WiFi where you need it: An introduction

Make your home work for you!

WiFi is the symbol of freedom and modernity, right? These days anything less than wire-less life feels very, very passé. Keeping aside the fact that some home devices perform better hard-wired, WiFi is fantastic... until you realize that your favorite space at home is WiFi-dead. No fun there: The sun room, where you spent so much time basking in the glory of our closest star, suddenly doesn't appear as cozy. Maybe if you sit at the very corner of the room and contort your body just right, you'll get a couple of bars. No hope for the sofa, though. Later on, you find yourself telling everyone with ears about your WiFi sorrows. With all good intentions, your get suggestions about a new monster wireless router, a magical repeater or the latest mesh system. And maybe you try all of them, without success. Even those recommendations that solved the WiFi problem at the Johnson's didn't solve your dead spot! Good WiFi where you need it is suddenly as elusive at the Loch Ness monster.

Why is this happening to me, you wonder?

Don't worry, you are not alone.WiFi, like any other type of wireless system can give you good service, and certain spots will need to be fixed understanding how wireless signals work in a particular context. In this post we'll start to explore a systematic approach to addressing WiFi issues... Nope, no magical answer for this one. There are two possible ways to address this:

  1. Learn the facts, and experiment. If you truly want to fix your WiFi and keep it working reliably, then you have to do your homework and learn from the basics up.
  2. Get someone to fix it for you. If you want it done quickly and have a guarantee that it will continue to work reliably, then call an expert... like IntegraHome! We offer a service that spares you reading the rest of this post and any of its potential follow-ups and allows you to continue surfing from the couch in the sun room without a problem!

If you are still with me, that means that you chose option 1, or want to be informed enough to select the right provider for the service. Congratulations! both of them are good reasons to continue reading. The first thing to determine if the the actual problem you have is your WiFi, or if the problem is your Internet Connection.  I've seen a lot of cases where people say "My WiFi, sucks" when they actually meant "My Internet Service is not as good at it should be".

Is my Internet Service the problem?

Well, in some cases it could be that your WiFi is working normally, and your Internet Service is slow. There are a few things that allow you to determine what's the problem:

  1. If regardless of the place you are in your home, you feel that loading a web page of listening to your favorite podcast is slow or stuttering (specially with video: You tube, Netflix, etc) this could be a sign that the Internet Service you are getting is not where you need it. First thing to do here is to review your contract with the provider. There are many providers, so I cannot help you on this particular topic, but I'm sure your ISP has a web portal where you can see the level of service you currently have. For example, if you are located in eastern Canada, and subscribe to Rogers, your portal will be similar to the one below. It shows that the subscriber's internet connection speed is 150 Mbits/s, with an unlimited download amount of data:
Sample ISP portal showing your service package

Of course, your speed and provider could be different. One thing that is important to consider is that the lower service packages are geared towards people who do light browsing, and do not play video on a regular basis. As a rule of thumb, you want to have:

  1. At least 3 Mbits/s per person for standard definition video,
  2. At least 5 Mbits/s per person for High definition video,
  3. At least 25 Mbits/s per person for 4K video.

In this way, if you have a family of 3, and you want everyone to be able to view 4K video, your internet package should be at least 75 Mbits/s, but you'll probably want to get the next speed tier up, to reduce the initial time to load the beginning of the video.  Anything less than that will not work for you, and everyone will have a bad experience when watching video simultaneously.

Let's suppose that you have the right Internet Service package, but you still find your video stuttering or not loading. The next thing to check is if you are actually getting the download/upload speed you signed up for. How do you check it? simple: go to www.speedtest.net and hit the big button that says GO! to check it. Have in mind that you should repeat the speed test several times at different times of the day over a few days before declaring that you are getting less than what you actually paid for. The small print on some contracts tell you that the speed you are accepting to pay is an average over several days.

In summary: If the net feels sluggish around your whole home, your WiFi may not be the culprit, check your Internet Connection first.

Ok, you did your test on a hardwired desktop, and you internet service is super. If this phrase applies to you, then we can talk about your WiFi... BUT, before we get deep into it,  you'll have to learn a few things first. Nerds like me, be warned: I'm going to take poetic license with some concepts to keep it brief, OK? Don't kill me if I'm not 100% exact. The intention here is to give our non-WiFi savvy friends a way to understand the magic behind the curtain, allowing them to troubleshoot the basic problems or get educated enough to find a good professional to fix it for them.

What is WiFi?

