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WiFi woes – is your home a dead zone?

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(This article first appeared in Gadgets On The Go, a blog on Fairfax Media sites and is posted with permission.)

A few simple tweaks can help fix WiFi blackspots around your home.

On Tuesday I wrote about my recent DSL broadband troubles. Thanks to changing the DSL profile set by my ISP, and tweaking the line settings on my modem, I’ve boosted by DSL sync speeds from 3.2 megabits per second (Mbps) to up about 4.9 Mbps – beyond which the connection becomes unstable. It’s a far cry from fibre or HFC cable, but sadly it will have to suffice for the next few years.

Of course a dodgy copper phone line isn’t the only cause of a flaky internet connection and I’ve also spend some time assessing the WiFi blackspots around my home. I recently added an Airport Express base station to my living area, acting as WiFi extender for my home 2.4GHz and 5GHz WiFi networks. Before you throw money at your WiFi problems, it’s worth doing a WiFi survey of your home and trying a few simple tricks to improve your coverage.

Start off with WiFi signal strength software – for a long time I used NetStumbler on Windows but these days I lean towards WiFi Explorer on Mac. You’ll find similar apps for smartphones and tablets, but notebooks tend to include more powerful wireless cards so you’ll get better results.

Fire up your WiFi monitoring software and you’ll instantly see the details of nearby WiFi networks – not just channel, SSIDs and MAC addresses but also a real-time graph displaying signal strength. At this point you can simply carry your notebook around the house and note the signal strength as you move from room to room.

Even within rooms you’ll find that the WiFi strength varies. Your wireless network might stretch a long way outside, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it does a great job of punching through solid objects inside your home. Keep in mind that 5 GHz WiFi networks might run faster but they don’t penetrate walls as well as 2.4 GHz WiFi networks.

If the fridge, piano, aquarium or hot water service lies between you and the WiFi base station then you’ll see the signal strength plunge, especially on your 5GHz network. Walls can also present a problem depending on the angles. If you’re on the opposite side of the wall from your WiFi base station then the signal only needs to pass through a few inches of plaster and wood or, heaven forbid, solid brick.

Reception gets worse as you walk along the wall and the angle changes so the signal needs to pass through more wall to reach you. By the time you’re at the other end of the room the wall could seem to be several feet thick as far as your wireless gadgets are concerned. Also consider what might be inside the walls, such as heating and cooling ducts. Moving your base station out from the wall might help, even if it’s now further away from the spot you’re trying to fix.

If you’ve locked away your WiFi base station in a cupboard then you’re obviously asking for trouble. Even if it is out in the open, moving your base station will shift your blackspots, hopefully improving the coverage where you need it most. Your monitoring software will tell you straight away if the situation has improved.

Placing your base station higher and in a central part of the house can also help. Don’t hang it sideways, as most of the signal goes out the sides of a WiFi base station.

If your WiFi point is built into your broadband modem and you can’t move it, one option is to buy a separate WiFi base station, find a good location for it and then connect it back to your broadband modem using an Ethernet cable. If it’s not practical to run cables, consider a Powerline AV adaptor which runs a link via your power points. You’ll even find WiFi extenders with built-in Powerline AV adaptors – handy for renters because you can take them with you when you move house.

When you fire up your WiFi monitoring software you’ll also see your neighbours’ WiFi hotspots, which could be interfering with your own. The software should tell you which channel each network is running on – 2.4 GHz networks generally vary between channels 1 and 14, while 5 GHz networks range between channels 36 and 165.

If your neighbour’s network is on the same channel as yours, try switching to another. Channels 1, 6 and 11 are considered the best for 2.4 GHz WiFi networks, to avoid overlapping. As for 5 GHz, the channels are spaced further apart so overlapping is less of an issue.

Many WiFi base stations are configured to choose the best available channel by default. Simply restarting your base station might be enough for it to rescan the area and switch to a better channel. If not you can change the channel manually, you’ll find these options in the WiFi base station’s configuration menus.

While you’re poking around in your WiFi menus you might come across settings to improve network robustness as well as an “optimise for 300 Mbit/s” setting which uses 40MHz-wide channels. Making your network more robust can improve reliability at the expense of speed. Enabling 40 MHz-wide channels improves speeds for compatible wireless gadgets but can be more susceptible to interference.

