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DIY: Extending WiFi throughout your house

With the increased use of video streaming, and the explosion of the number of devices in most homes, users have become more aware of the limitations of their wireless router in providing high-performance wireless connectivity across their home or apartment. Along with that has come a wave of outdoor devices, like security cameras, speakers, weather stations, automated yard lights, and other clever devices that create a need for WiFi across an entire property, not just inside. But the task of home or property-wide WiFi can be daunting. We’ll go through some of the steps you need to take and provide some practical tips, and alternative solutions.

It’s hard enough to program every device to know the password for your network, without it needing to learn more than one. So it is by far the most convenient approach to have a single SSID, that you use across all your wireless access points. For the most part, that is simply a matter of setting it on each one. However, often wireless range extenders require a different SSID than the one they are repeating, so that can be a problem. One way around that is to look for wireless range extenders that operate using Ethernet over the power line, instead of repeating the incoming wireless signal.

There is an important exception to this guideline. If you need to set up both 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks to accommodate both older and newer devices, you may want to give them different SSIDs, for two reasons. First, when moving between APs, devices will often pick up the 2.4GHz network first, and attach to it, when you’d rather have them attach to the faster 5GHz network. Second, some older IoT devices still require connecting to a 2.4GHz AP to configure them, so you’ll want to be able to choose which network you use.

Pro Tip: Don’t name your SSID after yourself. While you’ll still be protected by your password, the last thing you want is to advertise to potential criminals exactly who lives where you do, and which WiFi they should hack into or disrupt if they want to disable your network.

A simple free app like WiFi Analyzer gives you a good idea of which channels are congestedEach WiFi band has a limited number of channels. Most WiFi access points and routers allow you to specify which channel they should use, or they can be set to Automatic. While there is no perfect way to allocate channels, it’s a good idea as you set them up to use an app (there are plenty of free ones like WiFi Analyzer for your smartphone) to see what’s on which channel, and to what extent they are overlapping — which will cause interference and a loss of bandwidth.

Speaking of monitoring your channels, as you place your devices you’ll want to track how you’re doing at covering various parts of your home and property. That’s another great use for a WiFi analyzing app. There is no substitute for wandering around with your phone showing the signal strength from your APs, to help place them where you get the best coverage. Some high-end managed systems like Netgear’s Orbi that we discuss below can help you do that with color-coded signal-strength LEDs.

Handoffs are one of the most-challenging, and most-annoying, facets of wide-area WiFi. Using fewer, more-powerful, devices is better than having lots of under-powered ones. Keep in mind that, even with the most-powerful devices, performance falls off as you get towards the edge of their range. Your best bet for a low-cost WiFi network that would cover a large area used to be purchasing discount routers and using them as access points (for some reason routers were cheaper than simpler access points until recently). The good news is that there are now an increasing number of products purpose-built for this application. We covered some of the lower-cost alternatives for adding on to an existing WiFi network earlier this year. In this article we’ll cover some of the new products that provide a more-complete, higher-performance, alternative.

Google WiFi is one of the leading new mesh-enabled routersUntil recently, consumers were stuck jerry-rigging sets of routers, access points, and repeaters together to create a patchwork solution. Now, the same “mesh” technology that has been in use in the corporate world has become available to home users. First on the scene was Ubiquiti/Unifi, which added a GUI interface to its corporate products and started selling them at great prices. If you’re pretty technical and want to add more access points to an existing router, it is a great way to go. However, Ubiquiti’s router doesn’t have a simple graphical interface, so I don’t recommend a complete Unifi solution for most users.

