Possibly the most misunderstood aspect of our extensive services list, is Wi-Fi connectivity. Is it essential to not just our AV systems, but indeed our lives in general? Absolutely. Is it a regular source of headache inducing angst? Very much so.
Problematic wireless connectivity can manifest itself in various ways and is a common cause of friction between family members. It’s bad enough if you live alone, but if you have ever experienced total Wi-Fi loss in a home where children (even worse teenagers) reside, then you will know the sheer horror of such a scenario. It has become as important to their existence as the food, air and water that keeps them alive.
Because so many devices are marketed as wireless, it is entirely understandable why consumers buy into such technology so readily. Less cables must mean less mess, right? A more straight forward installation, right? Actually, wrong. Really wrong in fact.
We go to great lengths to ensure that every single device in your home with an ethernet socket, will have a hard wired connection. This is the real secret to Wi-Fi utopia. More money? Yes. More time onsite? Yes. More stable, faster connectivity with little or no down time? Yes.
Along with legacy products such as cordless phones, microwaves, baby monitors and the like, we live in a world of wireless mesh devices (Sonos, Sky Q, BT Whole Home to name but a few). These are dream products for the marketing department, making outlandish promises of their seamless cable free wizardry. That is of course until you turn them all on, and utter chaos ensues.
Wi-Fi connectivity is a science and a minefield. Armed with the required knowledge regarding channel selection and width, signal strength vs signal speed, the differences between 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi and where they are best (or worst) deployed, you have a reasonable chance of setting up a passable wireless network. Better yet, if you understand the foibles and weaknesses of ISP supplied routers (and indeed how or when to replace them with third party equivalents). Or indeed when additional access points (boosters, extenders, or Homeplug technology) must be deployed, and where.
If you know which devices are of the mesh variety, and how to either disable or dampen them down, you will be closer yet.
With Wi-Fi less is more. Cater for your devices which must rely on a wireless connection (phones, tablets, most smart doorbells and their security camera cousins), allowing them a larger piece of the cake that is your available bandwidth among themselves.
The good news is that small, incremental tweaks here and there, can have a dramatic impact on Wi-Fi performance. Often there is just a rogue device nearby. One such device in close proximity to an access point, whilst outputting its own mesh signal, can act as invisible quicksand for your available speed. Your phone display suggests you have a full signal yet appears to be lying to your face. You shake said phone, throw in some shouting, swearing and foot stamping. None of which appears to make a blind bit of difference.
It is important to remember that signal strength does not denote signal quality. Wi-Fi is invisible, meaning its numerous nemesis are too. If you have the right tools however it can be analysed, and there are various apps available which will do just that. If, that is, you own an Android device. At time of writing there are no such apps available for Apple devices. All visible networks in range will be displayed in glorious technicolour. Both 2.4 and 5GHz bands are catered for, but usefully are kept separate. Simply click either one and you will immediately have access to all SSID information, channel width and selection, etc. If you live in a flat, or any property where you have several neighbours in close proximity, chances are you will be able to see (and will be affected by) their wireless networks too. Each access point which either shares, or overlaps your Wi-Fi, will be having some impact. And vice versa for that matter. Total avoidance of this is usually not possible. In this instance other dark arts must be deployed. A basic understanding of wireless channels however will be required if you are to disable the default auto option. All wireless routers, access points and the like, will scan the channels at varying time lengths. If they sense too much interference, they switch the device to a less populated channel. In real world use however such auto sensing is somewhat less than perfect. Even if it occurs it can be 30 or even 60 minutes too late for your needs. The whole point of the internet is that it is supposed to be now. Immediate answers to our many questions and search criteria. So, onto some channel basics…
Remember the following are potential fixes for Wi-Fi related issues only. If you are experiencing more general connectivity issues, affecting hard-wired devices also, a call to your ISP may be in order. If your connection is offline, or your router has developed a fault, you will need to deal with this first before attempting any wireless fixes. If your connection is stable with all hard-wired devices online, then your general internet connection is fine. If wireless devices fail to connect, or speed is dramatically reduced, it is then you can look at Wi-Fi as the specific issue to address.
SINGLE ROUTER SETUP.
