If you have devices in your home or office, odds are you have a wireless router of some kind to connect these things to the internet so you can watch Netflix, Disney+, or just surf the web. You may have noticed that in some parts of your home or office though that you get a better signal than other parts. Say, the wireless router is downstairs in your living room but the TV in your bedroom upstairs seems glitchy or maybe defaults to a lower, more pixelated resolution when you are watching a show.
Generally speaking, this is because the strength of WiFi radio waves falls of significantly once they have to pass through walls. WiFi uses high-frequency radio waves that don’t tend to propagate well through solid media like walls. You may have also noticed even more so when WiFi has to go through floors. This is not because floors are thicker, rather it’s because that wireless routers are principally designed to broadcast horizontally rather than vertically, which compounds the fact that signals have to go through a wall.
Technically speaking, a device that provides WiFi access to a network is called an access point and a device that connects you to the internet is a router. Commonly, most consumer oriented WiFi devices are referred to as “wireless routers” because they combine a router and an access point into single device.
If you are having connectivity problems, there are a couple of easy fixes. One is to more centrally locate your wireless router if you can. Second, you can get larger antennas which can boost the signal and receive signals from devices that are further away. If these simple tricks aren’t an option though, there are number of ways to extend the reach of your network.
WiFi repeaters work by essentially relaying a signal between your device and your wireless router and back from your router wireless to your device. Typically, these will have a separate network name (SSID) that is different from the SSID of your wireless router. They typically require sometimes complex configuration for them to work.
The principal advantage of a WiFi repeater is that it gives you the full bandwidth of your wireless router, meaning that you can stream movies and shows just as if you were sitting next to the wireless router.
The main disadvantage of a WiFi repeater is that sometimes it requires an additional SSID for devices to connect to, which means that you may have to manually switch networks between your wireless router and your repeater. If you forget to do this, you may end up back where you started with low bandwidth on one part of your house if you move your device.
A mesh network is formed by several WiFi access points (or wireless routers) that connect together to form a seamless network that client devices can connect to. Mesh Networks work like repeater networks, but instead of having a separate SSID for each device, they all have the same SSID. This allows your connected devices to roam seamlessly on the network as if they were connected to a single wireless router without losing a connection. The connected device will choose the devices with the strongest signal, which usually results in the best speed.
The principal advantage of Mesh Networks is that devices can roam freely all over of the network and automatically hop between devices.
The principal disadvantage though with mesh networks is that your available bandwidth is effectively halved because every packet that is sent to the mesh network is retransmitted to other devices on the network. So, if the available bandwidth of the network was 500 Mbps for a single device, it would effectively be 250 Mbps on a mesh network. Some higher end system claim to overcome this problem though by essentially having a secondary relay network in addition to the primary network. But these systems can be pricey and proprietary.
A Second Hardwired Access Point
A second hardwired access point is another access point that is connected back to the main wireless router through a physical cable rather than wirelessly as in repeaters and mesh networks. This approach is effectively how enterprises setup wireless networks that cover office buildings or even entire campuses. Each access point has its own Ethernet cable that connects it back to a switch, which can then connect to a dedicated router that provides internet access. It is possible to create a similar setup in your home or office and getting a second router or access point configured usually isn’t that hard to do. If you’re using a wireless router as the second access point, you will want to disable the routing features and use it as an access point only. You can simply recreate the settings, such as SSID and Password, from your original wireless router in your second device. This approach solves both of the main disadvantages of WiFi repeaters and mesh networks because you get the same seamless network as the mesh network and the full bandwidth of a repeater network.
The challenge though is getting the second device connected back to the first device by way of a hardwire. Most all WiFi routers and access points connect to Internet modems or other hardwired devices using Ethernet cables, as it is the de facto standard for network connectivity. There are several ways though to get a second device connected back to your main wireless router with a hardwire.
