Home Wi-Fi Basics
In my last article... Home Internet Service Basics... we discussed getting Internet to your home. Now, we'll chat about getting that Internet signal to the devices within your home via Wi-Fi. I feel the topic of quality Wi-Fi is often overlooked. So often I hear my $()!%#& Internet is slow again... where many times I've found the Internet signal is great, but the eight year old equipment is well beyond is practical life. In this article we'll chat about the following:
Some Technical Stuff
Channels & Congestion
Newer is Better
Your Internet Provider's Wi-Fi Equipment
Buying Your Own Equipment
What Should I Do?
What Does Dave Do?
A bit of light technical stuff first. Oh, and I'm focusing on Wi-Fi just in the USA. Most Internet-enabled devices no longer connect via hard-wired (Ethernet) connections, thereby requiring Wi-Fi. Ethernet, while still important is generally a thing of the past for connecting devices outside the world of business, power users, and gamers. Wi-Fi is actually a certification / standard governed by the Wi-Fi Alliance, created among other things to ensure interoperability among the millions of devices from thousands of manufacturers. Wi-Fi is transmitted via RF (radio frequency), just like many other things including your old school radio or over-the-air TV signal.
Without diving deep, there are various iterations of Wi-Fi noted by their (IEEE) spec, such as; 802.11 ac (aka Wi-Fi 5), 802.11ax [v1] (aka Wi-Fi 6), and the newest 802.11ax (aka Wi-Fi 6E). Each Wi-Fi spec is paired to frequency bands. Wi-Fi has generally operated at 2.4GHz (older) and 5 GHz (recent), but the newest 6E spec operates at 6 GHz allowing more channel options for speed and capacity. Why is that important, well glad you asked, and well touch on that shortly.
Lets first have some "tech chat" on basic equipment terminology. You often hear the terms "router", "access point", "bridge", etc., to describe the device that provides your Wi-Fi. Well, they're all actually quite different, but that shouldn't matter to you. Just remember that you only need (and generally should only have) just one router on hour home network. Another term is mesh networking. There's a lot more to "mesh", but you can think about it as simply adding more Wi-Fi devices to your home that are all linked together to provide better coverage throughout your home. Now, don't go crazy and buy more devices than you need as it can have an opposite affect and slow you down. Why? That's next.
Ok, on to congestion... no not that covid stuff, but home network congestion. Wi-Fi uses channels (typically 20 MHz) to move data. Think of Wi-Fi channels like lanes on a freeway. Wi-Fi devices operating at 2.4 GHz only have three (3) non-overlapping channels (i.e. lanes)... yep just three... ouch huh! And that doesn't account for all the other 2.4 GHz devices out there like cordless phones, microwaves, toys, speakers, etc.. that can interfere with Wi-Fi signals. Newer 5 GHz devices allow for nine (9) non-overlapping channels (i.e. lanes). However, the newest spec Wi-Fi 6E at 6 GHz allows for at least 59 non-overlapping channels... yes 59... that's a lot of F'n lanes on the freeway!
Obviously, when two cars try traveling in the same lane together at same exact point you get an accident. Even without accidents, too many cars in one lane slows things way down. Also keep in mind modern devices can utilize multiple channels (if available) for different devices in your house to improve speed, such as one channel for a TV streaming and a different channel for a gamer doing some gaming. Additionally, modern devices can do a good job managing priority when you have a bunch of devices running on the same channel.
So, why all this talk about channels... well, imagine you live in an apartment block where your you and your 20+ neighbors are all on older 2.4 GHz devices sharing just three non-overlapping channels. Yikes... that's like the 110 at 5pm (for my LA peeps). Now, if everyone had Wi-Fi 6E devices, you'd likely have enough for 2+ channels per unit... living it up in fat city. So when I noted earlier about too many devices being bad, the same principal applies... if you have multiple Wi-Fi routers all operating on the same 2.4 GHz channels, they might be just stepping all over each other's signals competing for available channel space, thereby creating collisions and other issues to degrade your connection / speed.
Newer is almost always faster, safer, and better. As you can imagine, Wi-Fi tech gets better every year, and so do the devices that provide it. Plus, as required by the Wi-Fi Alliance, most quality devices are backwards compatible with your stuff... an important fact you should always check and verify before upgrading. Additionally, newer devices provide the latest security protocols. I won't go down a rabbit hole, but if you're still running WEP and not at least WPA2-AES... then please evaluate your digital security life... but I'm guessing your passwords are still all "abc123" or written on a card in your wallet. Also, funny I guess, but it always kills me to see a house full of cool OLED TV's, Apple HomePods, new iPhones, but a dusty five year old Wi-Fi system. Weird to me that it's acceptable to pay $1,000 for a new phone, but not $200 every couple years or an extra $25/month for a new Wi-Fi device. Anyways, I digress... apologies.
