6 steps to better home Wi-Fi

Researchers have found that 69 percent of households have five or more Wi-Fi-enabled devices in their home.
Researchers have found that 69 percent of households have five or more Wi-Fi-enabled devices in their home. Fotolia, via TNS

When Americans were recently asked what slice of life they couldn’t live without, Wi-Fi came in second – behind food – and, yes, ahead of sex! The poll, done by tech consultants IDC for Wi-Fi gear maker Linksys, found 18 percent of adults polled listed wireless home Internet as a top priority, trailing food, at 30 percent.

But Wi-Fi isn’t like plumbing – or even common appliances. Many household basics work well for years, if not decades, without much help from the user. Unfortunately, Wi-Fi isn’t that simple.

The service is powered by a confusing device called a “router” – a bit like a hot water heater – the hub from which a wireless network flows. Sadly, the tech industry has done a poor job of making these networks easy to set up. And once people finally get their wireless Internet working, they’re often scared to change it – the old “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality.

But the wireless world is rapidly evolving for both routers and the devices that require a strong Internet signal. That’s why household demand for Wi-Fi is exploding – along with the list of reasons to rethink your network.

Here are six things to ponder if you want better Wi-Fi performance in your home – with or without a new router:

1. Location, location, location

Got some dark spots in your home’s Wi-Fi coverage?

Consider placing the router as close to the middle of the home as possible – or closest to the area of the home where Internet usage will be heaviest. Make sure the location is flat (not the floor) and well-ventilated.

If you own a two-story home, it’s best to place the router on the second floor or high up on the first floor – such as atop a bookcase.

Most routers are god-awful ugly. But if your Wi-Fi needs trump fashion, you’ll need to place the router in a prominent place in the home.

2. Avoid blockage

Did you know Wi-Fi signals go through most walls? Yes, most. Not all.

Bathrooms and kitchens are signal killers. Walls in these rooms are often full of pipes and wires that can slow down or stop Wi-Fi signals. Also, metal objects – notably mirrors, metal cabinets and major appliances – can block signals. Try moving the router to find a blockage-free position.

3. Learn antenna science

If your router has external antennas, they should be pointed in a vertical direction for the best results. If you hope to push a Wi-Fi signal up or down a floor, position the antennas horizontally.

4. Add an extender

Still have a Wi-Fi problem spot in your home?

The answer may be a Wi-Fi repeater/extender that can stretch a router’s signal in one direction around that secondary device.

A repeater/extender is best placed roughly halfway between the router and the trouble spot. These offer the best results for people seeking better signals in two-story homes. These signal boosters can run from $30 to $150 – and it’s a bit of “you get what you pay for” and a bit of knowing what you’re extending the signal for.

An area of heavy use (say, a playroom with a gaming console) might need a high-end extender. Some spot where a Wi-Fi signal might be an occasional bonus (a porch or patio) could be served with a more affordable extender.

5. Change the channel

Wi-Fi is not magic – it’s radio. Wireless routers come with 11 channels on that 2.4 GHz wave, much like channels on an old-fashioned TV. But most Wi-Fi devices default to Channel 6.

That means you and your neighbors may be clogging one narrow space of the radio spectrum. (Not to mention other 2.4 GHZ gear in your home!)

Why not switch channels? Some experts suggest channels 3 or 9; others 1 or 11. Check your router manufacturer’s website or manual to see how it’s done. In many cases, it should be a minor trial-and-error tweak of router settings.

6. Learn if your router is too old for what you need

Wi-Fi is radio science that’s technically dubbed “802.11” with a letter suffix informing you of the generational improvements. Each new generational standard has brought greater Wi-Fi performance. Here’s how you can check your specifications:

▪  802.11 “a” or “b” – You’ve got 1999 tech. Signal range is maybe 140 feet. Speed is literally one-thousandth of today’s high-end signal. It’s good for little more than Web surfing.

▪ “g” – It’s 2003’s smarts with a similar range but more data throughput (that’s how much data can be moved). It added music streaming to Wi-Fi.

▪ “n” – In 2009, this technology doubled range, expanded throughput and permitted twin radio bands. It allowed video streaming to work.

▪ “ac” – 2013’s version added even more power, plus the ability to customize signals so devices can get user-prioritized Wi-Fi signals.

▪  “MU-MIMO” – Don’t ask why 2015’s improvements get even dumber lingo. When this standard is in both routers and Wi-Fi-enabled devices, it creates automated, prioritized sharing of the signal.