WiFi Repeaters, Boosters, & Extenders.
BOOST OR BUST?
A WiFi repeater or booster is used to extend the coverage area of your WiFi network. It works by receiving your existing WiFi signal, amplifying it, and then transmitting the boosted signal. Before you buy one, the simple truth to know about boosters and range extenders is that they just are not worth the money. However, there are some things you can do to boost your WiFi network's range and performance for FREE.
Here's 10 things you should know about WiFi boosters and repeaters:
1. Not many people know there is a difference between a booster and a repeater/extender.
2. Amplifying a wireless signal past FCC limits could land you in legal hot water!
3. Extenders and Boosters can cause unforeseen issues on your wireless network.
4. Many WiFi problems are not coverage issues, but rather interference issues.
5. Sources of interference include brick or plaster walls, microwave ovens, and cordless phones - Move them away.
6. Boosters just add more power but this doesn't mean it will make your network more efficient.
8. Repeaters start out with a minimum 50% throughput loss:
Expensive solutions that work: upgrade the antenna on your router or add an access point.
Many manufacturers tout their boosters and extenders as being able to double the coverage area of your WiFi network. However, as with many manufacturer claims, take that with a grain of salt - The drawbacks of using a booster or extender often outweigh the possible benefits. Secondly, many people often confuse the terms "booster" and "repeater or extender", because they are often used interchangeably. In fact these terms refer to two different technologies:
A wireless booster is a WiFi signal amplifier that connects to the owner's wireless router, making the signal stronger by increasing the output power. Usually boosters refer to an upgrade around the modem itself, like a better antenna. The result is a more powerful signal that reaches further from the router, however, what many people don't realize is that the reach of the access point is only half the story. In order to have successful WiFi communication, the client device needs to be able to transmit its signal back to the access point. While you might see more bars of signal on your phone or laptop, if the device is unable to transmit its signal back to the access point, communication is doomed to fail. Think of it as two people standing on opposite ends of a football stadium, one with a megaphone and the other without. It would be hard to have a meaningful conversation like this, wouldn't it?
A wireless repeater or extender is a standalone device that connects to your existing WiFi network and rebroadcasts the SSID (service set identifier) as if it were another access point. While a wireless extender can help increase the range of your wireless network, one major drawback is that repeaters start out with a minimum 50% throughput loss. The reason is that a repeater must receive, then retransmit each packet using the same radio, on the same channel, and with the same SSID. Your signal loss will be close to 50% if the repeater is very efficient, but if it's not, throughput loss can be higher. Thanks to that 50% loss in bandwidth right off the top, repeaters are not a good solution for networks where speed is important.
Who Benefits from a WiFi Booster? The manufacturers! While you can actually make the same booster out of tin foil or a tin can, keep in mind our stadium megaphone example. More bars does not necessarily mean better communication and while a repeater can increase the range of your network, who wants to give up performance to increase the range?
Not all is lost, however, as there are a few solutions that can improve your coverage without costing your performance. First we need to understand what contributes to a weakened WiFi signal. Every object in our surroundings interacts with the wireless signal in one way or another. Radio waves can go through many objects such as walls, but these blockages absorb the signal and decrease its strength; the more metallic or dense the material, the more it blocks the WiFi. Glass and flat metal surfaces reflect many of the radio waves rather than allowing them to pass through, and even the water that makes up 60% of the human body absorbs radio waves.
To increase WiFi signal, let's go on a WiFi ghostbusters hunt to find a better location for our router and remove both obstructions, and sources of interference.
First look for the most central location where you frequently use your wireless devices and move your router central to that location, not just near your electrical plug. Try to always keep your router up high and towards the center of the house. If an electrical plug isn't there add an extension cord and get it up as high as possible. If you can't move your router, then you'll want to remove as many obstructions as possible from it's direct path.
Move any metal or dense objects like kitchen appliances, especially a microwave or techy objects like computers and cable boxes. Many new technologies have the same frequency as WiFi such as bluetooth, baby monitors, home automation tools, and cordless phones, which can all cause signal interference. Just look up the model and if it's 2.4GHz or 5GHz (same as WiFi), try either moving them away or powering them off when using your WiFi. For cordless phones, look for one that uses the newer DECT 6.0 standard (which uses the 1.9GHz frequency band and will not interfere with your network).
- If your router has an antenna try adjusting it.
- Download a firmware update for your router.
- Try a new channel. A spectrum analyzer such as the Wi-Spy by MetaGeek is the best way to locate sources of interference and find the least utilized channel, but to avoid spending the money, just experiment with other channels until you find one that works well with your environment.
- If you're using anything older than a WiFi "N" compatible router your first protocol should be to upgrade to a more modern router.
- Performance will be better in the 5GHz band than the 2.4GHz and you will face less interference from neighbors. However the signal will not propagate quite as well through walls when using 5GHz.
- If you have Ethernet wiring in your home, you could try adding another access point (not another router) that is hardwired into your network. Adding too many access points will also cause bandwidth congestion - so don't overdo it and make sure they aren't using the same channel.
- Buy a better Access Point and place it in a better centralized location instead of where the cable man finds convenient.
Aside from the frequency band all WiFi standards are backwards compatible, so you will need compatible hardware at both ends to get the performance benefit of the latest standards. Having legacy devices in your network (an old laptop, cell phone, or even a wireless printer) can cause protection mechanisms to be enabled in order for them to interoperate with newer devices, which lowers throughput. So if you have a piece of equipment in your WiFi network that is seven years old, it's preventing your network from running at its peak. Take that booster/repeater $$ and just upgrade your routers!