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Why Your Wi-Fi Is Slow

January 19, 2017

If you've been using a wi-fi network for a long time you've undoubtedly noticed the performance of it has degraded, possibly dramatically. I get this complaint all the time, and unfortunately it's becoming increasingly difficult to deal with. Here's why:

 

At its core, wi-fi is really just a short-range radio transmitter and receiver. It uses the same basic technology as any radio station, such as the ones you listen to in your car. The biggest difference is that it uses a much higher frequency. This has the advantages of making it much faster (good for sending data), and giving it a shorter range. Why would you want a shorter range, you may ask? Well, that's at the heart of why things are getting ugly in the world of wi-fi.

 

When you take a road trip in your car, you've undoubtedly experienced a situation where the radio station you were listening to fades out because you're too far from the transmitter. As you tune around the dial trying to find a radio station you want to listen to, sometimes you'll get two stations overlapping, and you might hear classical music and a mariachi band at the same time. That's because these stations are operating on close to the same frequency (99.7 kHz (kilohertz) for example), and you're right between them. As you keep driving, this clears up within a few miles and you can enjoy your mariachis.

 

Your car radio has hundreds of available channels that can be used, but wi-fi effectively only has 3 discrete channels (there are more than that, but they usually overlap quite a bit). Back when you set up your wi-fi you had the strongest station around, at least within your own house. But then all of your neighbors added wi-fi networks too, and they were using newer equipment that had stronger transmitters and better range. Suddenly your house is now flooded with networks coming from your neighbors. The highest number of wi-fi networks I've ever seen from inside someone's house was 47. Imagine you're in your car and you're picking up 47 different radio stations all on the same channel! If you try really hard you might be able to pick out a lyric or a couple notes, but not easily. Well that's exactly what's going on with your wi-fi. It ends up needing to request the data over and over again, or sometimes just giving up entirely.

 

More recent wi-fi routers offer the ability to use the old 2.4 GHz (gigahertz) frequency that was the standard a few years ago as well as the newer 5 GHz. 5GHz is nice because it supports better speeds (due to the higher frequency) and also because it's shorter range, meaning that you're far less likely to see your neighbor's 5 GHz networks inside your house. But those signals are also more easily blocked by things within your own house—-walls, furniture, appliances, etc. So as a result, you end up needing to add additional base stations to get the same coverage you used to enjoy back in the good old days.

 

As more and more devices rely on wi-fi to work (see my previous post on HomeKit), it's increasingly important that your wi-fi network be working well. It's also becoming increasingly challenging. If your house has Ethernet you can just add more base stations, but in a lot of houses the Ethernet wiring wasn't installed by someone who knew what they were doing and it may not be wired properly. In many cases the wiring itself is there but it isn't connected together (and doesn't even have the connectors that it needs to do so). Extenders don't work well, as they're only as good as the signal coming into them in the first place, and we've already seen how unusable that signal has become now. Add in the fact that we now have Sonos systems, wireless cameras, and other technologies that are using the same available wi-fi bandwidth. Plus people now have much faster internet speeds that require much more robust signals than before. And how many people are trying to stream video in your house at the same time?

 

Networking has become an ever-increasing part of what I do, and I spend a lot of time staying current on what's new and finding new tricks to get around sticky situations (like the turn-of-the-century house with rock walls and aluminum wiring!). If you have a networking challenge, let me know! I love a good puzzle.

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