Going AC: A wireless upgrade that was well worth making

It's a wireless arms race in the crowded spectrum of London. Time to bring on the latest technology!

One thing about having a home office in a typically dense inner-London suburb is just how many conflicting wi-fi access points you'll find.

Not only are there multiple access points in each home, but many of them are using operator-provided routers that run a second SSID on a different channel in order to give subscribers roaming access. It's a great idea, but one that makes it hard for anyone planning a network - as those operator routers tend to automatically seek specific channels.

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Then there's the additional problems that come from living in streets lined with homes built from London brick, as its high mica content means it plays havoc with RF propagation.

All those operator-branded home hubs? They're now not only camping on the frequencies that have the best propagation, they're broadcasting at the highest possible power. And that's before we add in the wi-fi streaming sticks connected to most TVs, the Chromecasts, the Fire TV Sticks, and any of the Roku devices, all of which have their own wi-fi SSIDs.

Currently, using the free WifiInfoView diagnostic tool (see screenshot below), from my office at the back of the house I can see 31 different wi-fi SSIDs.

Most are from the three main consumer internet providers here in London - BT, Sky, and Virgin Media - and most of the BT routers are broadcasting FON SSIDs along with their users' home connections.

Others are people's mobile hotspots or their own network hardware, along with wireless mesh sound systems and wi-fi security cameras.

WifiInfoView shows just what's using spectrum around you, helping you pick the channels to use to avoid interference. Image: Simon Bisson

A tool like WifiInfoView is going to be useful for anyone setting up a new wireless network, or tuning an existing system. Devices like the Netgear 802.11ac routers I've been using give you access to advanced configuration dialogs that allow you to pick the wi-fi channel you want to use, letting you run your APs in quieter parts of the wi-fi spectrum, and giving you much more bandwidth as you're not contending with your neighbours.

You'll find similar apps on Android (iOS and Windows Phone sadly don't give you the same level of access to the low level wireless stack), giving you the opportunity to use your phone as a wireless network planning device - showing you just how your wireless network covers your home, as well as pointing out possible points of interference with other wireless devices.

As part of a recent set of network upgrades, I've been swapping out my older access points for newer devices that use the faster, and still not widely adopted, 801.11ac standard. Most of the access points in my street are still using 2.4GHz 802.11n and 802.11g connections (as 5GHz signals don't propagate as far as 2.4GHz, they're going to be less of a problem, and less likely to be detected by my diagnostic software). While my inclination is to switch to just 5GHz networking, it turns out that low cost tablets tend only to use 2.4GHz connections, making it essential to keep older 802.11 protocols running.

Currently I'm using a set of Netgear routers and extenders, all running as access points, dividing the house into three zones with each access point hooked off an Ethernet segment running from the main office switch. In the office I've got a black (and rather science-fictional looking) R8000 (pictured below), while in the main living room I'm using its predecessor, the R6300. As the back of the house and roof terrace get less usage, they're all being handled by a single EX7000.

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The Nighthawk WiFi router: with 6 antenna it looks like it's come out of a special effects workshop. Image: Netgear

The R8000 is a hefty beast, and one of the fastest wireless routers I've used. Its six antenna mean it's capable of not just supporting 2.4GHz and 5GHz devices - it's also able to deliver dual 5GHz signals as well as support the latest beam-forming techniques to give your devices the best possible performance. Its black, spidery form is reminiscent of the Shadow spacecraft from Babylon 5, so it's good to see its white LEDs flickering to show that you're connected. There's a lot of horsepower under the hood, and it's not stretched when downloading new builds of Windows 10 or upgrading Mac OS X.

It's neatly paired with the similarly designed EX7000. I initially used it as a wireless extender, rebroadcasting signals from the R8000. However the shape of the house (and its brick walls) made it easier to switch the EX7000 to access point mode, and hook it up to an Ethernet connection. It's got a much simpler UI than the R8000, which makes sense for a device that's meant to be a plug-and-play wireless extender. However, it's less useful when using it as an access point, and you can't tune the same range of settings as you would in a wireless router.

The R6300 is a workhorse router that as well as handling wireless duties, acts as a gigabit Ethernet switch for a set of media devices.

One thing I tried was giving all the access points in the house the same names - one for 2.4GHz devices and one for 5GHz.

Theoretically it would have allowed devices to roam to the strongest signal, without having to configure separate networks for each access point and manually switch when I change zone. In practice, however, devices maintained affinity to one access point, and didn't roam as expected. I've ended up going back to three zones, named by where in the house they cover. Yes, it means manually selecting connections, but it also means you get the best signal possible.

The result of the upgrade has been a smoother wireless experience. No matter which room I'm in, there's a fast 5GHz connection and by taking advantage of 802.11ac, there's also much less interference with other neighbourhood networks - giving me the ability to stream content throughout the house as well as access cloud-hosted files quickly and easily.

Keeping a wireless network up to date makes a lot of sense. Standards keep evolving, and newer technologies solve problems that would have been insurmountable with the original 802.11b kit. With three APs, I've got seamless coverage in house that's not wireless-friendly, and in a very noisy wireless area to boot. It's an upgrade that was well worth making.

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