Put on Your WiFi Glasses and Think Range Extender
January means CES! CES is a yearly consumer electronics trade show and is where almost all consumer electronics vendors meet in Las Vegas to release their products and plans for the next 6-12 months. For us, that means the market turns a page. New tech is brought out from behind the curtain, discussed and buying decisions and performance dreams of the general public are adjusted.
This year there was quite a focus on home wireless products and it got me thinking (more like getting thumped in the head). WiFi in the average American home has exploded. The trouble is that we treat WiFi as an appliance we buy and it just works, like a range or washer. But it's not an appliance at all. It's dirty and tends not to play well when loaded up... Without getting deeply and boringly technical, when the WiFi channel spacing and protocols were designed, today's level of device saturation did not exist. WiFi channel performance in certain mainstream products are affected by wireless phones, garage door openers and microwave ovens, and because there are overlaps in the channel spacing, your neighbor's WiFi setup can be degrading your current WiFi performance.
I'm going to give you three short steps to understanding your WiFi environment and a couple of Fixers that really work.
Two of my favorite FREE WiFi tools are Netstumbler and Wireshark. Just Google them to find the downloads and you can go to youtube and find short how-tos. Netstumbler will tell you all of the WiFi Access Point (AP) broadcasters in your immediate range, a few houses around you in most neighborhoods, and tell you what channel they are operating on and how strong their signals are at your location. IMPORTANT HINT- Make sure you are on a different and non-overlapping channel than your strongest neighbors. This will help eliminate overlapping channel interference. Wikipedia has a good set of WiFi channel charts and a deeper explanation. Basically, if you and your neighbor are both running on channel 6 and Netstumbler is showing you that your seeing a lot of his energy, you and your neighbor are likely degrading each others WiFi performance.
That is step 1.
Step two is to get Wireshark running, again there are simple how-tos on youtube. Wireshark will give you a very detailed look at what packets are flying around on your local WiFi. Most of the Wireshark info is way to complex for the average person to digest, but you will see who is transmitting.
This was the shocker for me, I just did not believe the amount of WiFi devices that had entered my home while I was looking the other way. This is a partial list of the WiFi transmitters I saw with Wireshark and I was genuinely surprised. WIRELESS DEVICES: HDTV, Blu-ray player, TiVo, Netbook, Kindle Fire, 3 Android phones, and an Iphone, two laptops, two desktops, a Wii, and a wireless canon printer. Yep, first cut brought up 15 devices, and I'm certain that many middle class families have that much or more! All these devices competing for my little channel 6 AP Ouch! Please mister, can I have some more bandwidth? Think about it, one person printing, another streaming music, another streaming a movie, the Wii doing a software update and all that browsing.
Step Three is looking at your local WiFi signal Coverage. Bring up Netstumbler again and display the realtime power chart from your AP. Then walk around the house. The AP is the source, so as you walk away from it, Room by room and to a different floor of the house, your going to see the signal coverage fade and even go to nothing in certain blind spots. What does this mean? Well, the weaker the signal at your particular location, the smaller the bit pipe, the more prone you are to getting interference from other transmitters around you, and the lower your effective bit rate bandwidth. An example would be that near my AP, I get a solid 56 Mbps and two rooms down I get 18 Mbps and upstairs in the far corner I get 1 Mbps and it fades out from time to time as other sources of noise come and go.
So now you know how to put on your WiFi glasses and SEE your WiFi environment, what are the FIXERS? Here are my top 5!
1. Knowledge and tools - WiFi is not an appliance and not going away so if you are tech support for your friends and family, invest some time and arm
yourself with tools and knowledge.
2. Make sure you keep good WiFi channel separation from your neighbors (Netstumbler)
3. Look at the device traffic and see if there are a) any WiFi devices you can turn off (Wireshark) or b) turn off WiFi by using Ethernet cable directly
to your AP/router.
4. Look at the WiFi coverage zones in your home and if a high device usage area, like a living room, is only getting 3 Mbps, then you have perhaps 6 devices sharing that 3 Mbps(Think HDTV, Blu-ray, Wii, multiple phones, tablets). Invest $70 in a WiFi extender like the NETGEAR WN2000RPT and get those same 6 devices sharing a 56 Mbps bitpipe instead of 3 Mbps. If you want to buy future proof tech so it will last, many new WiFi extenders were shown at CES this year like the Netgear Universal Dual Band WiFi Range Extender which is fantastic, sells for about $80 and will ship in late FEB2012 . I put my NETGEAR WN2000RPT in the living room, connected my HDTV, Blu-ray and Wii to it via Ethernet cable to the extender's built in 4 port router and turned off those WiFi transmitters. That got my "Hot Zone" back up to 56Mbps for phones, laptops and so on.
Network extenders really work and now you have the tools to put them in the right place!
5. Try to keep a whole house view of your WiFi ecosystem when you start looking for a new product. What do I mean by that, well for instance you have to know if your running b/g/n WiFi network devices. Often the network AP slows the entire network down to accommodate the slowest WiFi device.
Bestbuy and Amazon are getting ready to flood a whole new set of consumer tech to the market and almost all of it will be wireless enabled. Take a look, maybe it's a good time to beef up your home WiFi infrastructure a little and make the whole family happier.