- For the purposes of this section let us assume you simply have one ISP supplied wireless router, with no additional access points. In almost all instances it will have an IP address (relax it really is just an address, albeit a numerical one), of either 192.168.0.1, or 192.168.1.1 or 192.168.1.254. Of course, there are exceptions, so refer to the label on the rear of your router. Simply type the correct IP address into a web browser whilst either connected to the router wirelessly, or with an ethernet cable. Logging in will usually require a username (likely admin), and a password. Unless you have changed the password, this will also be on the label.
- The layout varies, but most ISP routers share common features. Navigate to wireless settings where you will find the SSID, Wi-Fi password, channel information etc. This is also where you will be able to apply any changes as required.
- In basic terms, 5GHz Wi-Fi is less susceptible to interference, and is capable of faster speeds than its 2.4 counterpart. When moving away from the access point however, you will notice the 5ghz signal begins to diminish far sooner. It is also particularly poor at traveling through solid surfaces. Walls, doors, ceilings and the like will act as sponges, absorbing much of that precious Wi-Fi wave as it attempts to pass through. When in closer proximity however, 5GHz should be your most common go to connection.
The default settings of must ISP routers will merge the 2.4 and 5GHz networks. This means they share a common SSID and password, so you will never know which you are connected to, The principal is good in theory, allowing the router to select the appropriate band subject to which it considers the best option. If your connection to one band drops below a minimum dB level, you are switched to the alternative band. The reality unfortunately is usually somewhat different. I would suggest you separate the two bands, if your router allows this. There will usually be a tick box to merge or unmerge. Once done, you will then have access to the settings for both bands and can configure them as required. Select the 5GHz page, and type 5G onto the end of the SSID, and hit save. Leave the password the same for both. If you now scan for wireless networks, you will see both are available and can be joined independently. Going forward, if the band you are using exhibits issues, simply tap on the other one. Often this will bring about an immediate improvement.
- If not, then manipulating the channels will be your next step. This is where your Wi-Fi analyser will prove invaluable. In the UK we have 13 available channels to work with, although this is somewhat misleading. Default channel width for your 2.4GHz network will be 20MHz. This is important, as if you have three devices outputting a wireless signal (wireless router, Sky Q and Sonos as an example), and set to channels 1, 6 and 11, there will be no overlap. No overlap means no interference. Each device can operate wirelessly with no conflict from its wireless neighbours. By increasing channel width to 40MHz, you hypothetically increase the speed and bandwidth. If you imagine the channel width as a road, clearly a wider road can carry more traffic, allowing far more vehicles to pass. Imagine the chaos however if said road, overlapped the parallel road travelling in the opposite direction. Very quickly chaos would ensue. Cars being tangible objects however, we could all watch the carnage unfold.
The wireless data being transmitted around your home is of course entirely invisible to the naked eye. To best avoid such congestion, keep your channel width to 20MHz.
The image above highlights this well. The 40MHz SSID (TP-LINK) is far wider and flatter. Whomever has configured this, has ensured that their signal is being overlapped (interfered) with by every single other visible network. It is almost impossible to fully avoid overlap, but we can attempt to minimise it.
As a final note on 2.4GHz configuration, you may spot an option to alter the signal power. Auto is always on by default. The maximum peak is 100mW. A stronger signal must be better, right? Wrong. Your smartphone for instance, only operates utilises on average 15Mw for its radio (Wi-Fi) connections to preserve battery life. Wi-Fi is always bidirectional, a true give and take between access points and client devices. This disparity can create extremely frustrating connectivity issues. Try setting the signal/power level to mid, or even low. Trial and error are the order of the day here.
- The 5GHz spectrum throws up some vastly different numbers. The principal is much the same, however. It is split into 3 clearly defined bands and is highly regulated.
- Band A. Channels 36 to 64. For Indoor wireless only and does not require a license. It allows for 8 x 20MHz channels to coincide without overlap or 4 x 40MHz channels. The maximum output power is 200Mw, so double that of 2.4GHz. To reiterate however, maximum power output is not always your friend.
- Band B. Channels 100 to 140. Also license free and can be used both inside and outside. Power output is increased again, to 1000mW (1W). Here we have capacity for 10 x 20MHz channels to coincide without overlap or 5 x 40MHz channels. Hardware operating in Band B must conform to DFS (Dynamic Frequency Selection) standards and DFS must be enabled. If you cannot see an option for this then avoid these channels. Where available and enabled, your access point will scan for radar signals which exist in the same frequency range. If detected it will switch channels to conform to the regulations.
