How to create a superfast home or small business wireless network

One thing you can depend on these days is that the claims made for wireless routers, like 300Mbit/sec. throughput and 1,000-foot range, are nothing more than digital pipe dreams.

The plain and simple truth is that these speeds and distances just aren’t going to happen in your home, office or any place on this planet.

If you’re disappointed by the speed and reach of your wireless network — and who isn’t? – there’s a lot you can do to grab every last bit of data and foot of range. I spent a few hours optimizing my network and more than doubled its indoor range from 90 to over 200 feet (with an additional 150-foot extension into my backyard) while increasing performance fifteen-fold – all with a two-year-old 802.11g router.

Some of the techniques I used are basic, like where and how to set up the router. Others are more involved and require special equipment, but they can make a world of difference.

The beauty of modern Wi-Fi equipment is that it all works together, so you can build a network with best-of-breed gear. For instance, my network has a router from one maker, antennas from another, a print server from a third and client radios from several different companies. Think of it as the U.N. of wireless: the world cooperates to make your online life a little easier.

Setup: Location, location, location

Where you put the router and how it’s set up are two of the most important — and often ignored — aspects of creating an efficient wireless network. Most people put the router in the first place that comes to mind. Big mistake.

Think of the router as the center of a sphere of connectivity that extends out in all directions from its antennas. My advice is to put the router as close as possible to the physical middle of the home or small office it needs to cover. Start with a building floor plan or rough drawing, and draw diagonal lines from the corners to mark the center.

Of course, some people — including me — can’t follow that advice. Perhaps you have a stone wall or a brick chimney in the middle of the building, or, as in my case, the cable line enters the building in the worst place possible. If for these or other reasons you can’t put the antenna in the ideal center location, don’t despair; I have solutions for you later.

Now, look around and find a good home for the router. Avoid corners (particularly in older buildings), which diminish the signal as it passes through, and don’t put the router in a closet. A great place to stash a router unobtrusively is in a bookcase or an entertainment center.

The router will need an AC outlet and connection to your cable or Digital Subscriber Line data source, but if the building’s DSL or cable modem line is in an inconvenient place, don’t panic. You can use a directional antenna (see “Antennas and boosters: Blasting the signal,” below) or extend your DSL or cable line.

If you choose the latter, you’ll find that snaking wires through walls to put your router exactly where it needs to be is dirty and expensive work, and it can cause damage. Instead, consider FlatWire TV Inc.’s thin coaxial or Ethernet cables. Enclosed in a tape one-hundredth of an inch thick, the cable sticks right onto the wall.

FlatWire sticks right on the wall.

After routing the FlatWire to where it needs to be, cover it with a thin coat of joint compound or plaster and then paint right over it; it’ll be your secret. The cable comes in 10- and 20-foot lengths, and the whole project should cost between $80 and $120.

Configuring the router: Details, details

Now that everything’s in the right place, turn on the router and enter your security settings. Next, adjust the router to operate at full power. Many routers come with it set to 75 per cent or — worse — to automatically adjust. I’ve found it’s much better to just blast as much signal as you can.

Setting the router to a single Wi-Fi protocol.

Finally, set the router to use only one 802.11 protocol. Using mixed-mode operation, which is the Esperanto of Wi-Fi because it works with 802.11b, g and n clients, slows the data down.

By working with just 802.11g clients, my router’s performance nearly doubled, from 1Mbit/sec. to 2Mbit/sec. throughput at 70 feet. (Of course, you’ll need to make sure all your connected devices are set to use the protocol you choose. If they don’t all support that protocol, you’ll need to forgo this tip or invest in new equipment.)

Antennas and boosters: Blasting the signal

Almost every wireless equipment maker uses cheap antennas for its products. While the typical wireless router comes with dinky stub antennas that are rated at a gain of 2dBi, there are devices available that are many times more powerful at transmitting and receiving data.

(For those of us who slept through high school math and science classes — myself included — the dBi scale for measuring an antenna’s power uses the logarithmic scale. Every increase of 3dBi translates into a doubling of the power.)

Installing a better antenna is easier than you might think — that is, if your antennas are removable. It’s a crapshoot, but if your antenna or antennas are on the outside of the router and come off when you gently twist them counterclockwise several rotations, you’re in luck. If not, your router’s antennas can’t be easily upgraded.

If your antennas are removable, installing new ones doesn’t involve any software. After removing the old antennas, just screw the new ones on, and power up the router. That’s it.

Picking the right antenna can be hard because there are so many to choose from.

The simplest ones are broadcast the signal out in all directions, ideal for setups where the router is placed near the middle of the building. For instance, Cisco-Linksys LLC’s HGA7S high-gain stalk antennas ($50 a pair) are about three times bigger than the devices that come with a typical router and are rated at 7dBi, which more than doubles the signal’s power. The problem is that they’re so big they flop over; fortunately, the company includes a clip to keep them up.

But let’s say you’re like me and you can’t put the router at the center of your building. There’s help, because a directional antenna aims the signal to a specific part of the building in a cone-like pattern. These antennas are not perfect — there’s always some leakage out of the back — but that leakage can actually be an advantage by providing connectivity behind the antennas.

Hawking Technologies’ HAI7MD Hi-Gain 7dBi directional compact antenna.

For example, I have my router and antennas situated about eight feet from one end of a long, narrow house. My main work area is behind and to the left of the antennas, but I still get great connectivity in that area.

For my setup, I use a pair of Hawking Technologies Inc. HAI7MD Hi-Gain 7dBi directional compact antennas ($40 each) that push the signal across the building to cover the entire structure. Using them raised my router’s range from 90 to 125 feet, although one end of the basement, which has several stone walls, was still a dead zone.

If you have dead spots that a powerful antenna still can’t fill, as I did, it’s time to investigate amplifiers, also known as signal boosters. These devices, which plug in between the router and the antenna, boost the network’s broadcast power.

I use a Hawking HSB2 Hi-Gain signal booster, which increases the network’s broadcast power to 500 milliwatts, about 10 times the output of the typical router.

To add a signal booster, unscrew the antenna from the router and screw the antenna cable into the input of the booster amp. (If your router has internal antennas or external ones you can’t remove, your best bet is to use a wireless or powerline extender instead of an amp.) Next, plug the output of the amp into the router and fire it all up.

With the directional antennas and the amp, my network’s range rose to over 200 feet, and the signal now reaches throughout the basement.

One last tip for indoors: It takes two to tango wirelessly, and the client receiver is just as important as the router. The dirty secret of notebooks with built-in Wi-Fi is that they often have low-gain antennas that are buried inside the case.

Hawking’s HWUN1 Wireless-300N USB adapter.

A good way around that problem is to use an external radio — a solution that does the trick for desktop computers as well. I chose Hawking’s HWUN1 Wireless-300N USB adapter ($75), which has a pair of stub antennas and can work with 802.11b, g and n networks.

It raised the signal strength on the margins of my network from 15 per cent to 80 per cent.

The best part is that those antennas can be replaced with high-gain antennas (as outlined above) to push the digital envelope even further.

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