Building and maintaining a wireless network at home is no easy task, especially if you're not tech-savvy or otherwise inclined. This presents a problem, since many people rely on Wi-Fi in their homes in order to get the most out of smartphones, tablets, laptops and a quickly increasing number of other products. Then you get into the issue of internet dead zones in your home and adding Wi-Fi boosters, or using other means to get a better signal. It's all pretty confusing. So, let's take a look at what you need to know about a home wireless setup.
Wireless Networking Standards
The first thing that you'll often run across when looking at wireless routers is how quickly they can transfer data between your device and the internet. This is known as the theoretical data rate and is often measured in megabits per second (Mbps) or gigabits per second (Gbps). How much a router can handle is largely dependent on the wireless standard that it's using. As wireless technology progresses, new standards come out, and new devices must be built to take advantage of the new standards.
For example, most routers and Wi-Fi boosters on the market today use the standard known as 802.11n. The "n" is the important part. That tells you what version of the 802.11 standard your device is using. The 802.11n standard is capable of handling up to 300 Mbps of traffic, which is more than enough for most people. However, that is the theoretical data rate, meaning you probably won't ever reach 300 Mbps due to the pesky real world bringing in interference issues. We'll talk about that a bit more later.
The latest standard is 802.11ac, which can get into the Gbps speed range. That's an awfully fast Wi-Fi connection, and there just aren't many cases which would benefit from it yet. However, if you have any 4K-resolution devices and you want to stream 4K video on your Wi-Fi, then you'll absolutely want to update your Wi-Fi network to 802.11n.
Limitations of Wi-Fi
Now that we've got wireless standards behind us, we'll complicate things a bit more. Just because a Wi-Fi extender or router says that it's running 802.11n doesn't mean that you'll automatically get 300 Mbps of speed. As mentioned earlier, interference will hurt your throughput, or data rate.
You wireless router sends out a radio signal that your smartphone picks up. That's how information is passed between router and phone. Anytime something disrupts that signal or makes it harder for that signal to reach your phone or router, that's called interference. Anytime there's interference, the overall throughput degrades because the data gets lost in transmission and needs to be re-sent.
Most Wi-Fi boosters and routers don't like walls or ceilings. If your home has a lot of rooms or several floors, then you'll need much more than a single Wi-Fi router to get a good signal everywhere. This leads to a convoluted mess of transmitting the Wi-Fi signal to a Wi-Fi booster and repeating it ad nauseam. Not only can it be expensive, it's a pain to maintain.
Complements to Wi-Fi
The good news is that there are a few options other than just a wireless network. The option that will cost the least and give you the best performance is to run the Ethernet cable to the internet dead zone. There, you can add a Wi-Fi router or Wi-Fi booster that has an Ethernet WLAN port. Essentially, you're making another direct connection to your internet and spreading it out via Wi-Fi.
The problem with wired connections is that they're hard to do in homes that aren't built with them in mind. In fact, if you want your cables out of sight, then you might have to do some drilling and plastering. That's an awful lot of work.
Luckily, there's a middle ground – powerline adapters. With a powerline adapter, you can send signals through the wiring in your house. You connect one powerline adapter to your router or modem with an Ethernet cable. Plug that adapter into the closest power outlet. Then plug the second powerline adapter into another power outlet in your home. Connect it to a Wi-Fi booster or router, or to any wired device. And just like that, you've got internet in a remote part of your home.
That's a simplified version of how powerline adapters work. It's actually a very old technology. Power companies have sent signals over the wiring in houses for nearly 100 years. This is how those companies measure your electricity usage and when to charge peak rates. Modern tech companies continue to push powerline communications to its limits. They're even starting to introduce Gbps powerline adapters.
Home wireless networks are complicated, but getting a basic handle on the technology behind them isn't too difficult. The more you know about your home network, the more you can get out of it. If it seems like you always have slow internet despite the fact that you're paying for good internet service, then you should look into how your home network is set up. It's fairly easy to get a speedy home network up and running once you understand the basics.