So, what about the Wi-Fi device from an Internet Service Provider (ISP). It's not uncommon for most ISPs to offer a combination device (brings in signal and serves up Wi-Fi), and generally a solid option for most assuming some boxes are ticked. History has proven to us that in the early days of Wi-Fi, ISP provided devices often sucked... slow, error prone, easy to hack, and not to mention ugly. These days, they can be quite good and well worth the small monthly fee charged by your ISP. Plus, sometimes all the equipment needed is in one simple device and there's nothing for you to maintain. My ISP even provides a mesh system... how about that. A few key points though. You want to make sure it's not older than that can of Tomato Soup in the back of your cupboard. Also, make sure it supports modern signaling... at least Wi-Fi 5 (5 GHz / 802.11ac) via multiple simultaneous channels. Lastly, be sure the device(s) have enough signal strength to cover your home, which is typically easy to find on the packaging or spec sheet.
As an aside... do note that the marketing teams for Wi-Fi device manufactures often ensure the best possible scenario regarding the device's speed and range appear on the packaging, spec sheets, etc.. I've found most real-world home situations don't experience the exact specs represented on the package. Over time, I've learned to manage such expectations for my own situation by reducing capability by about 30%. Actual results may vary. 😉
After reading this, you've decided... I can do this... then pull up your big boy/girl pants and get ready to manage your own Wi-Fi device. Again, if your ISP has good equipment at the right value, that's often the way to go. If you do go at it, I always recommend having the ISP provide the interface device (i.e. modem / bridge / gateway) that brings the Internet into your home. You can manage your own ISP interface device, but I won't get into that as personally I think it's a less than optimal practice and don't do it. If your Internet goes down and the ISP provides the interface device, you can at least plug into it (yes via Ethernet - Cat 6 cable) and test from there to prove it's either your equipment or their device / network. Oh, just be sure to have a USB to Ethernet Adapter if your PC doesn't have an Ethernet Jack. Otherwise, unless you are very IT savvy, how do you know which piece is having trouble? Hmmm.
If you do end up managing your own Wi-Fi device, be sure to verify the Wi-Fi signaling coming from the ISP device (if has capability) is disabled. As you've learned, you don't want a bunch of competing channels. Also, you may recall a comment on having only one router (in the chain). Well, if the ISP device is doing routing, and your Wi-Fi device is doing routing then you're creating extra route hops that cause network latency. It'll likely work, and you may not even notice, but it's not a good situation. You'd need to configure one of the devices to not operate in routing mode... which along with routing, hops, and latency issue are all too technical for this particular discussion.
So, what should you do? Well, I'm not going to tell you. Helpful huh! I actually don't give blanket IT advice, like what equipment to buy, as there's always too many unknowns and prerequisites to make informed decisions. Those that do, often do such as they get paid via some affiliate agreement with the reseller to promote stuff. Plus, it'd just be bad advice without first surveying your home network. I will encourage you... as noted multiple times... to consider your ISP for Wi-Fi if there stuff is decent and a reasonable value for you. So, if not going the ISP route... just do your homework, get a good Kindle book, and make the best practical and informed decision. You can always hire someone to do it for you... maybe even that lazy Millennial who spent over a $100K on his fancy BS degree in Computer Science but is too lazy to work and moved back in with his parents next door. 😁 Sorry, can't help myself when it comes to Millennial digs.
What do I do? As noted, I go by my own advice and my ISP provides the interface device, which has been great since they've had many failures lately and it's been 100% clear who's at fault. Because I'm a seasoned IT veteran, I provide my own Wi-Fi device. In the past I've used high-end gaming routers, but recently switched to the Google Nest system. Yes... big brother Alphabet sees all my traffic. Obviously, I spent time looking around at the smorgasbord of solid options from players like Eero, Orbi, Nighthawk, etc.., but I personally felt the Google Nest fit my needs best.
Well, that's it for now. Again, like the previous post, I hope you found this interesting. If not, also like last time... sorry you can't get your time back... that's on you! 😁 Always feel free to e-mail me comments. You can find my info on the "Team" Page.
DISCLAIMER: I'm just a guy who's been around tech and knows some stuff. I always remind others that what I say is purely FWIW, IMO, FFT, FYI, and many other acronyms... so while I strive to convey quality deets... you get no promises on accuracy or validity. I'm sure a lawyer would say; information not guaranteed, actual results may vary, and use at your own risk.