Better Wi-Fi: Your Favourite Band

At its heart, Wifi is data over radio link. We use this same technology to communicate with ships and satellites. But different frequencies have different behaviours. Any band we choose to use will have benefits and drawbacks.

Many of the current crop of wireless routers can broadcast in both 2.4GHz and 5GHz radio bands.

2.4GHz has been in use for much longer by consumer networking equipment. Its effective range without any obstructions is 100 metres. In perfect conditions, it can achieve data transfer rates of 54 Mbps. Perfect conditions almost never occur, with the average down towards 25 Mbps, a little slow by current networking standards.

But 2.4GHz has many benefits. The longer the wavelength, the easier it penetrates solid objects. Cellular networks here in Canada use 850-2100MHz, far lower on the radio spectrum. Using these much lower bands, you can make a phone call while farther away from a tower, behind intervening buildings or inside your house. Your 2.4GHz wireless router will not reach you across town, but it has some distance.

Like every useful and awesome thing, it is soon discovered by many others. The current state of 2.4GHz is like a crowd of people in a parking lot, each with their own speaker blasting a different kind of music. The more wireless routers or access points near your own equipment, the harder it is for your laptop/tablet/phone to hear your own wireless network over the noise.

I live in an apartment building. Here is the 2.4GHz capture from my desk:

2-4ghz

The readings on the left are signal strength. My own network is marked in blue. You can see several other access points broadcasting at similar strengths, including the Shaw access point mounted on the hallway ceiling.

This is one of the reasons other bands were opened up for Internet use and manufacturers began to build wireless equipment using 5GHz. While the range is shorter with 5GHz, the data transfer rates are much higher, with claims of 1.3 Gbps under perfect conditions. As previously noted, the 5GHz band doesn’t deal with interfering objects like walls so well. But in an home network where your laptop/tablet/phone isn’t far from the access point, this becomes less of an issue.

So which band should you be using to take your wireless network to the top level of performance? If your wireless router and devices are both capable of 5GHz and your environment supports its use (devices close to access points, not many obstructions), then 5GHz is a preferable choice to avoid the band clogging currently happening in 2.4GHz.

But if your network or environment can’t support use of the 5GHz band, all is not lost. In a future post on channels, we’ll look at how to tailor your 2.4GHz broadcast depending on what’s around you.

Better Wi-Fi: Check your environment

We’d all love fast and seamless wireless that never has problems. Most of us would also like a winning lottery ticket, a pony and a trip to Hawaii if wishes are being granted.

But better Wi-Fi is not so impossible when keeping in mind how the technology works. Receiving wireless Internet depends heavily on a strong radio signal between your device and the access point. Your surrounding environment is the biggest single influence on the quality of your wireless radio signal.

Here are some questions to ask yourself.

What objects are between me and the access point?

Radio frequencies are affected by some objects and can reflect off of them or scatter. Dense objects can block the signal. So can metal that forms any type of grid or lattice, creating a Faraday cage effect. This means wireless signals are vulnerable to blockage by metal-framed walls or rebar within concrete. Radio frequencies are also affected by electrical and magnetic fields, or other strong radio transmitters.

In the case of outdoor wireless networks at marinas, navigation equipment on vessels can interfere with wireless radio signals.

Do I have a clean line of sight to the access point?

This builds on the previous solution. Move or position your equipment to reduce the amount and density of interfering objects between your device and the access point.

How far am I from the access point?

Currently, wireless Internet operates on both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz spectrum. The official range of older 2.4GHz transmitters is 100 metres, but actual performance is heavily affected by your environment. Newer transmitters using the 802.11n protocol officially reach up to 400 metres at either 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz, but again this is affected by what is around you. Ensure you are within the broadcast range of the access point.

Checking your surroundings is only the first step in wireless troubleshooting, but awareness of your environment alone can greatly reduce the severity of connection issues.