- Band C. Channels 149 to 161. Allows for 4 x 20MHz channels to coincide without overlap or 2 x 40MHz channels. Capable of output powers of up to 4000mW (4W). It is however highly regulated. Unless you are an industry professional it is highly unlikely you will encounter, or ever use, these channels.
- 1) Outdoor use only.
2) Can only be used for fixed wireless access points.
3) A light license is required for operation and must be purchased from Ofcom.
4) All hardware must conform to DFS (Dynamic Frequency Selection) standards and DFS must be enabled.
ADDITIONAL ACCESS POINTS
- It may be that you have configured your wireless router to absolute perfection, or by default it just works well. If, that is, you are within its range. Often the very fabric of the building you live in will prevent the signal reaching every room or floor. Or your property may just be too large for a single wireless router to handle alone. This is when you enter the world of wireless extending. The internet is awash with some truly awful products, making outlandish claims as to their effectiveness. There are three basic options open to you.
1) A true wireless access point, hard-wired to your existing network.
This should be your go to solution unless running the cables is just not an option. You want the access point to receive the best possible signal, as this is what it will ultimately be re-broadcasting. Configuration will be very similar to your wireless router. As you are to be adding more Wi-Fi to the mix, channel selection will need close attention. Remember to avoid overlap as much as possible. It is best practise to use the same SSID information from your existing networks (2.4 and 5GHz), as well as the same password. Seamless roaming is now the goal. Connect to your primary router but walk away from it and towards the new access point. Keep an eye on your devices signal strength as you go, and you will notice it starts to drop off eventually. When moving within range of the now stronger signal detected from the access point, said device should automatically switch to it. It will not always do so, due to your devices desire to cling on for dear life to the signal which it originally received. This is another reason to experiment with decreasing the wireless signal output. Try out both low and mid settings, until you find the sweet spot.
2) Homeplug (ethernet over mains) adaptors with Wi-Fi capability.
Such is my disdain for wireless only solutions, that Homeplug makes it in at number 2. Devolo in particular, make some excellent products. They utilise the copper which connects the plug sockets in your home, to create a pseudo hard-wired connection. Place one (often referred to as the transmitter) close
to your router and connect them with an ethernet cable. Plug the receiver in wherever your Wi-Fi signal is poor. Refer to the manufacturer instructions for accessing the configuration page, and the now familiar channel, SSID and general settings will be available. This is a second point of access to your home broadband connection. Again, trial the auto channel selection option and see how it performs. If not, activate your Wi-Fi analyser and look for conflicts and overlaps in need of attention. Neighbouring wireless networks will regularly change channel, so be prepared to keep a regular eye on this. What works on day one, may well need tweaking with some regularity.
Whilst an acceptable solution when all goes well, Homeplug technology is prone to some common problems. For a start it is only as good as the wiring in your property. In the UK there are still millions of houses with dated mains wiring. Equally, if you build an extension which incorporates a second consumer unit, success is unlikely. The data you are attempting to transmit requires a clean path to follow. A loose neutral cable here, a rogue device plugged in somewhere, or any of an infinite number of similar issues, will likely mean your Wi-Fi is actually made worse.
3) Wireless bridges or extenders.
Technically the Whole Home extenders are an example of this solution, as are Sky wireless boosters. It should always be the last resort if all other options are off the table. In defence of BT and Sky, their units have ethernet sockets allowing them to be deployed as actual access points. But using a fully wireless solution to extend an existing wireless network, is often akin to hanging your washing out in the rain and expecting it to dry. The principal is great. Place a booster/extender where your wireless signal begins to drop off, and it will grab hold of it like a relay baton. From here it repeats and amplifies the signal, eradicating all those pesky dead spots. Or it does no such thing, and everything again just gets worse. If your existing Wi-Fi is less than perfect to begin with, this sub parr signal will be what is repeated elsewhere. Except now it will be worse, as a duplicate always is. Even if the primary signal is good, it may well be anything but once its travelled through the ether on its way to the extender. A cordless phone, baby monitor, microwave, Sonos Amp, Ring Doorbell. Sky Q box, or any of a million other wireless devices will all conspire to degrade the invisible waves passing through their own.