Well, we'll need a bit more than just the word "magic" to describe it... we're trying to understand how to fix it, right? I'll do my best to explain the basics without putting my propeller hat on... as much as I can. Here we go:

  • Let's start saying that WiFi is a group of technologies to transmit data wirelessly over short distances, using Radio Frequency (RF). I'm going to stress the short distance part here: it really means short, like less than 40 m (around 130 feet) short if you are inside a house. If you are outdoors, and if the weather is right, and you can see the access point from the tablet or laptop, you may be able to have decent communication up to 90 m (295-ish feet)  from the access point (the place where the WiFi signals come from and go to). If you want to have good WiFi at the very edge of your dock at the cottage, and it is far from the house, you'll probably need additional networking equipment to make it happen.
  • Radio Frequency is energy emitted from a Transmitter that quickly changes power level over a second (it oscillates) with a repeating pattern, called a wave; this energy can get absorbed or reflected, just like light is absorbed and reflected.
  • Frequency is how many waves per second are being produced, their unit of measurement is called Hertz (Hz). Wifi uses a number of distinct frequencies around around 2.4GHz and 5 GHz (the G before Hz indicates that the number needs to be multiplied by 1,000,000,000 to obtain the actual frequency... very fast indeed!).
  • A frequency dedicated for data transmission is normally called a Channel.
  • Channels are grouped into Bands. We have the 2.4 GHz band and the 5GHz band (with 11 and 45 channels respectively in North America).
  • The amount of energy emitted for a wave is called Transmit Power. WiFi has a transmit power of 100 milliwatts (1 milliwatt is 1/1000 of a watt). This is a small amount... and we want it that way so that we don't get cooked by it. For comparison, a typical microwave oven outputs around 1000 watts for a minute to heat up last night's roast beef.
  • As an RF signal travels, its energy level decreases. This is commonly called Path Loss. There are many factors that are involved in Path Loss, among them we can mention air humidity (yep, more humid results in greater loss) and medium changes. In a typical interior wall, the signal goes from air to drywall to wood to air to wood to drywall and then back to air. Some of the RF energy get reflected by materials in its path (this is true for a number of metals, and metal coated objects, like mirrors). The inside of your house will most likely walls made of materials with different levels of loss and reflectivity to RF, influenced by geographical location and age. Central and South American homes have solid brick walls with plaster on both sides, rebar on the sides of the wall and electrical wiring could be channeled using metal tubing, so they have greater loss. Older Canadian homes will probably have a wooden frame covered in wood slats, with a layer of plaster on top, which produces less Path Loss, but is higher than in newer homes. I've seen older homes with a metal mesh embedded in the plaster to make it more resistant. All these home building techniques have different losses, so it's not a good idea to think that RF will work the same in all. In addition to walls, homes have decorations, paint and paintings on walls, furniture and other things that produce different levels of loss and RF reflections.
  • When the RF signal reaches its destination, the sensitivity of the receiver indicates its ability to pick up an adequate level of the energy of the transmitted signal to do something with it. There are many ways to specify sensitivity, probably the most used one is signal-to-noise ratio (SNR), which indicates how strong noise (undesired signal) has to be to be confused with the actual signal that we want to receive. It is normally expressed in dB.

OK, that was something! I hope your head is not spinning now. We're done with the basic concepts, and we can start talking about the actual things that kill your WiFi. I call them the "WiFi enemies".

Enemy number one: Access Point (AP) location

You know what realtors say: Location, location, location! Yup, it's all about the location of the access point. Wait! I do not have an access point!. Well, while some of you may have a separate access point, it's very common in North America to get one bundled in a box that can go by many names: residential gateway, modem or sometimes router. It's very common for your ISP to bundle one with your internet subscription. This residential gateway is super convenient, as a single box provides you with quite a bit: an actual modem to connect to the ISP's network, a router, and Ethernet switch and an Access Point. Some ISPs throw other cool features such as print or DLNA servers. Without going into the same detail as this previous post, the biggest problem with these boxes is that they are normally installed close to the ISP demarcation point (this is the place where the ISP ends his responsibility for the service and cabling, and yours starts), which in many homes in the True North, is next to your main electrical panel, in the basement. Without any complicated explanation, the problem is that in order to reach the top floor of a 3 level home, the signal has to venture through the losses of a bunch of walls and at least a couple of floors, as well as carpets, furniture and other obstacles. By the time the WiFi signal reaches the farthest room, it is too faint to be used reliably.

The second enemy: Older gadgets

If you have kids between 15 to 25 years old, I'm sure you remember those baby monitors with the led bars that were so popular... Well, a good number of those are still around, and actively used. If your kids are younger, they could have been a gift from your older sibling when you had your kids... a heirloom of sorts. That gift, with all its good intention could be screaming at the top of its RF lungs at exactly the same frequencies your WiFi signal is trying to have a civilized conversation. The same is to be said about those old cordless phones (the ones that do not say DECT anywhere), and were probably given to you by the same person who gave you the vintage baby monitor...