Over the last year, several companies have launched consumer-oriented mesh network products. We have covered some of them here already, like Eero and Luma. Since then some big names have joined the fray, including Google with its WiFi home-automation-friendly router, and Orbi from Netgear. These mesh-enabled solutions aren’t cheap, but they are the easiest way to go, as they handle SSID assignment, channel allocation, and management all from a single interface. Out of the box they’ll do both your routing and WiFi, although if you like your router you can typically set them up to do the WiFi tasks only. Some rely on web interfaces, others let you use a smartphone app, and some allow either, so you’ll want to check the specs before you buy. Another advantage to these new systems is that they tend to have much better online update capability, so the latest security patches and bug fixes can easily be applied to all devices in the system. If you roll your own solution, you’ll have to update each device separately.

Pro Tip: If your router is old or cheap, it may be throttling your broadband connection. Try doing a speedtest through it (preferably hard-wired), and then do one with a computer directly connected to your modem. If there is a big difference, you probably want to invest in a newer, better, router, or one of the new mesh systems that provide both a router and access points.

One nice feature of the Orbi is the additional wired Ethernet jacksTo get a feel for how some of these new units work in practice, I set up a system using an Orbi and satellite (about $400 for the pair, with additional satellites being about $250). In particular, I was interested in how well its innovative Tri-band feature would work. The units have a third, dedicated, band for repeating signals between themselves, leaving the typical dual-band totally open for devices. Netgear is so confident about its performance that it actually recommends not using wired Ethernet to connect the satellite, and instead relying the Tri-band wireless.

As with most mesh units with a single satellite, the default is to place the router wherever your internet cable comes into your home, and then place the satellite in the center of your home for maximum coverage. However, that doesn’t always work, as the units may not have good connectivity when set up that way. To help you place the satellite, Orbi comes with a simple colored LED. If you get a blue light, things are good. If it is amber, then the connection is poor, and you need to experiment with placement. If you can’t find a place that can reach the rest of your location, then it’s time to invest in an additional satellite.

The upshot is that the Netgear Orbi’s WiFi provides excellent coverage. Our 5,000 square-foot site is typically covered by 4 or 5 wireless access points, and still has some not-quite-dead zones. I set up an Orbi in our computer closet (where the switches and servers are) and the satellite on a different floor half-way across the building — wirelessly. I was easily able to slam all 170Mbps of our broadband to every corner of the building. Nominal WiFi connection speeds were much higher, up to 350Mbps even at a distance from the wireless satellite, and a full 867Mbps close to either unit. Measured throughput was only a fraction of those nominal rates, which is fairly typical.

Unfortunately, all this industrial-strength performance is hidden behind a too-simplistic interface. Its initial setup wizard requires access to the cloud, which sometimes isn’t possible without configuration and passwords. It does have a more traditional web interface, but its not documented in the guide that ships with the unit. Once you get it started, there is an Advanced setup that lets you configure its LAN address, etc. Even that was a little glitchy in my testing. For example, I couldn’t get it to change its LAN network number.

The default Setup Wizard also hides behind the increasingly popular “ring of light” light show. I understand why a simplistic colored light is an easy-to-understand way to see system status, but the Orbi will flash certain colors for a specified period, and then turn off. So if you don’t happen to be watching your Satellite like a hawk, you might not know how successful it was during its attempt to find the router. Personally, I’d prefer the more-traditional set of status lights. Handoffs between the Orbi and its satellite worked well, although if you use the same SSID for both 2.4GHz and 5GHz, you may connect to the slower one by accident. An additional nice feature of the Orbi units is that they each have several Ethernet ports. With most other mesh units, you need to add a separate hub or switch if you need to add more wired devices.

If you’re starting with a clean slate, there is no question that mesh technology is the way to go. For the technically-savvy, the Unifi product line is an excellent value. For those with an investment in Google’s ecosystem, the new Google WiFi is attractively-priced at $300 for a bundle of 3, and looks to have a solid feature set. If you aren’t worried about your budget, the Netgear Orbi is a high-performance option. Finally, if you want simplicity and smartphone-based configuration, then the Luma and Eero are among those worth a look. If you’re extending an existing install, traditional access points like the Unifi models are the way to go, as most of these other mesh-enabled options are closed systems designed to work with multiple, identical, units.

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