SUMMARY. THINGS TO TRY…
- It is worth a recap of some of the less talked about issues which are impacting our everyday Wi-Fi use. A little bit of knowledge can go a long way in allowing us to bridge the gap, between the performance of our wired as opposed to wireless networks.
- Hardwire everything you possibly can. Your wireless bandwidth is finite, meaning there is only so much of it to go around. Every peripheral you connect with an ethernet cable, frees up precious bandwidth for wireless only devices like your phones and tablets.
- If you have multiple access points inside your property, experiment with disabling some of the 2.4GHz radios. If your 5GHz coverage is good throughout, less 2.4GHz could mean less interference issues. That said, be mindful of any legacy devices you own which will only work on the 2.4 band. There are also several mainstream devices, Ring Doorbells and the like, which will require a healthy 2.4GHz connection.
- Many baby monitors, cordless phones, microwaves and numerous other devices output a 2.4GHz into the mix. Check the specifications of devices in your home. If possible, relocate offending items so as not to be in range of any access points. Alternatively look for replacements. If buying first time round, look for phones, monitors etc which operate at the 900MHz band. Some time spent researching your purchases, will help to avoid Wi-Fi headaches in the future.
- Turn off direct print function on network printers. This is another all too common, yet simple to resolve cause of Wi-Fi woes. Many manufacturers have this feature turned on by default, enabling the user to connect to the printer directly with their devices. Whilst scanning for available wireless networks you will clearly see the printers SSID coexisting with your own Wi-Fi network. There are two ways to disable this subject to the model involved. Using the touchscreen on the printer, navigate to network settings and look out for mention of direct print. Simply select off, and the internal radio is disabled. Alternatively you may need to access the printers GUI (graphical user interface) via its IP address. For this you must have connected the printer to your network either wirelessly, or with an ethernet connection. The option to enable or disable direct print is often only available here. By disabling the feature and simply connecting the printer to your home network, your router will do the job of maintaining visibility between your devices and the printer. You will find the IP address under network information. Alternatively use a freely available network scanning tool on your phone, such as Fing which is powerful yet simple to use.
- Disable the wireless signal output by mesh devices. Sky Q, Sonos and countless other manufacturers products share the same functionality. You go to the trouble and expense of hard wiring your Sky Q main box and do likewise with your mini boxes. Your Wi-Fi however has ground to a near halt. When scanning for wireless networks, you will notice several Sky SSIDs which you do not recognise. You likely assume it is your neighbours. In fact, what you are seeing it is the wireless mesh signal output from each of your Sky boxes. There are now three devices outputting 2.4 and 5GHz signals, playing absolute havoc with your actual Wi-Fi. Thanks Sky.
Fortunately, this is easily resolved. Simply press the home button on your Sky remote control and navigate to settings. Do not select settings, but rather press 001 enter. You will now enter the more advanced Sky engineers menu. Simply navigate to network settings and disable both 2.4 and 5GHz wireless bands. Then repeat the process at each box. As long as they each have a functioning ethernet connection, they will remain visible to each other. Your Wi-Fi however should have improved exponentially.
The same principal applies to Sonos and many others. You can disable Wi-Fi altogether on all Sonos components by going into its settings page. If they are successfully hard wired to your home network, then disabling their wireless signal is a true case of everything to gain with absolutely nothing to lose.
So, as you can see, Wi-Fi is not an exact science. A solution which works for one, may create more problems for another. It is important to remain patient, and work through the numerous fixes in sequence. The combination of such fixes differs, but none can be overlooked. Ongoing Wi-Fi harmony can be compared to any regular household chore. Whenever we vacuum our homes, we do so safe in the knowledge we will have to do so again with some regularity. A perfectly functioning Wi-Fi environment is just like that freshly cleaned carpet. By its very nature it will attract dust and dirt (albeit in the form of radio interference), requiring regular attention. Keep an eye on channels from not just your own, but neighbouring networks. Check your mesh devices as well. Sky will periodically update the firmware of their boxes, often reinitialising their wireless mesh output. Remember to scan for networks and keep an eye out for the reappearance of the Sky SSID information. And finally, the most common of all fixes. Over time, the constant flow of data passing through routers and access points creates congestion. Get into the habit of rebooting (yes turning them off and on again) your devices on a weekly basis. You may want to warn the rest of the family before you do or make it a last job before heading to bed. At the very least, make this your first attempt at a fix before employing any of the above.