Why Wi-Fi Sucks

Why is getting a decent wireless signal so hard?

 

Too many gadgets all competing for the same precious few radio channels.

Wireless gadgets are everywhere now. We have laptops, tablets, smartphones, streaming TVs, thermostats, baby monitors, security cameras, door bells that you can answer from anywhere, HUE and LIFX light bulbs, fans, and even coffee makers and refrigerators! And plenty more...

 

All those wireless gadgets must communicate on radio bands that are allocated for these types of devices. And there just isn't enough space allocated in the band plan.

Why is it so bad and what can be done?

Moar Power!

One solution that people turn to is buying ever larger, more powerful, more expensive wi-fi routers. But buying a $300 badass wi-fi router that looks like an alien spacecraft (see pic) often doesn't solve the problem and may even cause more problems.


Imagine yourself in a crowded restaurant or bar. How loud do you have to talk to be heard by the person standing or seated next to you? If you start speaking louder to overcome the din around you, well, everyone else will do the same thing. Pretty soon it's deafeningly loud and no one can understand a thing.

They have arrived!  Resistance is futile!

Collision Domain

Wireless internet devices (802.11 compliant) operate in a "collision domain". Say what? Unlike the restaurant mentioned above where everyone is loudly talking at once (and no one is understanding much of anything), wireless devices cannot do that. If two or more nearby wireless devices start transmitting on the same channel at the same time then a collision occurs and neither device is heard. If you've ever tried to tune-in a weak radio station in your car only for it to be jammed by another station, then you know what I mean.

Each colliding device then stops talking (transmitting) for a randomly chosen number of microseconds. The idea being that each device will choose a different random time so the likelihood that both will start retransmitting again at the exact same time is low. This works pretty well when there's only a few devices involved and traffic levels are low. (Traffic is data being transmitted)

But what happens when there's a lot of wireless devices and some of them are bandwidth pigs?

Crowded House and Aggressive Neighbors

As stated up top, people today have all manner of wireless gizmos in their homes. It's not unusual for homes to have a dozen or more wireless devices. And the same thing goes for all your neighbors as well. Ever see one or more of your neighbor's wi-fi network names on your laptop or smartphone? Of course you have -- we all have. Even though your wi-fi network and your neighbors' are separate and secure (that's what the wi-fi password does), they are still sharing the same radio channels. If you can see your neighbor's wi-fi router, then all his wireless gadgets are also within radio visibility as well. And vice-versa -- all of yours are within radio visibility to him. Depending on channel availability and signal strength, that means your devices and his devices cannot both talk at once, even on their own separate and isolated networks!

If you live in close quarters with your neighbors, such as an apartment building or condo, or even single family homes that are fairly close together (like most neighborhoods), then the effect above can be multiplied by far more than just two. It could be a dozen or more!

Now, factor in devices that are high-traffic like streaming video (Netflix, Youtube, etc.). Your streaming device could be receiving so much traffic that the rest of your network (including the offending device) is suffering as a result. Throwing in more power or buying higher speed bandwidth from your ISP isn't necessarily the answer, either.

And if all the foregoing wasn't bad enough, factor in devices that aren't intelligent and "wireless aware" (802.11 compliant) like your microwave oven or some cordless phone models. Now throw in multipath issues and signal absorption, etc. These are the intrinsic problems with wireless devices of all types.

No more RFI

The above should convince you that RFI (Radio Frequency Interference) is a thing. Hardwiring fixes that! Hardwiring always offers a superior connection and should be used whenever possible.

So what to do? There's several things to do here, each contributing to reducing environmental radio noise.

  • Hardwire your streaming TV or player appliance like Roku or Apple TV, period. If you do nothing else, just removing a streaming device from the wireless ecosystem will help.

  • Hardwire all stationary computers including towers, AIOs (All In Ones), and even laptops while they're being used at their main location such as a desk.

  • Hardwire your printers that have an Ethernet port.

  • Hardware all gaming consoles. This will reduce gaming lag as well.

  • Reduce or eliminate stupid IoT (See Internet of Things) gadgets from your home. Aside from reducing the wireless footprint, you'll eliminate some security vulnerabilities as well.

  • And for all that is good and holy, please don't buy wireless security cameras! Install only hard-wired cameras.

In short, reserve your precious wireless spectrum for smartphones and tablets.

Hardwiring

OK, I'm sold! But how do I hardwire my TV and main computer? Hardwire refers to running an Ethernet cable from your wireless router (there are ports on the back just for this) to your TV, main computer, whatever else. Yes, running cables is a PITA and may require some creative solutions. But I absolutely guarantee that you'll have a better streaming and internet browsing experience if you do this. And with fewer devices on your wireless network, those that remain will perform better as well.

For an office environment, it's an absolute no-brainer. Offices should be hard-wired, period.

Other Wireless Issues

Maybe you don't have a ton of wireless stuff. But perhaps your home is large and you just want a decent signal for your phone or tablet everywhere in your home. There are solutions that can reliably blanket your home with a good signal. Wireless signals are attenuated by many things in your home -- appliances, furniture, walls, distance, and floors (for a multi-level home).

For larger homes, e.g. greater than 2,500 sq/ft, especially if all on one floor (large footprint), it can be difficult getting a decent wireless signal to all areas, no matter how powerful the wi-fi router. There are several ways to accomplish this.

 

  • Hardwiring the device where possible, such as a streaming TV -- as discussed above, this is the gold standard.

  • Hardwiring additional wireless access points located in strategic locations within your home.

  • Ethernet over powerline transceivers, with optional additional wireless access points.

  • Wireless mesh system such as EERO, Orbi, Google Wifi, etc. These mesh systems aren't cheap, but they do work pretty well. I've installed several.

Every installation has its own peculiarities. Radio waves and transceivers are tricky and have lots of intrinsic issues. There's really no one-size-fits-all for solving wireless issues. I am often called to solve perplexing wi-fi issues and even I have problems fixing it sometimes.