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Hackin’ The Net

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This is about how much size matters. No, no, not that. Minds out of the gutters, please! This is about a recent ’emergency” call I got from a friend who told me he went from one internet service provider (ISP) to another and was baffled as to why his iPad quit working from his favorite chair.

“Did they change out your WiFi router?” I asked him.
“My WHAT?” he replied as if I’d asked something truly personal.
“Did the new company change your WiFi router and antenna?” I asked again.

Again I got very vague answers which told me he did not have a clue what I was talking about nor was he curious as to why he should care. I pried a bit more: “Did they put it where the old one used to be?” I asked.
“Nope, they told me that was not where their wiring came into my house so now its behind the TV in the living room by the fireplace. The old one was upstairs.”

Lights in my head went off and I told him that was the whole issue: there simply was not enough signal to reach his easy chair reliably with the new location for his router. And on top of that, I wondered (and asked him) if their new equipment was as strong as what they took out. I could tell after a bit that I would be getting just as far speaking Swahili if I started to explain (which is what I plan to do for you readers) so in his case I gave up. The explanation, though, is simple (at least on the face of it) — the power and the location of your WiFi router will determine if things work and work well on the net in your house or wherever you are. If there’s not enough strength, you will need to relocate the router or add a range extender. It’s the same at the local restaurant or coffee shop only there, you don’t own the place so if you can’t connect (or connect well) just move tables or actually talk to those with you and switch off your computer, pad or other device for a bit.

But back to my friend in Kentucky. Tunis out my friend has a house built in 1929 with what he proudly says are “real plaster walls” and not wallboard. The house is also on three floors — a basement, main and upstairs. Add that up and exactly where the router is placed and how much “juice” it’s pumping out will determine if and where a laptop, iPad or anything else works reliably or at all.

There’s also the issue of demand as in which rooms are demanding most of the signal which does exist. He has an Apple TV, a desktop computer, he and his wife both have laptops and iPads and he has kids so that means an Xbox One and a PlayStation to boot. All of those, while not in use simultaneously, will need their share of bandwidth, but also to receive that bandwidth, they need adequate signals from the WiFi.

I’ve talked before many times here about bandwidth, so suffice to say I think he made the right choice going from the DSL he had with the telephone company (about 5 Megs download) to that cable modem (close to 20 Megs). He basically quadrupled the size of his “pipe” coming in, but if he can’t get the smaller pipes from the main hook-up to connect to his TV’, iPads and so on then he’s not going to notice any improvement. In fact, in this case he was whining about a worse signal because the new location for the WiFi router (and apparently the strength) left huge open “dead spots” in his house.
So what to do? Well, there are a lot of different possibilities. The easiest is to relocate that router back to where the old one was (if possible, given where the cables enter the house) and see if that helps. Going from upstairs to behind the TV downstairs means losing a bit of height advantage, plus there’s the ever-present issue of having enough power to get a reliable signal through those thick plaster walls — walls I’d be willing to bet contain wire mesh or something to hold his plaster in place. Think of it like listening to your car radio under a bridge or in the basement of a downtown parking garage. Once you go into those portland cement walls even your favorite FM or AM station will get static-filled or vanish altogether due to lack of signal. And FM stations have 3,000 to 100,000 watts, not a few milliwatts like that router pushes out. Add the whole thing together and it’s not an easy “fix”.

Next he has the problem of several floors. WiFi signals are not much better than line- of-sight and they often do not travel well through modern (ie: cheap, thin) wallboard, much less brick, plaster and dense materials. Plus there’s the issue of which rooms he wants to reach. A kitchen with metal back-splash and microwaves plus signals of its own from appliance motors and controls (The appliances are also themselves metal.) won’t be easy.
So the other possible fixes? The second easiest (after relocating the router back to where it was and trying that) would be to add an extender. There are many models and companies making such devices and they come in a number of flavors. There are power extenders and there are powered antennas and there are combinations. Different ones work slightly differently, but with the same goal in mind — to up the amount of signal from your WiFi which can reach the parts of your house or rooms you most often use to surf the net. To quote from one such device’s description: “Extends existing Wi-Fi coverage area so you can enjoy wireless networking on compatible devices, including Apple iPad and iPod, e-readers, mobile phones, tablets and more…” In other words, to beef up coverage by being placed where the current WiFi signal starts to fade and retransmitting it with a second full power signal.

There’s also the other end of the scale — one which we use at one spot in our house. Every device using WiFi has a small receiving antenna somewhere inside. You can try turning or reorienting your iPad or game console to grab more signal. Or, while this won’t work for an iPad or iPhone, an internet radio I have kept cutting out until my partner opened the back, pulled out the receiving antenna for the WiFi and extended the cable. Now the antenna sits on a bookcase — maybe not the prettiest but it’s only the size of a thumb drive— and my reception is rock solid. Problem solved!

Remember, too that there are some limitations to even the biggest, best and baddest antennas and boosters. Chief among them is just like your car has a limit of how fast it could go (even were there no speed limits) there is a limit to what you can cover and what is economical to be worth covering using your WiFi. If you are shooting a zillion watts out and still can’t reach that favorite chair, you might consider moving the chair or going with a wired connection (for a laptop or desktop).

I did warn this would be complicated. So what to do? Understand that there ARE limitations despite what your ISP has sold you. There will be times and spots where WiFi signals just will not work well. And there will be places where (despite all the claims from makers of extenders and helper antennas and boxes) that you will only be able to make things work reliably if you use a wire to connect. One such example is the computer this newspaper is composed on. It’s wired. It has a WiFi connection, but in the spot where mv desk sits and in the downtown area where I live (with a lot of signals — from mobile phone antennas to police dispatchers, radio and TV stations and more) there’s just no totally reliable WiFi made that will guarantee what my wired connection does. Is this a fix-all for everyone? Not hardly, so two final suggestions to check. For one, make sure it’s your WiFi and not your device that’s got issues. Remember that iPads and computer WiFi connections and built-in receiving antennas DO sometimes fail. If in doubt, go to a friend’s or coffee shop and see if it connects reliably there. Finally, if things work just fine now, ask a lot of questions before you consider or make a change. While my Kentucky friend gets four times the speed he used to with that new cable modem, in his chair he gets nothing — and what fun’s a nap while enjoying radio or Netflix if you have to sit in a hard seat somewhere and not relaxing?

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