few years ago to see how fast I could transfer files from one computer to another.

I ran the tests by transferring a 28MB folder (about 20 medium quality digital photographs) from one computer to my server with an excellent signal and the router only 10 feet away. Individual results will vary depending on router settings, the distance to the wireless router and the number of wireless computers using the network. The speed of your connection drops as the distance between the router and the computer increases. With a poor wireless connection, these times could increase by a factor of 10.

Wireless 802.11G took 36 seconds
Wireless Pre-N took 12 seconds
Hard Wired 10/100 (100) took 4 seconds

Again, speed is usually not much of an issue unless you are copying large video files, streaming music to another room or backing up your computes over the network. This is another reason why it is best to hardwire as many computers as possible.

If you are really having problems and just cant seem to find what is causing your interference, I purchased a little $200 device called WI SPY http://www.thinkgeek.com/gadgets/electronic/80ce/ that turns your laptop into a low cost WiFi spectrum analyzer. This can help you determine the source of your interference as well as help you determine the best channel to set your router to. Of course you can also spend several thousand dollars on a real network analyzer from Fluke Instruments.

Good Luck!

Dana
Wayland Computer

Submitted by Dana H. (aka waytron)

If you have an additional advice for John, let's hear them. Click on the "Reply" link to post. Please be detailed as possible in your answer and list all options available. Thanks!

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