Now that many of us are at home 24 hours a day as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, we've been giving our home networks a real workout. But are you using your networks and home broadband to their fullest potential? I've been working from home for 15 years: Here's how I got my wireless network running in top form.
If your ISP supplied you with a cable modem or a residential gateway five years ago or more, you might want to consider replacing the hardware. Wi-Fi standards have evolved considerably in the last several years, and your devices may support newer standards than your router/access point does. 802.11g (introduced in 2003) has a maximum transmission speed of 65Mbps and only supports a single antenna/transmitter with a 20Mhz total bandwidth. 802.11n (introduced in 2009) is a dual 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz standard, supporting 40Mhz and 80Mhz channels.
Depending on the capabilities of the client hardware communicating with them, the most recent 802.11ac and 802.11ax (Wi-Fi6) standards can transmit data using 160Mhz channels, using multiple beam-forming antennas, and transmitters (MU-MIMO). This is only possible using modern Wi-Fi chipsets supported by smartphones, tablets, and laptops introduced in the last three years.
Cable modem technologies have also improved, with DOCSIS 3.1 that can support 1Gbps transfer speeds due to multi-channel support -- so call your ISP and find out if that might improve your broadband speeds. An upgrade to a higher level of service may be necessary to support it.
2.4Ghz networks may be your only option for legacy devices that you cannot easily replace, such as low power IoT smart plugs and switches. However, using a combination of 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz networks are ideal for offloading channel congestion, especially if you live in a multi-family domicile like an apartment building when many SSIDs are being broadcast simultaneously.
If your device supports a 5Ghz band, be sure to use it, there's no benefit in using the older frequency band as it will have to compete with other 2.4Ghz devices on a very saturated frequency spectrum. However, keep in mind that 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz bands behave differently -- 2.4Ghz has longer range, and is slower, and does somewhat better moving through semi-permeable barriers such as sheetrock than 5Ghz does.
Place the access point in the best spot
While you may be tempted to hide your router or AP behind a piece of furniture or in a cabinet, don't do that -- it will affect its performance. Put them on top of a desk, or a TV stand, and out in the open. If possible, mount it as high as possible and in open areas, such as with a wall bracket.
Your broadband drop may be in the corner of your home, where the ISP dropped the fiber or coax, but that is not necessarily the best place in your home to broadcast a signal. If you have to run a long Ethernet cable from the cable modem or residential gateway to the AP where it best broadcasts signal, then do that -- long Cat5 cables can be ordered online and can be easily run in the attic or crawl space.
Connect the AP or router (in AP mode) using the spare Ethernet port on the ISP-supplied residential gateway/router. You might need to buy an inexpensive ethernet switch if you don't have enough ports.
If you don't have a power outlet for the AP where you are placing it, consider using Power over Ethernet (PoE) compatible APs. You will need to buy a PoE ethernet switch for those APs to plug into, which you can keep near the residential gateway/cable modem and other network equipment/devices.
Turn off the Wi-Fi radios on the old router and don't run double NAT
If you do buy a secondary router/AP to supplement your network be sure to turn off the 2.4GHz (and optionally, the 5Ghz) Wi-Fi radio on the residential gateway or your existing router because you don't need multiple 2.4Ghz networks broadcasting, it only adds to congestion.
If you cannot upgrade the residential gateway (because your ISP maintains it/won't replace it), consider buying a small business access point or a consumer wireless router that can be set to AP/Bridge (layer 2) mode. This is done with an app on your smartphone or the web user interfaces for the router or AP.
While many consumer routers can do this, such as products from Linksys and NetGear, not all of them can so be sure to read the manual online before you commit to that specific model. Do not, under any circumstances, run a secondary NAT (Network Address Translation -- another router) behind the original router, because that will cause many network connectivity and performance problems.
Make sure those cables are in good condition
Just because you got a free cable with some device ten years ago and it's been sitting in your giant spaghetti box of old junk you thought would come in handy someday doesn't mean you should use it. If the Cat-5 cable is old, worn, or shows any signs of chafing, replace it. Similarly, that coax cable and the connector that goes into your cable modem can cause reflection issues and RF noise if it is bent or damaged. If you see lousy cable broadband performance, have the tech come over and do a line test and get it replaced. I've experienced degraded signal from coax and fiberoptic cables that my provider buried in my lawn damaged by outdoor workers with lawnmowers and other equipment. It happens.
Consider adding gear that can help improve signal
Range extenders that you plug into the wall do work and can be a right and affordable solution for a lot of people, but be aware that some will cut your throughput in half based on radio arrangement in the device. In essence, they typically have to communicate with a choice of 5Ghz or 2.4Ghz backhaul to the main router.
Ethernet over Powerline adapters also plug into the wall and transmit a wired ethernet signal over your home's power. But depending on the age and complexity of your home's wiring and the distance between the outlet you are plugging it into and the outlet it has to communicate with (they work in pairs), you most likely will not see anywhere close to advertised transfer speeds of 200-400Mbps. You're likely to get closer to 100Mbps -- or less.
MoCA adapters, which use the coaxial connections in your home to provide cable television connectivity, can be an effective way to attach switches and Wi-Fi access points in different parts of your home, as they can deliver gigabit ethernet speeds, but they can be expensive. You will need a router or residential gateway that supports MoCA, or you will need to buy multiple adapters.
Mesh networking products are groups of access points that communicate with each other using multiple onboard Wi-Fi radios and are designed to intelligently hand-off and optimize connections to your devices throughout your home. These include Linksys Velop, Amazon's Eero, Google Nest Wi-Fi, and NetGear's Orbi.
In a mesh networking setup, a node is connected to the broadband device (such as a router, a residential gateway, or a cable modem), and additional nodes communicate with it wirelessly, forming a mesh network. While mesh networks can be highly effective, the nodes are just as subject to placement issues as any other Wi-Fi access point, and they work best when they are in each other's line of sight. If there are any obstructions, such as thick or multiple walls, they will lose connectivity or not function at all.
Use wired ethernet for your main work computer at your desk if possible
If you can physically connect your primary work computer to wired ethernet, direct to the router or switch, then, by all means, do that -- it will always be faster. It will always be the most reliable connection possible. If your laptop does not have an Ethernet port, such as one of the newer Macbooks or Microsoft Surface, consider purchasing a USB-C/Thunderbolt connector dock, which provides multiple ports, including Ethernet, USB-A, USB-C, and HDMI output for external monitors.
What have you done to optimize your home Wi-Fi network? Talk back and let me know.