For the past year I’ve been on the board of our local civic association. I did this to get me out of the house and more engaged in the local community. As a result I’ve become more aware of some of the IT issues that typically confront our neighbors. Beyond dealing with dastardly ISPs, one of the most common problems is poor Wi-Fi coverage throughout a home. When the question came up again just recently, I thought it worth collecting my thoughts on the matter and sharing them here.
Preface: The Wired
This is, for me, a statement of philosophy. Wherever possible I prefer wired, Ethernet connections to devices on my network. Wires are inconvenient to install, but are extremely reliable, and with the exception of intrusion by the occasional hungry rodent, last a very long time. If you want things to work all-the-time, every time, wired is the way to go. Period.
To illustrate the strength of this belief, consider my own home and home office. My home office is in the garage apartment, physically removed from the house. When we moved-in I buried a plastic conduit with a couple of strands of Cat5e cable, some telephone cable, and even a couple of RG-6 coax. The coax and phone wire are not longer there, but the Cat5e has proven invaluable.
These network cables connect the house to the garage apartment, creating one network. Security cameras mounted on the front of the house, added later, feed a network video recorder all the way back in my office. Our Tivo Roamio DVR, in the family room, feeds several Tivo Mini streaming video players, including one back the office. I don’t use a printer much, so my office computers occasionally access a color laser printer in the house, which is convenient for Stella.
All of that leverages our wired network core.
Onward: The Unwired
Most people get a Wi-Fi router from their internet service provider. These vary in performance. If you’re not especially network savvy, you should probably use the device they provided. That makes it possible to lean on the ISP for support.
The router is most likely physically located somewhere that was convenient with respect to the connection to the ISP. That may be less than optimal for providing Wi-Fi coverage throughout the entire home. Or the home may be large enough that one Wi-Fi router (or access point) simply won’t provide adequate coverage, leading to Wi-Fi dead spots.
When faced with such reality you have several options.
You could augment your existing Wi-Fi router with a Wi-Fi extender. Traditional Wi-Fi extenders are wireless. You plug them in, configure them to connect to your existing Wi-Fi, and they act as “repeaters.” They’re easy to install and relatively cheap. Most are under $75, with very simple ones under $50.
Simple Wi-Fi extenders can expand the reach of the Wi-Fi network, but they can also degrade it’s performance. This is because they may use the same wireless radio to connect to various client devices and connect to the main Wi-Fi router. The performance of the wireless link is split between the clients and the “backhaul.”
You may recall some time ago, when I was fighting with the dastardly DoorBot. They claimed that our Wi-Fi must not be sufficiently robust out at the gate. In response to that claim I added a TP-Link Wi-Fi repeater on our front porch. That didn’t solve the problem, which was rooted in the faulty RF design of the Doorbot itself.
Mesh: Convenience at a Cost
You could abandon the ISPs router in favor of a “Mesh” router solution. These are all the rage at present. There are offers from eero, Google, Linksys, Netgear, TPLink, and Ubiquiti…just to name a few.
I have no first hand experience with these systems. Anecdotally, I recommended the Ubiquiti Amplifi system to my brother-in-law. It solved the Wi-Fi problems that had plagued their large, new home.
They all have one thing in common, easy installation. Just plug-in and configure.
OK, maybe they have TWO things in common: they’re all kind of expensive. A 3-element mesh system is going to cost $250-450. Convenience definitely has a price. On the other hand, it is true that you get what you pay for. These mesh systems can work very well.
Ethernet-Over-Powerline Wi-Fi Extenders
There is an alternative approach that works well and doesn’t require a mortgage. I recommend people to Wi-Fi extenders like this one from TrendNet. It has two components; one that plugs into an outlet and connects to your existing router, another that plugs into an outlet at the far side of the house. It uses the electrical wiring of the house to create a hard-wired connection to the new Wi-Fi access point. Thus you get expanded Wi-Fi coverage without the degraded performance of a Wi-Fi repeater.
If you want more technical details, my friends over at Small Net Builder have a nice review of this product.
The far-end device also has several network jacks, allowing you to connect devices by Ethernet, as well as wirelessly. If your primary router was on the first floor, you’d put the extender in the upstairs family room where the Wi-Fi was struggling. You’d have a couple of Ethernet jacks available, so fixed devices like your desktop computer and smart TV, could be on the wired network.
If my home office and the house were on the same electrical service (they’re not) I could have used this device to extend our household network into the garage, without going to the effort of burying cable, or suffering the variability of a pure Wi-Fi approach.
Ethernet-over-powerline devices are a great way to fix a Wi-Fi coverage dead spot without breaking the bank.