The third enemy: The microwave oven

Hey, wait a second: don't we all have microwave ovens at home? Aren't they supposed to keep those microwaves inside? What does the oven have to do with my WiFi? simple: the microwave uses high power RF energy to excite the water molecules in food, making them to oscillate faster, heating up as a result. To a degree, it is normal for some energy to escape through the sides of the door. Not enough to burn anything, but enough to cause problems for your 2.4 GHz-based gadgets at least. Not all microwaves operate at 2.4 GHz, but some do, and could interfere. So, if you have intermittent Wifi problems, check if they coincide with little Tommy making popcorn.

The fourth enemy: Other ISM Band based devices

Another enemy? Boy, this WiFi guy has some, and then more! Yup. As a matter of fact, it has a multitude, all grouped in this category. The band at which WiFi operates (read the What is WiFi section to remember what a band is) is called the Industrial, Scientific and Medical (ISM) Band. When we're talking about using RF for a commercial product, there are Country and World level organizations (most prominently ITU) that regulate how certain bands are used. Country-level organizations are usually part of the federal government, and auction the exclusive or semi-exclusive use of a band. In Canada, the regulator depends on the Innovation, Science and Economic Development Department. You can check their web page here. Totally recommended for those days of insomnia. Anyway, the important thing here is that specific bands -they vary by region- were left open to be used without having to pay anything as long as manufacturers of devices using those bands followed a number of etiquette rules. A quick read about ISM is here. If you were curious enough and checked the link, the ISM bands allow a bajillion types of devices to use these bands... including -I'm sure you saw it coming- WIFI! Some of the biggest enemies here are old devices that reached the market years before Wifi, or are super-low tech gizmos that trade all civilized RF conversations for a cheap street price.

I hope you begin to see that WiFi has the same problem as a Friday gathering of friends at the local sports bar: it gets increasingly difficult to speak as more and more people pour into the place. Eventually people forget their manners and use their outdoor voice inside. People continue talking louder and louder in the hope of getting their message across, assuming that "he who talks the louder may be heard...". The same thing is happening in your neighborhood right now. The only difference is that all the talking is done with RF and your don't hear it, you just just feel the consequences. There is some serious screaming right now around you...

The WiFi survey.

OK. Now we know that WiFi has a bunch of enemies and that people become rude when in crowded bars. How do I fix my WiFi? What is this survey I've spoken about? Well, it's a report (whaaat?), yes, but a report with lots of useful information. The simplest survey you can get shows a representation of the how strong the WiFi signal is at a given point in your home (by overlaying the signal on top of your home's floor plan), similar to this:

A sample of a Home WiFi survey 

The image above is called a heat map and shows you a mathematical extrapolation of the WiFi signal based on a few measurements (the red pointy markers). Signals at the proper  power level will be in a shade of green. Signals that are too strong (red end) or too low (blue end) are not good, in particular those areas that get lower power (blue end). In this hypothetical home, the middle of the media room and the middle of the kitchen get thin acceptable levels of signal (the greenish parts), but they are in the lower end of the acceptable range. If you stand in between the kitchen and the media room, you enter a dead spot. That dead spot goes from the door at the left of the kitchen to the wine rack at the right of the two rooms. This particular home has its access point (AP) in the basement (given by the ISP, as part of  the residential gateway). This requires the WiFi signal to go through the floor of the ground level. The home has forced air heating; the air return ducts go in between the floor joists. The ducts are made of nice shiny metal and reflect the signal back to the basement, leaving a nice RF "shadow" on the ground floor...

The WiFi survey is your friend: it will not fail you. Depending on the sophistication of the tools used to create the WiFi survey, it will allow you to visualize things that were too abstract before.

OK. I can see the smoking gun now... How to do I make my WiFi work?

Well, as some say: there are many ways to skin a cat. Your lifestyle will help define what to do. Let's analyze two possible ways to fix this example home:

  1. Move the residential gateway to the ground floor. This will definitely allow getting more RF energy there, but at the same time it will create and RF "shadow" in the basement. If the basement is finished and people use it, then we will probably just be moving the WiFi issue to the basement. This solution requires to add cabling to put the residential gateway in its new location.
  2.  Install a mesh network with access points in both floors (we'll talk a bit more more about this in an upcoming post). This would be a better solution if the basement needs WiFi, provided that we could hard-wire the connection between the AP on the ground and the AP on the basement.

Which is the best solution? It depends on your lifestyle.

This is just an introduction to WiFi troubleshooting. In reality, your particular situation could be complicated by the other WiFi enemies you read about. In future posts we'll dig into each one and how to address different combination of  them. If you are interested in learning more about this, I recommend you to read this e-book, from Ekahau, a manufacturer of WiFi troubleshooting tools (they sell amazing WiFi debugging tools, but expensive for the regular homeowner). If you are beginning to like the idea of getting faster relief to your WiFi pains, just click here, and we'll get your WiFi diagnosed and fixed for you super quick.

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