While you’re considering interference from other WiFi networks, also consider interference from other electrical gear in your home. Placing other wireless gear such as cordless phone base stations too close to your WiFi base station can cause trouble, even if they run on different frequencies. It’s not just wireless gear – any electrical equipment could be throwing off electromagnetic interference and playing havoc with your WiFi network.

Interference works both ways. I’ve noticed that DSL modems, phone base stations and VoIP adaptors can interfere with other devices, including your digital TV reception. It’s even possible for such devices to interfere with your broadband modem, even if it’s not running as a WiFi base station. I need to run a few tests to see if this kind of interference could be partly to blame for my DSL issues. Microwave ovens can also temporarily cripple a 2.4 GHz network, which is why I switched to 5GHz for streaming multi-room audio.

If you’re still plagued by WiFi issues in certain parts of your home then a WiFi extender could be the way to go. It connects to your WiFi network and rebroadcasts the signal. Of course it’s going to struggle if you place it in a dead spot. Instead, try placing it off to the side, basically helping your WiFi signal go around the source of the trouble. You can use the MAC address of each base station to tell them apart using your WiFi monitoring software.

Keep in mind that running too many WiFi extenders can cause trouble if your devices struggle to decide which base station to use. This is particularly troublesome if you live in a multi-story house. Troubleshooting WiFi interference is a process of trial and error, so try to keep things simple.

Have you struggled with WiFi woes? How have you dealt with them?

Read more posts from Adam Turner’s Gadgets on the Go blog.

Photo credit: Liz Mc

9 comments

  1. John says:

    I live in Geelong. The whole area is filled with blackspots and so far the government is not interested in solving the problem. I live in the suburb of Norlane and one road in particular is very bad from Newtown to Norlane. In Port Arlington, if you are connected to an Optus system, you have difficulty phoning out. A friend has to travel to Pt. Richards in order to make a telephone call. As you can imagine you cannot contact him without making an appointment that will allow him to drive 4-5kms from his home to receive a call.
    I move all over the area of the city of Greater Geelong and have found many dead spots. It affects business as well as private individuals. It is made worse because you cannot speak to anyone who even knows where Geelong is. The calls are directed to Indonesia and although the call centre claims to speak English they do not understand it; appearing to read from a script as if you eventually get their attention they appear to be confused. Ask to speak with a supervisor or even an Australian contact you are refused.

  2. Graham Doust says:

    Very helpful indeed

  3. Doug says:

    Great to read a really useful and practical article on Wifi instead of the usual inane fillers found in other newsletters.
    Thankd

  4. Stephen Mills says:

    iinetnet needs to be able to supply mobile phone signal extenders. The reception in Craigieburn is woefull.
    Optus supply Home Zone to their customers for free if their signal is weak.

  5. Steve says:

    Great article. Thanks. My ongoing battle with Telstra & their “Ultimate 3G” wireless modem is another of those little challenges! Telstra’s tech support aren’t really interested, & 1 of them even suggested that due to the introduction of NBN, ADSL, etc, they weren’t introducing any suitable replacement wireless WiFi-enabled modems.

  6. Howard Mumme says:

    Thanks for this great article. Fingers crossed but it’s all good with us,

  7. Charles Mann says:

    This must be an article of the future , or I must live in a different world or country. 4.9 MB/s ? Yeah, where do you get that? Surely not in Yamba NSW with a miserable 150KB/s and even less on uploads

  8. Tony Simpkins says:

    My problem is not so much the strength of the signal in various parts of the house, but the fact that Wi-Fi keeps dropping out, and I have to reset the router and/or the modem in order get my family’s tablets/laptops signals active again. I have a Belkin wired VOIP modem and Belkin Wireless G router, both purchased from Iinet.

  9. Jen McKenzie says:

    Hi Lori,

    Thanks for the feedback – no good to hear that you’re still having some problems there though!

    It’s fairly normal for other wireless networks to appear in available networks without them interfering with your own wireless connection (though it’s definitely still a possibility). As there are a number of other things that can affect your wireless network, we’d recommend having a read of this article and it’s suggestions: https://iihelp.iinet.net.au/support/node/12603 and giving our support team a call any time on 13 22 58 to investigate this further for you.

    – Jen

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