Business

7 STEPS TO IMPROVE THE RANGE OF YOUR WIFI SIGNAL

Posted January 3, 2018 4:58 p.m. EST

Techburger One of the joys of having a WiFi network at home is that you can access the internet from anywhere in your house. But joy quickly turns to frustration, disappointment and bitterness when you discover those spots in your house where your router's signal doesn't reach.

Fortunately, you need not live a life of quiet despair. There are several things you can do to get right with your WiFi, and the simplest ones won't cost you a dime.

Here are seven steps to improve the range of your WiFi signal, and the first four of them are free.

1. Update the firmware.

Just like any other high-tech device, your home network's router - the device that connects to your provider's cable or DSL modem - has software that can be updated. Doing so sometimes can improve its range, and also fixes bugs and security flaws that hackers can exploit.

If you own the router, chances are it doesn't auto-update, and you should periodically check for new versions of the software inside it, typically referred to as firmware. Check the manufacturer's website for an online copy of the manual for your model that will tell you how to get into the settings and update the firmware.

If you are using a router supplied by your cable or telephone company, you're going to have to check in with them to see if the firmware has been updated recently. Make a phone call or use the support-page web chat to ask if your model has the latest software. If not, ask them to upgrade it for you, which should take only a few minutes.

2. Change the frequency

Most modern routers have at least two radios in them that allow devices to connect on two different bands: 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. The former has been used a long time for WiFi as well as other electronics, such as baby monitors or garage-door openers. The latter, more recently available frequency is not as prone to interference.

The 2.4 GHz signal has a greater range, but data doesn't travel over it as fast as 5 GHz, which has a shorter range. If you're streaming video to a traditional computer, smartphone or over-the-top TV box like a Roku or Apple TV, you'll want to connect those devices to the 5 GHz signal. If you're trying to surf the web or check your email from your hammock in the backyard, the 2.4 GHz signal is your best bet.

But it may not be a simple matter of connecting your device to the right signal. Many routers hide the fact that there are two different frequencies, showing you just one signal name (SSID). The router then makes a decision as to which signal, 2.4 or 5 GHz, should be used with your device if it supports both.

I would suggest changing the settings in your router to show the two different frequencies. Again, the manual you find at the support site for the router's manufacturer can show you how to do this. Give the 2.4 and 5 GHz frequencies separate names. That way, you can connect to the 2.4 GHz signal when you're in a more distant part of your home, and 5 GHz when you're near the router and need to do some digital heavy lifting.

3. Change the channel

The 2.4 GHz frequency is further split into multiple channels, 1 through 11. You can reduce the chance of interference by changing your router's 2.4 GHz settings to a less-crowded channel. But how do you figure out which channels are least in use?

If you've got an Android phone or tablet, install the free WiFi Analyzer app from the Google Play Store. It can give you lots of details about the WiFi networks around you, including what channels they're on.

Unfortunately, there's no equivalent for iPhones or iPads, but you can use the free version of NetSpot (netspotapp.com), which works on either Windows or macOS, to figure out what WiFi networks are using which 2.4 GHz channels around you. Then, set your router's channel to the one that's used least.

One caveat: Many newer routers are able to do this for you. They look at the WiFi landscape and see what 2.4 GHz networks are around, then auto-adjust on the fly. If the other steps listed in this story work for you first, there's no need to fiddle with the channel setting, particularly if your router is new. There may also be less of a need to do this if you are not close enough to your neighbors to pick up their WiFi signals.

4. Relocate your router

Sometimes, the simple act of moving your router can make a big difference. That's because router signals are transmitted in the shape of a bubble. The signal goes out in all directions and can be blocked in a variety of ways.

The best place for a router is in the center of your home. For example, if you live in a three-story townhome, it's best to place the router on the second floor, in as central a spot as possible. In a two-story home, place it up high on the first floor, such as atop a bookshelf.

You should also keep it away from objects that might block the signal. Metal is a killer for WiFi signals, so you might not want to keep it, say, behind a filing cabinet or on a bookshelf surrounded by metal objects.

If you are in an older home with genuine plaster walls that include metal mesh binding, or thick brick walls, then you have a tough challenge. The walls themselves are going to prevent WiFi signals from passing through them. In that case, you'll want to take the next step.

5. Buy a range extender

This is the first rung on the ladder that will cost you some money. But if all else fails, it's the logical next step.

A range extender is like having a second router in your house. Place it where the signal is weak but still usable, and it will grab the signal and re-amplify it. Location here is key, as the extender needs to get enough signal to then output a quality signal of its own. Some types will connect to a router via Ethernet cable, but this requires your house to have Ethernet connections leading back to the router. Most houses don't.

Range extenders typically run $50 to $150. The New York Times site The Wirecutter (TheWirecutter.com) has a couple of recommendations.

6. Upgrade your router

If you have a router that is more than, say, 5 years old, you may want to consider replacing it. Newer wireless routers are much more powerful, with greater range, and often an upgrade will provide the fix you need.

The current mainstream WiFi standard is 802.11ac. If you have anything older than that (the previous standard was 802.11n, preceded by 802.11g), you should consider upgrading if you have issues regarding range or reliably streaming video.

Newer routers have features that will put your older model to shame. They can, for example, direct multiple signal streams at a device that needs more speed, and they are better at sorting out which devices should be on the 2.4 or 5 GHz frequencies. They also contain faster processors, so they are better at handling multiple devices connecting simultaneously.

I'll again refer you to The Wirecutter for some solid recommendations of which router to buy. Expect to pay $100 to $200 for a decent router.

7. Switch to mesh networking

If a router upgrade doesn't cut it, the ultimate step is to move to what's called mesh networking. This involves buying a specialized router and one or more matched satellite units - basically, a router that comes with its own extenders.

Setting up a mesh network is relatively simple: install the router, then place the one or more satellites in strategic areas around the house. Devices moving from one part of the house to the other connect from the router to the satellites seamlessly.

The biggest downside: Mesh networking kits can be expensive. For most people, they are overkill, and you can get by with a decent standalone router. But if you've got a rambling home, or one with plaster or very thick walls, mesh networking is the way to go.

Once again, The Wirecutter has some recommendations. And expect to pay between $250 and close to $400, depending on the model and the number of satellites you need.