Thursday, April 20, 2006

Tech: Making your wi-fi network actually usable

My wi-fi (802.11b/g) network sucks. Connections tend to drop out at random times and it often gets completely killed whenever someone uses our 2.4GHz cordless phone. My building and the buildings on either side of me are multi-unit dwellings and there are plenty of other wi-fi networks overlapping. I figured between all the networks and all my neighbors' cordless phones, it was probably impossible to get a perfectly reliable wireless network. And I thought The Powers That Be were absolute fools for designing a wireless standard that was so vulnerable to the thousands of 2.4GHz cordless phones already in use.

I'm planning on buying a wireless digital music server, so I was finally motivated to see if there was anything I could do to improve the wi-fi reliability. A digital music server ain't much good if your music keeps dropping out whenever you or your neighbors get a phone call.

The good news is there is a solution.

The most important tip I discovered was that you should only use channels 1, 6, or 11 for the wireless network. The other channels overlap each other and allow for greater interference. Knowing this, the next step is to determine which of 1, 6, or 11 is least congested in your area. Most wireless routers default to channel 6 so chances are channels 1 or 11 are your best bets.

The easiest way to view the congestion on each channel is to download NetStumbler.
see: NetStumbler downloads

Run this on your wireless laptop/PC and see how many networks are on each channel and how strong they are. "Strength" is determined by both a high signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) and a high Signal level (just note that Signal is displayed as negative decibels, therefore a smaller negative number is a stronger signal: -30dB > -50dB).

In my area there were about seven networks on channel 6 all fighting with each other. Two were on channel 11 and at least one of those had a pretty strong signal. A very weak signal was on channel 1. Easy choice.

I configured my network to channel 1. I got a strong connection to my laptop and did some tests. I reached for the cordless phone and was able to use it without disrupting my network connection! The connection strength throughout the apartment seemed a little stronger as well.

So it turns out that 802.11b/g networks actually are pretty robust and can withstand a fair amount of interference and overlap - just not too much. The Powers That Be aren't complete morons; though they do need to get better information out to the public.

For more on wi-fi network tips and wi-fi security (especially important if your wireless network is not secure):
see: How To: When Wireless LANs Collide!

See the following post for the next wi-fi upgrade: Homemade parabolic reflector antenna boosters!


Post a Comment

<< Home