The purpose of this guide is to help you make your home Wi-Fi network faster and more reliable. We'll get started by identifying a few common reasons why your Wi-Fi network could be struggling, with solutions at each step along the way. Lastly, we’ll discuss recent trends in the WiFi world and how to think through them.
Low-quality Cable / DSL modem
If you receive your internet through a fiber connection or an ethernet port straight in the wall (perhaps you live at a property that provides your internet for you), feel free to skip this. The majority of people’s internet comes into the home via coaxial cable into a cable modem, or via telephone line into a DSL modem.
The modem that your ISP gives you is more often than not a poorly-engineered, cheaply built device. It may crash on you (anyone rebooting theirs on a regular basis?), it may hang on you, and it may be preventing you from fully utilizing the connection that you pay for. It probably hasn’t received a software update in years. These are all good reasons to replace your modem….however the most compelling reason to replace it is if you’re paying a monthly rental fee. There is hands-down no reason to pay to rent a modem from your ISP - you’ll be far better off financially if you purchase your own, and your internet quality will likely improve as well.
There are rock solid, inexpensive modems you can purchase. This isn’t an area where it’s necessary to splurge. For households purchasing speeds <300Mbps, a solid modem can be purchased for $50, sometimes as cheap as $30. Don’t purchase a modem + WiFi router combo; there are far more impressive (and cost-effective) wireless routers out there than the combined modem + WiFi router units.
DOCSIS 3.1 is a newer standard intended to replace DOCSIS 3.0. Its benefits will become most apparent for internet connections >300Mbps, as it allows for a greater number of channels between the modem and the ISP. (Think of each “channel” as a lane on the highway; DOCSIS 3.1 allows up to 32 downstream channels and 8 upstream channels, while DOCSIS 3.0 allows for 16 downstream channels and 8 upstream channels. The ability to use more channels allows your network speed to remain stable even if other channels are being utilized (eg, by your neighbors in the evening-time, since the pathways between your home and the ISP are shared).
There’s little reason to splurge for a DOCSIS 3.1 modem unless you subscribe to >300Mbps or you’re particularly sensitive to latency spikes (competitive gaming).
I’d recommend the Motorola MB7621, Netgear CM600, Netgear CM500, or Motorola SB6141 (cheapest option, though older)
Your Wi-Fi network may be slowed due to interference. Wi-Fi networks operate on 2.4 GHz and 5GHz spectrum, and this spectrum is shared with other devices that may cause interference. For example, 2.4GHz spectrum can expect interference not only from other 2.4GHz networks, but also cordless phones, bluetooth speakers or controllers (i.e., Nintendo Switch), microwave ovens, baby monitors, etc. There are two things you can do to avoid interference:
1- Using a 5GHz WiFi network is preferable to 2.4GHz, as you’ll nearly always face far less interference from other devices. This is because the 5GHz has many more “channels” for networks to operate on [multiple neighboring networks can operate without interfering], and 5GHz signals don’t travel as far [they’re easily blocked by walls, which contains them within the homes they operate in, thus reducing interference for neighbors].
As the 5GHz signal doesn’t propagate as far as 2.4GHz, these two frequencies are best utilized in concert. Ideally, your devices will hop between 5GHz when the signal quality is high, and 2.4GHz when the 5GHz band is poor. The best way to allow for this is by giving the exact same name to your 2.4GHZ and 5GHz networks, and allowing your devices and router to negotiate the roaming between them.
2- The 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands are broken up into “channels”. The number of channels available to you vary based on your country, but the core principle is that you want to use the least-utilized channel at any point in time. This is a far greater issue on the 2.4GHz band for two reasons - because there are fewer channels to choose from, and because channels near each other can interfere with one another (similar to radio stations bleeding onto nearby frequencies).
Each channel on the 2.4 GHz spectrum is 20MHz wide, but channels are only separated by 5MHz. The entire spectrum of channels 1 - 11 is only 100MHz wide, which means that only channels 1, 6, and 11 don't interfere with each other. (Said another way, if your neighbor is broadcasting on channel 2, they’re causing interference on channels 1 - 7. If you have another neighbor broadcasting on channel 11, they’re causing interference on 7 - 11, and there’s not a “perfect” channel for you to choose.)
