Wireless networks are wonderfully liberating, breaking the tie that binds you to a desk. By using the airwaves to extend Internet access to Wi-Fi devices throughout your home, wireless gateways make it possible to surf the Web from your family room, bedroom, or backyard. However, as many have discovered the hard way, wireless can only work its magic when coverage is strong and unobstructed. Poorly placed gateways cause spotty, slow connections that lead to Web page timeouts and broken downloads. To make the most of your airwaves, follow these simple guidelines to position your wireless gateway.
Step 1: Cut the Wire
For cabling convenience, many users just place their wireless gateway wherever their high-speed link enters their home. In most cases, this wire from your high-speed cable or DSL modem must be connected directly to your wireless gateway. Keeping your gateway, modem, and broadband link close together means shorter Ethernet cables and one place to tuck all of your network gear.
But that location may present physical obstacles and interference that will hobble your wireless network. For example, many Internet-cable drops enter your house through a basement utility panel, but hiding your gateway underground can significantly reduce wireless reach and connection speed. So start with a clean slate: ignore your high-speed link’s location until you find the ideal location for your wireless gateway. We’ll consider how to connect that wire as our final step.
Step 2: Seek Higher Ground
Your wireless gateway communicates with PCs, notebooks, PDAs, printers, and other Wi-Fi devices by sending and receiving radio signals. To send a message, the gateway emits signal through its antennas — those stubby black plastic sticks attached to the gateway. Understanding just a bit about radio signals can help you optimize coverage.
Imagine tossing a pebble into a pond. When the pebble hits the water, circular waves ripple across the pond. Those waves get smaller as they move away from the center, until they eventually disappear. Radio signals work the same way, moving in all directions as they leave your gateway’s antenna. Signal strength is highest very close to the antenna, but declines with distance. Strong signals make for fast reliable connections, while weak signals yield slow connections more likely to be interrupted. Wi-Fi gateways can typically reach at most 300 feet in open space before their signals cannot sustain a connection.
That’s why you should place your wireless gateway in a high, central location. For example, putting the gateway on floor two of a three-story home helps signal reach all floors, while putting it in the center hall helps to cover all four corners. But placing the gateway by an exterior wall would leave just half the signal inside your home. To decide what “central” means in your home, consider likely user locations. To surf the Web from your deck, include the deck in your desired coverage “sphere,” but provide the strongest signal to oft-used spots — ideally, within 30 feet of the gateway.
Step 3: Avoid Roadblocks
Notice the “open space” caveat above. Like ripples in a pond, radio signals are impeded by physical obstructions. When a ripple hits a log, it becomes smaller or changes or stops altogether. When a radio signal hits a wall, furniture, or body, it loses energy. When a signal hits a reflective surface, it bounces, causing the receiver to hear “echoes.” Thus, maximum distance can only be accomplished through open space.
Inside a typical home, there are numerous obstructions that reduce signal strength and reach. This cannot be avoided, but you can try to minimize it:
- Where possible, provide a clear line of sight between the gateway and user. Don’t hide the gateway behind or beneath dense walls and floors (e.g., basements). As a rule, if you can see the gateway, so can your wireless notebook.
- Minimize the number and thickness of walls and other dense objects between the gateway and user. For example, mount your gateway on or close to the ceiling instead of setting it on a desk.
- Place your gateway at least a few feet away from metal fixtures and enclosures, including cabinets, appliances, blinds, reinforced concrete, and pipes. The same goes for quantities of water, like hot tubs.
- To reduce electromagnetic interference — emissions that cause those squiggly lines on your monitor — keep your gateway at least a foot from “noisy” electronic devices like printers.
Step 4: Speak Clearly
Wireless gateways compete with other devices for the airwaves inside your home. When another device transmits on the same radio frequency, it creates the Wi-Fi equivalent of static for your gateway. Sources of interference may come and go, but some can be avoided through positioning.
For 802.11b/g gateways, avoid devices that operate at 2.4 GHz, including Bluetooth peripherals, cordless phones, baby monitors, and microwave ovens. Keep those devices out of the “straight line” path between the gateway and user.
For 802.11a gateways, fewer household devices operate at 5 GHz. If you cannot avoid 2.4 GHz interference, use 802.11a instead. But watch out for 5 GHz cordless phones and nearby business networks that use 802.11a.
In fact, neighboring networks are a common source of interference. In suburban homes, that can often be avoided by picking a different channel. In densely populated cities and buildings, there simply aren’t enough channels to go around, and positioning cannot do much to avoid competition.
Step 5: Get Connected to Your Wireless Gateway
Once you have chosen a place for your gateway, take a test drive. Don’t worry about connecting to the Internet just yet. Power the gateway on and connect to it from your notebook. Most wireless clients provide a signal-strength indicator, like the meter that can be seen by double-clicking Windows XP/Vista wireless connections. Use that meter to verify coverage for everyone in your household.
If signal strength is poor, rethink steps 2 through 4. Would a different location provide more equitable coverage for all? Are there obstacles that can be avoided by moving the gateway just a little bit? Antennas are designed to work best in an upright position, but you may find that adjusting antenna angle helps upstairs/downstairs users.
If signal is still poor, look for hidden sources of interference and/or try another channel. For example, moving to channel 11 on your wireless gateway can often reduce microwave interference.
Now let’s consider how to connect to your high-speed link. If you’re lucky, the gateway will be close to both a power outlet and the link. If you use DSL, look for a nearby telephone jack. If you use cable Internet, you may need a long Ethernet cable between your modem and gateway. If pulling cable through walls isn’t palatable or possible, try a pair of HomePlug adapters to connect the two using your home’s electrical wiring.
Power and cabling constraints may end up influencing router placement — just don’t let those be your first consideration. Planning where to put your wireless router based on coverage can reduce user frustration and help you maximize the invisible magic of Wi-Fi.