There are some simple things you can do, and, while some of the more complicated suggestions may sound a bit techie, they’re not that hard, writes Scott Bartley

When it comes to the internet, nobody likes to hear the word ‘bottleneck’. However, as internet connections become faster, thanks to the Ultra Fast Broadband roll out, creaky home networks are suddenly being exposed as frauds. They find themselves unable to shift data around the home as fast as it comes down the line. While there’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution to wringing the best possible speed out of a home network, there’s plenty that can be done to smooth the path.

Find the perfect home for the router

A typical home network will likely consist solely of a single, ISP-supplied Wi-Fi router. This set up will often do the job, but in a data-heavy modern home its ability to broadcast a decent signal to every room will be limited. More so if it’s been plunked down next to the nearest convenient power socket or next to the phone jack, or ONT (Optical Network Terminal) without a care in the world. Positioning the router is a crucial first step, so let’s start here.

Placing the router centrally in the home is best for maximum Wi-Fi coverage. Because Wi-Fi works best with a direct line of sight between the router and the device, look for a high spot with as few obstructions as possible.

However, because of the vagaries of house design, be prepared to think outside the box when placing the router.

Consider how the internet is going to be used. Is Netflix the main source of video entertainment? Are there any gamers in the house playing online? What about streaming music? And, will the network be extended?

If it’s likely the majority of bandwidth-critical activities (such as streaming video and online gaming) are going to take place in front of the television in the lounge, it’s worth favouring

 

 

 

this location at the expense of more far flung corners of the house. Position the router closer to these devices, depending on individual priorities.

In fact, if at all possible, ditch the Wi-Fi altogether for static devices like televisions and game consoles and use an Ethernet cable. Not only will this provide a faster, more reliable connection, it will free up valuable Wi-Fi bandwidth for mobile devices.

Fine-tune the WiFi

With the router optimally positioned and a few mission-critical devices hardwired in, it’s time to fine-tune the Wi-Fi.

When it comes to Wi-Fi, line of sight matters. The fewer obstacles between the router and the device being used, the more reliable the network will be. With this in mind, try to remove as many obstacles as possible. This includes avoiding having large appliances such as a fridge between the router and the device – fridges are amazingly good at blocking Wi-Fi signals. 

Walls are another obvious culprit. Sadly, they tend to be more difficult to move, so, instead, consider the material the walls are made from. For instance, wooden walls will degrade a Wi-Fi signal less than concrete or brick. If there’s a choice between having concrete or wood between the router and the device, choose the path of least resistance.

WiFi networks - a single WiFi router is enough for most small homes. In larger buildings WiFi range extenders expand their coverage

 

 

Reduce radio interference

Wi-Fi is radio. This means it’s susceptible to interference from other radio sources. Cordless phones, microwave ovens and baby monitors can all affect performance – never place a router near any such appliance. There is nothing worse than a Wi-Fi drop-out because someone decided to cook some two-minute noodles.

Some interference is going to be unavoidable. For people living in apartment buildings or even a compact city suburb, the neighbour’s Wi-Fi signal will be flooding the local airspace. Short of sabotage, there’s not much that can be done about this, but it is possible to mitigate the damage somewhat by changing the Wi-Fi channel settings in the router.

In the settings of any Wi-Fi router is a ‘channel selection’ box. Often this is set to ‘auto’, but the channels can be selected manually if needed.

Before doing this, it’s necessary to find which channels are least congested. Use an app such as WiFi Analyzer (Android) or WiFi Info View (Windows) to see potentially interfering networks and the channels they’re using. Then set the router to the least busy channel.

Extending the WiFi network

If no amount of fine-tuning can fill in the dead spots or patchy coverage, or the house is simply too vast for a single router to adequately cover it with Wi-Fi, it’s time to

 

 

 

 

 

 

extend the network using small repeaters called Wi-Fi extenders. 

Extenders come in a variety of guises. Some extenders rely on being within range of the main router’s Wi-Fi so that it can rebroadcast the signal. Others use an Ethernet cable to be run between the router and the extender. The cable is a pain, but having proper Ethernet backhaul like this creates a much more robust network. 

A third variety are powerline extenders. These are an excellent option as they use a home’s network of power cables as backhaul instead of Ethernet – this means each and every power socket in the house becomes a potential Wi-Fi hotspot. It sounds a bit dodgy, but powerline adaptors are reliable, fast and perfectly safe. 

For a DIY flavour, dig out an old Wi-Fi router and turn it into an extender – there are plenty of tutorials online that demonstrate how to do this.

Mesh networks

While extenders do a great job, they can be tricky to manage as each extender is effectively creating a new Wi-Fi network, usually requiring users to manually switch between them as they walk around their home in order to get the best reception. Mesh networks operate almost identically except they pack some extra smarts to provide a ‘smart hand off’ as people move around the home. A proper Mesh network will appear as single, seamless Wi-Fi network. 

Mesh networks

While extenders do a great job, they can be tricky to manage as each extender is effectively creating a new Wi-Fi network, usually requiring users to manually switch between them as they walk around their home in order to get the best reception. Mesh networks operate almost identically except they pack some extra smarts to provide a ‘smart hand off’ as people move around the home. A proper Mesh network will appear as single, seamless Wi-Fi network. 

WiFi security

With all of this done, the Wi-Fi is likely going to be going as well as it possibly can and it’s time to think about security.

Because broadcasting an internet connection over Wi-Fi leaves it inherently vulnerable to attacks, locking it down nice and tight is vital. 

WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access) is the current standard for securing a Wi-Fi network and has been for a number of years now. As ever, the crooks never stand still and security standards must evolve to remain relevant. Later this year, WPA3 will begin appearing in new Wi-Fi equipment, offering further protection. Keep an eye out for devices supporting the new standards and choose one that does when possible.

Choosing a router

All modern Wi-Fi routers will tout ‘dual-band’ or ‘tri-band’ capabilities

 

2.4GHz devices will work with (the unhelpfully named) 802.11b/g/n devices. 5GHz generally appears on newer devices supporting 802.11a/n/ac.

 What’s the difference? Generally speaking, the 2.4GHz band offers better range as it’s more adept at penetrating walls. Expect theoretical maximum throughput speeds of around 450Mbps to 600Mbps from a 2.4GHz device. 

5GHz offers wider bandwidth, allowing more devices to connect at once without interfering with each other, and better speeds of up to 1300Mbps. The downside is 5GHz isn’t as good at pushing signals through walls, so range is reduced.

Tri-band routers cost more because they have a second 5GHz radio installed that can usually transmit simultaneously, making more bandwidth available that devices can connect to. Tri-band routers will often tout blazingly fast top speeds of 2600Mbps by adding together the top speeds of both 5GHz radios. Be wary of such speed claims, these are best case scenarios and not likely to be seen in real world use.

The upshot to all this is 5GHz is best for demanding use like 4K video, but has less range, whereas 2.4GHz will be fine for most other uses.

This year will see the introduction of the latest version of Wi-Fi, called 802.11ax, which promises to be significantly faster with less congestion, while also using less energy.

The standard is currently in the final stages of ratification, so watch out for new routers and devices that offer support for this in the near future.

Lock it down

Six basic tips to lock down a home network

 

1          Change the default SSID (name) of the network (avoid using personal details) 

2          Set a strong WPA2 password

3          Change the default administrator user name and the password of the router 

4          Disable remote access 

5          Keep the router’s software up to date  

6          Consider turning the router off completely if away for long periods of time and you have no internet-connected security devices (such as cameras)