To further complicate matters, WiFi networks aren’t the only things that can cause interference. As mentioned before, bluetooth accessories, microwave ovens, etc. can all cause interference on various channels at various times.
Modern WiFi routers like Google WiFi will automatically analyze all channels for interference and intelligently switch to the cleanest channel throughout the day. Beware of routers that do “dumb” automatic selection, as some will only run an auto-selection when they first boot up (and won’t measure continuoisly), and others will base the auto-selection by picking the channel with the fewest number of networks on it (interference is caused by actively used networks - by packets in the air - whereas a bunch of unused WiFi networks that simply broadcast their names will cause little interference; this is why continuous scanning is preferrable).
If you’re using an old-school router which needs you to define the channel you use, I recommend using a tool on your laptop to find the best channel to use. On Mac, you can open “Wireless Diagnostics” from Spotlight Search (Command + Space), then click Window → Scan at the top - a new window will open that’ll show the best channels to use.
One of the most straightforward aspects to diagnose is whether or not you have sufficient reception throughout your home. The easiest way to determine this is by looking at your signal bars, though those don’t tell the complete story.
A better method to determine how well your home is blanketed in signal is by using a device that can measure the quality of the connection between itself and your wireless router. On a Mac laptop, you can hold Option while clicking the WiFI icon at the top right of your screen to see the transmit rate (Tx rate) between the laptop and your router. Not to be confused with the internet speed your device is getting (which you can test using Fast.com), this Tx rate only shows the quality of the connection between your device and the central router. If this drops <100Mbps in parts of your home, this indicates a reception problem.
The hack-iest way to improve a reception issue is to reposition your wireless router to be more central, though there’s only so much that can do for larger homes. Mesh WiFi networks are gaining popularity because they can address the reception problem. By creating a strong mesh network, devices can connect to the node that’s closest to them. Not only does this improve the signal strength and Tx rate to devices - using a mesh network can also ensure that more devices in your home are connected to a 5GHz band, which reduces the risk of interference. [Have you ever had a video call lag when your device is far from the router (likely connected to 2.4GHz) someone uses the microwave? Creating a mesh network and ensuring that every device is on 5GHz alleviates that.]
Building a mesh network also enables your portable devices to use less battery power to remain connected to your network. The wireless antenna is a significant power draw on portable devices like phones and kindles, and that antenna requires far more power to maintain a weak signal vs. a strong signal.
Older routers likely aren’t receiving many software updates from their manufacturers, but it’s good practice to check as these can contain important stability or performance fixes.
Consumer devices are finally beginning to support a standard called Wi-Fi 6 people are wondering whether this is something that they need to bring into their homes, particularly whether it's worthwhile purchasing routers with WiFi 6 support when those routers are more expensive than their counterparts.
Tl;dr: The greatest improvement to Wi-Fi 6 is the ability for a single access point to handle many more simultaneously connected devices than before. This is going to be exceptionally useful for large sports venues or conference centers or business buildings. For the average home which has fewer than 100 devices connected to it at any point in time, Wi-Fi 6 doesn't bring too many meaningful improvements over past Wi-Fi standards.
Purchasing a well-engineered router is going to have a much more significant difference than the improvements of the Wi-Fi 6 specification.
There are a few cheap (<$130) Wi-Fi 6 routers on the market which are not manufactured very well. They boast incredibly high theoretical speeds and “WiFi 6” on the box, but they use cheap chipsets which lead to degraded performance and crashes when left plugged in for a few weeks. These cheap routers need to be rebooted often and can’t maintain connections to the number of devices typically found in a medium-sized home:
For your home, real-world reliability, reception, and speed are much more important than the theoretical speed or WiFi standards printed on the box. Important features for household use are an ability to handle a large number of simultaneous connections, or an ability to prioritize traffic so that a video call isn’t interrupted by a large upload to Google Photos or a large file download. The WiFi 6 standard itself doesn’t benefit much for household use, and your money is better spent purchasing high-quality gear rather than chasing these specifications and purchasing low-quality hardware.
What would you recommend for people with gigabit fiber connections to their house? Are there any special considerations or decisions to maximize the bandwidth to wireless devices?
Head of Nook Incorporated