I have lousy WiFi reception – what can I do?

I can’t get good WiFi reception in my living room, my router is in the basement on the opposite side of the house

In order to achieve reliable WiFi performance, you have to get a strong radio signal from the router to your computer, tablet or TV streaming device. There  are a variety of things that can degrade the wireless signal:

  • Distance – radio waves follow the inverse square power law: if you are twice as far away from the source, the power of the signal will drop to 25% of what it was.  The closer you are to the router, the better the signal – and the signal drops off precipitously as you get further away.
  • Blocking – the construction of the building and furnishings can block the transmission of the radio signals.  Prime problems are brick, marble, rock or concrete (doubly so if reinforced), 1950’s plaster or stucco on wire mesh, large metal appliances, water and mirrors.
  • Interference – microwave ovens, other wireless devices such as cordless phones, game controllers, Bluetooth devices (especially older ones), garage door openers, fluorescent lights, improperly installed satellite dishes and particularly -all your neighbors’ wireless networks – can interfere by creating noise on the frequencies that your router uses.

WiFi is designed to be resilient, if it can’t get the data packet through the first time, it will keep trying. Unfortunately, while this means that your network is still showing as “working”, it also means that the performance is slowed down, and sometimes too slow to be usable for timing-critical applications like streaming video and Skype calls.

Things you can do right away

  • Re-position the router and or the device so that they are closer together and/or avoid being blocked. Occasionally all that is needed is to move a machine a few feet.
  • Change the frequency band on a dual-band router (and on the device to match) – if you have a problem with interference on the 2.4 GHz band, switching the router to the 5 GHz band may help by moving the WiFi signal away from the frequencies of the interference.
  • Change the channel of the router – in the administrative settings of the router, you should be able to find a setting for the channel, which is probably set to one default, or automatic. Typically you will see channels 1 – 11 as options.  Try different channels until you find the one that gives the most reliable reception.
  • If all of your wireless devices are Wireless N standard, set the router to work on N only, not “automatic” or B/G/N mode.

Longer term fixes

  • Run a cable. Yes, it is a big one-time effort, but wired Ethernet will always be more reliable than wireless.  See if you can utilize a crawlspace, attic, or interior closets to help run CAT6 (Category 6 unshielded twisted pair) Ethernet cable, or consult with a low-voltage cabling contractor.

    I couldn’t get acceptable NetFlix performance on my AppleTV until I ran a cable from the router to the AppleTV directly.

  • Get a more powerful router, and one with dual band capability that can operate in both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz.
  • Add stronger antennas to your existing router if it has the standard RP-SMA antenna connectors. Your standard router antennas are probably 2dB gain, replacement antennas can be 5dB or 8dB. Some aftermarket antennas are free-standing and come with a length of cable, allowing you to re-position the antennas independently from the router.
  • Get a better WiFi adapter for your laptop or desktop.  If your laptop machine has built in WiFi, it will be using an antenna that is typically looped around the LCD screen in the machines top.  You might get better results with a USB connected WiFi adapter that has its own external antenna.
  • Add a range extender (also called a repeater or an access point). A range extender is typically positioned mid-way between the router and your problem location. It picks up the radio signal from the router, and rebroadcasts it at full power for the devices in its area.The range extender can only work as well as the signal it gets, so  you have to position it where it gets some reliable reception from the main router.  If there are zero or 1 “bars” of WiFi reception at the range extender’s location, then it won’t be able to help much. Re-position the range extender where it can get a better signal.

    This technique was used for one client who had a massive stone fireplace in the center of the house, with literally zero reception 20 feet from the router on the other side of the fireplace. We used a range extender to do a triangle around the fireplace, putting it where it was line of sight to both the router and the device.

  • Or even better, run an Ethernet cable from the router to the range extender – check the specifications of the range extender first, not all of them accept a wired connection. Some routers such as the Asus RT-N series have AP/Range extender modes, so can be configured to work together with another router.
  • If there is no possibility of installing Ethernet cable, you could investigate Powerline Ethernet, which uses pairs of adapters to send a signal over the building’s AC power wires.  There are some limitations with this approach, and the electrical outlets being used have to be on the same circuit panel.  This approach is highly variable, it sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t.
  • If you are setting up outdoor WiFi, or trying to send a signal from one building to another, there are specialized antennas and access points that are made for outdoor mounting, and with the option of directional antennas.  The normal router antenna broadcasts the signal in a 360 degree circle (omnidirectional).  A directional antenna takes the radio signal power, and focuses it all in one direction, which allows for longer distances.



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