By Timothy Liao
So many people have asked me about WiFi and why their wireless network is so spotty that I got tired answering everyone’s question and decided to just write a little blog about how WiFi works. I went looking on the Internet for a good way to explain to the average person, but couldn’t find a good up-to-date website that fully explained the differences and all the factors that go into what makes WiFi successfully and often unsuccessfully work.
The first thing you have to understand is WiFi is not perfect. There are way too many variables that come into play to always have the best WiFi conditions. For instance, if you have bought the most recent iteration of WiFi called Wireless “N” that is capable of giving you WiFi speeds up to 300mpbs, you can’t have that speed unless all your devices on that network have a chip inside that is capable of receiving the Wireless “N” signal. What happens if just one of your devices doesn’t have that chip? Well, two things can happen. If you are like me and you make your router only Wireless “N” compatible, that device without the Wireless “N” chip built in will not work. If you must have a device that has no Wireless “N” chip built in still work, then all your other devices on the network will be knocked down to the speed of the lowest common denominator device which in most cases is the Wireless “G”. That means if you have four devices in your house, two computers, one iPad, and a cell phone and three of those devices have the Wireless “N” chip installed, while one of the computers has no Wireless “N” chip but instead a Wireless “G” installed, you will only get as much speed on your network as the Wireless “G” device will give you. Not fair, well don’t blame me, I have no control over the laws of physics. See that is an example of how complicated the variables are to get the fastest and most consistent WiFi possible.
Here is another example of how complicated WiFi is – the variable of frequency has nothing to do with speed. So whether you are on the 2.4GHZ or the higher 5.0GHZ band, you are almost guaranteed to the get the same speed. Now what are the advantages of using 5.0GHZ spectrum as opposed to the 2.4GHZ? Well that has to do interference. By going 5.0GHZ you are bypassing the possible interference you most likely will get with cordless phones, cell phones, and appliances such as the microwave. So when I was using the 2.4GHZ spectrum for my old Wifi device, I often suffered spotty coverage especially when the microwave oven or dryer was on. OK so let’s say you go 5.0GHZ bypassing the issues you had with interference. Guess what, you now find yourself struggling with radius issue. Yes, even though 5.0GHZ is more powerful and can be interference free, you now have a problem with how large an area that higher frequency covers. Think of AM radio compared to FM radio. Even though FM Radio is more powerful than AM Radio, the FM signal covers much less of a area than AM Radio. So if you do have a router that allows the option of the 5.0GHZ frequency, be aware you are going to be covering a a smaller area in the house.
This is actually a very important distinction people need to understand. The bars that show signal strength does not equate to how fast your Wifi connection will be. Just like the bars on your cell phone will not necessarily equate to having faster network coverage (remember Apple Antenna Gate), the bars that show signal strength on your Mac or PC do not indicate how fast your network will be. So a 2.4GHZ network will give you more coverage area than 5.0GHZ coverage area but it has nothing to do with power or speed, remember the FM vs AM example.
Now back to something more basic, but yet just as confusing – the “A” “B” “G” “Pre N” and “N” factor. First off unless you have a computer from 2002 or using a PCMCIA card to access the Internet, let’s go ahead and not bother to explain “A” and “B”. Let’s also take out “Pre N” because most people probably never bought into the silliness and confusion of “Pre N” which was just a marketing ploy by the networking equipment manufacturers to sell equipment before Wireless “N” was certified and readied. Overwhelmingly most people still have “Wireless G” networks and those that have “Wireless N” are not running them at highest potential. Wireless “G” gives you 54MBPS while “Wireless N” has the potential of giving you 300MBPS, but remember what I said in the first paragraph, unless all the devices you are running have “Wireless N” chip built in, you are not going to come close to that speed. Note you can buy a Dual Band Router that will broadcast both a Wireless “G” and Wireless “N” signal without losing any speed but I find them rather inconsistent, unnecessarily complicated, and way too overpriced.
In conclusion, a decade since most Americans began to adopt wireless, it is still way too complicated and consistently frustrating. Even today, if it wasn’t for the expense and the effort of rewiring, I would still try to go with a ethernet cable in every room. It’s not a lost cause though, because it is getting closer with Wireless “N”. As more people phase out their Wireless “G” and replace them with Wireless “N” routers and get newer computers, tablets, and wireless devices that have Wireless “N” built in, then people will realize the potential of a more powerful, less complicated home networking solution. As long as they don’t give us another new WiFi standard soon to complicate our lives, we will be just fine.