Run a long Ethernet cable – The most obvious solution to connecting two devices together would be to run an Ethernet cable. It’s not uncommon for many newer homes built in the past 20 years to have Ethernet cables (aka Cat 5, Cat 5e, or Cat 6) already in the walls. You can usually check by removing a phone jack from the wall and counting the pairs of wire. If there are 4 pairs, you’re golden! You simply need to rewire the wall jacks from RJ-11 (phone jacks) to RJ-45 (Ethernet) jacks.
If your home doesn’t already have Ethernet, you can buy raw cable and crimp it (add the connector) yourself. Most home improvement stores sell Cat 5 and Cat 6 cable by the foot or in spools or you can buy it online. You can also buy long runs of pre-crimped cables in lengths of 50, 75, 100, 200 or even 300 feet. You then have to pull the cable through your attic or crawl space to the place you want to put your second access point/router.
Ethernet can carry up to 10Gbs, which is more than enough for most common use cases. Most consumer devices only support up to 1Gbs, which is still generally faster than most internet connections available today and more than sufficient for streaming, gaming, or general internet browsing.
Use HomePlugs – If pulling and/or crimping Ethernet doesn’t sound like your cup of tea and you don’t want to pay the expense of getting a professional to do it, you can get a pair of “HomePlugs” or a powerline adapter. These devices allow you to plug in an Ethernet cable, and then will convert Ethernet signals into something that can be sent over your homes internal electrical wiring. The Home Plug on the other end can convert the signal back into an Ethernet signal so an Ethernet cable can be plugged into your device. You’ll want to make sure that the distance between the two plugs isn’t too far and that the wiring in your home is not too old or low quality to make this solution work. Plugging HomePlugs in the outlet directly and not using a power strip or extension cord drastically improves performance.
HomePlugs can theoretically carry up to 2Gbs, but in reality, results are much lower than this, usually between 100-500Mbs. Even so, this still far exceeds most common home and office use cases and the speeds of most common Internet connections.
Use coax – Many homes also have coax already in the walls that has historically been used for TV’s, but the same cables can be used to carry a data stream as well. Devices similar to HomePlugs can convert an Ethernet signal into one that can be carried over coax and then converted back into an Ethernet signal on the other end. There are three primary ways to do this: use an Ethernet over Coax (EoC) device, use the Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA) device, and a DirecTV Ethernet-to-Coaxial Adapter (DECA). EoC is and older standard that is principally aimed at upgrading analog closed-circuit surveillance systems that used coax to digital surveillance systems that use the internet protocol (IP). However, these can also be used for more general purpose uses as well. EoC though would not be ideal if the coax cables are being used by something like a cable modem, which is where MoCA comes in. MoCA allows you to use your other devices on your coax cable such as your cable modem or satellite TV connection in addition to carrying a data stream over the coax. MoCA, however, is not a universally accepted standard, so you’ll have to check to make sure your equipment is compatible with it. If you are using satellite like DirectTV, DECA can work. It’s really not a standard as much as it is a piece of hardware.
EoC and DECA have variable speeds, but can support up to 200Mbps over shorter runs. MoCA supports up to 1Gbs. Both of these still are sufficient for most home and office use cases though.
Adapt telephone twisted pair –With many people switching to either digital telephones or cellphones and ditching landlines, telephone wires are falling out of use with DSL being the notable exception. If you have dormant phone lines in your house, you can (sometimes) reconfigure these lines to work like an Ethernet cable. Ethernet cables typically have 4 pairs of wires in each cable while telephone lines typically have 2 pairs. Ethernet for 100Mbs only needs 2 pairs. It is therefore possible to rewire telephone cables to work like Ethernet cables. This usually won’t work with older telephone cables or longer runs. 100Mbs is usually fast enough for most basic tasks and even some streaming, however multiple people trying to stream at the same time might run into problems.
Which should you use?
Of all these solutions, the best is obviously Ethernet with a second access point. However, if this is not possible or too expensive, the HomePlug option with a second access point is the next best thing because it is relatively inexpensive, easy to set up, and provide a decent amount of bandwidth. I have been using HomePlugs for years but I recently discovered my new home is wired with Cat5 cabling, so I will be doing an upgrade project at some point to take advantage of Ethernet.