Ways to improve Wi-Fi connections
by Alan Zisman (c) 2010
published in Business in Vancouver date December 14-20, 2010 issue
#1103 High Tech
Over the past decade, availability of Wi-Fi wireless Internet
connectivity has grown hand in hand with increased use of laptops,
spreading from homes to cafés to hotels, airports, meeting rooms and
Despite its near ubiquity, though, Wi-Fi – the semi-official nickname
for a group of wireless technologies officially known as 802.11 – is
not without problems. For a start, it’s not as reliable as connecting
with a cable plugged into a wired Ethernet network. (Hint – if your
home or small office wireless network has stopped working, unplug the
router, count to 10, then plug it in again. Wait a moment for all the
lights to come on. Repeat as needed.)
Nor is it as fast.
And many users find that coverage is not as good as they had hoped.
Promised range is claimed as about 150 feet – say 45 metres.
But you’ll rarely get that. Walls and corners reduce it, as do building
materials – steel beams are worse than wood-frame construction. Range
will be greater horizontally than vertically. Moving your router to the
centre of the space can help, but this is not always possible.
Then there’s interference. In my living room my laptop picks up six
nearby Wi-Fi networks. Wireless landline phones and even microwave
ovens transmit on the same 2.4-gigahertz band and can add to signal
problems. Like a TV, Wi-Fi routers operate on specific channels;
changing the channel on your router can reduce interference from
neighbouring systems. (Hint – many routers default to channel 6.)
Some older router models – and some Wi-Fi adaptors for laptops or
desktops – let you add a high-gain antenna. This can dramatically
improve connectivity, but is less common on more recent models.
Following a recent move, I found myself with wireless connectivity in
the back of the house only, with virtually no signal upstairs or in the
front of the house – though I could pick up those six neighbours.
Unable to move the router to a more central location, I tried to add a
secondary router, configured as an “access point” or “repeater.” While
I had another router that claimed it could be set up that way, it
failed to work for me, as is too often the case when mixing hardware
from different manufacturers.
What worked was a dedicated access point from the same manufacturer as
my main router – in my case, a Cisco Linksys WAP610N ($130). This small
black box came with an easy to use configuration program (Windows and
Mac versions). It quickly found my main router, and let me set it up to
extend its signal with a secondary wireless network name.
A possible limitation – some new Wi-Fi gear can be set up to work on
both 2.4 and 5.0-gigahertz frequency bands at the same time. The
WAP610N supports both frequency bands, but you have to pick one or the
other. You’ll be most compatible with older hardware if you stick to
the 2.4-gigahertz band, but that’s also likely to have the most
interference from other nearby devices and networks.
At one time, most consumer-focused Wi-Fi routers turned off encryption
to simplify setup. The result: large numbers of home and small-
business networks lacked this basic security. The good news is that
this is no longer the case. All of my neighbours’ networks are
password-protected, for instance.
But that leads to a problem with wireless connectivity that’s neither
hardware nor software related. All too often, people get new computers
and are unable to connect to their existing Wi-Fi network. The reason?
They don’t remember the password or phrase they selected when they
first set up the network. It’s easily forgotten. You enter it once the
first time you connect with your laptop or desktop, but never again
until you add a new system.
My suggestion: when you set up your wireless router or access point,
write the password down on a piece of masking tape and stick it to the
bottom of the router. And then remember to look there when you need the