Dear Lifehacker, For reasons unknown to me (Physics? Global warming? Witchcraft?), my router's reach is terrible. My house has all kinds of Wi-Fi dead zones, and I have no idea why. What could be the cause, and how can I fix it? Signed, Linksys Lamenter
Dear Lamenter, We know your pain. This particular Lifehacker editor once lived in an apartment that formerly housed a block of dentist offices. There were lots of walls, possibly reinforced with lead shielding, in that re-purposed building. Unless you could directly see the router, your were out of luck after a room or two.
Adam Dachis touched on a few ways to extend your wireless signal in his guide to going completely wireless in your home, but we'll get a bit more substantive in dealing with Wi-Fi killers in trying to help out a laptop warrior tied to such a small area.
Let's look at some of the common Wi-Fi killers, and how to best them.
Top image via blmurch.
Home Construction and Other Obstructions
The way your home is built has likely the most direct impact on how far Wi-Fi can penetrate the house. The vast majority of homes were built before the concepts of mobile phones, 3G service and Wi-Fi were discussed outside of Nikola Tesla reading groups.
Steel structures, concrete, the layout of air-conditioning vents and returns in homes with centralised systems, aquariums, and the spot where your dog chooses to nap can all make an impact on your Wi-Fi coverage. One big signal killer could also be lurking in your walls, especially if your house dates back more than 60 years: chicken wire. Seriously.
As the Wall Street Journal explains, many homes with plaster and lath walls were held up by wood wrapped in chicken wire. When modern homeowners try to live the wireless life, they find terrible Wi-Fi coverage, because the wire is spaced in just such a way to create a perfect shield against Wi-Fi frequencies (sometimes called a Farraday cage. Image via Nanimo.
You can move your aquariums and re-position your router to provide better, more centralised coverage — more on that down below. But you're likely not going to gut your walls to fix your wireless, so let's eliminate other potential culprits.
Interference from Neighbours (and Other Gadgets)
Most home users buy just a few varieties of routers made for the residential market. Most users also never tweak their settings, and most routers default to the same channel. If you see a good number of Wi-Fi names available from your laptop, or you suspect you might have bad luck in your neighbours' placement, it's time to switch channels.
The web-based Meraki Wi-Fi Stumbler is a good bet for analysing your network to find the least-used channel nearby — when it's up. On Windows, you can also try inSSIDer, and Mac users can work through iStumbler. With an Android phone, you can walk around your house and see which channel is getting traffic, and where, with Wifi Analyzer.
You placed your wireless router on the floor, right behind the TV and the home theatre receiver, downstairs in the corner living room, because that's where the cable guy put it. He's wrong, but the fix might be far more simple than you thought.
For the best possible placement of your router, use the VOICE acronym. We've adapted that simplification of the excellent CountryMile WiFi guide to improving reception to a five-item checklist. So, make sure your router:
Has its antenna pointing in Vertical fashion. The Wi-Fi signal actually beams out from the sides of your antenna, and if they're pointing in a direction other than up, you might get slightly better coverage in one particular area — but most of your signal is shooting straight into the ground and ceiling. Image via CountryMile WiFi.
- Is free from Obstructions, so that it's not right next to a thick wall, close to other electronics, angled behind metal objects or otherwise blocked from a line of coverage.
- Is away from, and working on a different channel from, Interference from neighbours.
- Has a Central position in your house, so its coverage is as even and wide-ranging as possible.
- Is Elevated, because Wi-Fi signal has an easier time travelling down and sideways than up. It's actually OK to elevate your router onto a dresser, entertainment shelter, shelf or even stacked on a few books. Wi-Fi signal has little trouble passing through wood and books, as opposed to other issues.
Not Enough Power
If your Wi-Fi signal is dead just outside the room it's in, you've got structural issues that you'll likely have to address, or you'll need to invest in some serious CAT cabling throughout your house. If it feels like you're always just on the verge of having signal, you can likely give your wireless router a little boost to fill that remaining gap.
We've come across many ways to boost the power and extend your signal area. Here are the majority of them:
- Tinfoil-coated Windsurfer parabolic antenna attachment
- Boost your signal strength in the router itself by installing DD-WRT or installing Tomato.
- Physically extend your router's antenna with copper wire, a wood screw, a drinking straw and a black marker
- Improve reception at a particular spot in your house with a cooking strainer signal catcher
- Use a shoebox and tinfoil for an ugly-but-effective extender.
Repeat the Signal
Some people are just unlucky in their net connections. Maybe the cable only comes in from one spot in your house, a lower corner, and your walls and ducts aren't particularly amenable to running cable. Or your spouse won't put up with having the Linksys box so high up and visible in the spot you need it. In either case, you can form a kind of wireless signal bucket brigade with a bridge or repeater: a second router that picks up the signal from your primary router, then re-broadcasts it to cover another area of your house.
We've covered two different setups for repeaters on Lifehacker in detail: Gina's guide for setting up a wireless bridge, and my guide to turning an old router into a repeater. What's the difference? A bridge is primarily for providing devices with "hard" Ethernet plugs with internet access through your Wi-Fi signal, while a repeater picks up signal, re-amplifies it, then pushes it back out again. You do lose a little speed in a repeater connection, but for those who simply want to surf the web in bed, or cover that last few feet of the house without signal, it's a decent compromise.
We're hoping you find that your Wi-Fi problems are easily solved with a channel change, a re-positioning, or maybe a little hardware hacking, at most. Most Wi-Fi problems do, indeed, take just a big of strategic thinking to work through. If you're living in a Victorian-style home that used to house a radiology centre, well, we wish you the best.
P.S. We're interested in hearing how all you readers overcame your own Wi-Fi dead spots and signal problems in the comments. Also, if you've found any products that can help — we read about Wi-Fi blocking paint, for instance, but never found an actual product to purchase — link us up in the comments.