One of the biggest challenges we face when getting our streaming media content from the Internet is network connectivity. It seems obvious, but the faster and more stable your Internet connection, the better experience you will have streaming online media. This is especially true when using devices that don’t have a physical network connection, but, instead, rely on a wireless connection. In this article, I’m going to explain a little about WiFi and give you some tips on how you can strengthen and improve the WiFi connection to your devices.
As a general rule, Wi-Fi routers operating on the 2.4 GHz band can provide a useable signal up to 150 feet (46 m) indoors and 300 feet (92 m) outdoors. The newer 802.11n and 802.11ac routers that operate on both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands have similar reach. This is certainly a general rule, and there are exceptions. Depending on several factors, these distances can vary wildly and in some cases, you will see the effective distance of your WiFi signal shrink down to just a few feet.
I’m going to go over a couple of the biggest reasons for the degradation of the WiFi signal and then talk about what you can do to overcome them.
Traditionally, the internal walls of houses in the United States are constructed of wooden studs covered by drywall. Similarly, commercial construction uses metal studs covered by drywall. These types of walls are almost invisible to WiFi signals and you can achieve the optimal distances with most routers.
In other countries and in some locations in the US, buildings and even homes are constructed using steel-reinforced concrete. This poses a problem for WiFi, in that, the steel inside the concrete acts as an antenna and absorbs a surprising amount of the WiFi signal and can significantly reduce the effective distance.
This effect can even be seen in structures with wooden-wall construction when there are walls with plumbing or heavy electrical wiring inside. For example, you might notice that bathrooms and kitchens and laundry rooms are usually placed back-to-back with each other to minimize the amount of plumbing involved and the majority of the pipes end up in what is called a “plumbing wall” that these rooms share. These plumbing walls are hard to penetrate with WiFi for the same reason as the steel reinforced concrete walls.
Electro-Magnetic Interference (EMI)
Any time you have electricity running through a wire, you basically have an antenna and it is broadcasting noise. If you happen to live under or near powerlines, you will see an increase in the amount of background electrical noise. Add into that equation all the appliances we use such as microwaves and televisions that, not only add noise into the electrical circuitry but also do their fair share of radiating of signals into the air. Some of the biggest culprits are cordless phones that tend to broadcast in the same bandwidth as your WiFi. Florescent lighting is another huge contributor to EMI.
You can overcome EMI to some degree by choosing a WiFi channel for your router that is free from interference. Using a free WiFi analyzer from your phone’s app store will show you all the WiFi networks around you and what channel they are on. If you can change the channel in your router, just choose a channel that is not being used or just being lightly used. This can go a long way towards improving your WiFi signal.
How to Improve Your WiFi Signal
Relocate your router
One of the obvious ways to increase the range is to decrease the distance between your devices and the router. Often times your cable company installs your router in a location that isn’t ideal. Some people are unaware that you can move it. simply disconnect the coaxial cable from the back of the router and move it to another location where you have a cable TV connection. Most of the time you will have multiple cable TV connections throughout your home. Just choose a location that is closer to where you want a strong signal.
Are You Using a VPN?
It might not be your WiFi that is causing you problems when streaming media from the Internet. It might just be that your ISP is throttling you as usual. This is becoming the standard these days with more and more people demanding bandwidth that the ISPs can’t deliver. So they slow down traffic they think isn’t important and that includes any means of streaming movies or TV shows except the ones they directly profit from. Can’t really blame them, but it still sucks. If you are not using a VPN, this is a problem.
You should already be using a VPN when you are connected to the Internet. For very obvious reasons. But if you aren’t using a VPN, then your immediate problem is that your ISP is slowing you down because they see you streaming media. With a high-quality VPN, they can’t see you and can’t throttle your connection. Not to mention the huge increase in privacy and security you now enjoy.
Buy a More Powerful Router
Sometimes the wireless router that is provided by your Internet Service Provider is just doesn’t cut it. For 99 percent of their customers, it probably works fine, but for bandwidth-hungry streaming media enthusiasts, it helps to be sure you are starting out with the best signal, to begin with. You can easily connect a more powerful router to an ethernet port on your ISPs router and “bridge” their router over to your super powerful one. Your ISP will usually help you out with that. But even if you can’t get it bridged, you can still use the new one with a different SSID and just ignore the old WiFi network.
When choosing a new router, take note of a few things. First of all, you can’t go any faster than the connection your ISP provides to you. So, if you have 100Mbps service, make sure that the router has at least that speed. But if you go by some crazy fast router, you will still only get 100Mbps. So, more expensive isn’t necessarily better. Usually, a quick rundown of the following specs will give you the best idea of the router you need.
- Advertised Speed – This is the speed that the manufacturer advertises. This is usually the average of the speeds across all the router’s bands Most devices can’t connect to more than one band at the same time, so this number is only an estimate.
- Ceiling Speed – This is the fastest speed that your connected devices can use the Internet. So, connecting a slower device to this router won’t increase its speed. Be sure this number is equal to or greater than the speed of any devices you will be connecting.
- Router Range – This is the maximum distance you can be from the router and still have a useable WiFi signal. Obviously, this is the most important spec to consider in the context of this article. You will want to analyze your particular usage scenario and pick the range that makes the most sense for your situation and budget.
Use a Range Extender
There are lots of WiFi range extenders available on Amazon.com. Most of them do a fairly decent job of improving your WiFi signal. But in some cases they make it seem like it’s a better signal, but it isn’t. It’s important to consider the strength of the signal that the range extender receives as well. Otherwise, you could be taking a poor connection and then just extending that poor connection on to your devices. Speed isn’t the overall factor in most cases. Stability of the connection is the most important thing to consider. If you are going to use a range extender, be sure that it is placed as close to the router as possible.
One of the drawbacks to using a range extender is that it will add latency into your connection. This usually isn’t a problem when you are surfing the web, sending emails, etc. But when it comes to streaming media, you will want to take this into consideration. Because now your streams have to go through another device and that adds latency. However, depending on your situation, this may be preferable to having a weak WiFi signal. But be aware of it.
Use Powerline Adapters
One of my favorite methods of extending a WiFi signal is by using powerline adapters. Especially here in Colombia where houses are almost all made of steel-reinforced concrete. It can be a challenge to use range extenders in these conditions because the signal drops off so fast that it is often impossible to get a good signal to the extender.
Powerline adapters work by sending the signal through the electrical wiring. The system consists of 2 or more devices. One of the devices is the “sender” and all the additional devices are “receivers”. The sender is connected to your router with an Ethernet cable and plugged into a nearby electrical outlet. The receivers can be plugged into any other electrical outlet and they each broadcast a WiFi signal. In many cases, they also have one or more physical Ethernet connections that you can plug devices into and act as a super long Ethernet cable. There is very little latency in this solution and effectively this is a wired connection back to your router.
Use a Cable
One of the most overlooked solutions to get a stronger WiFi signal is to run a cable from the router that drops in closer to where you need stronger WiFi. Then you can attach a WiFi access point to the cable to broadcast WiFi where you need it most. Ethernet cable or CAT5e cable is cheap. Some network purists out there will say that you need CAT6 or something, but I have never seen any home network that CAT5e cable did not suffice. Even at Gigabit speeds. But you can run any type of Ethernet cable you want. Just be sure to use pre-terminated cables or terminate the cable properly for the best result.
Depending on your situation, you might have to employ one or more of these methods to improve your WiFi connection. A fast, stable WiFi connection is the most important part of an enjoyable streaming media experience. If you are a cord-cutter, you should invest the money you saved into some good networking equipment at the very least. And always use a VPN any time you are connected to the Internet.