Your Wireless Network
The Computer Corner
By Charles Miller
A lot of people lately have been complaining that their Wi-Fi Internet connections are not working well. Individual situations differ, but the reason for the complaint and for hearing it now often fall under one of two common explanations. One is that increased solar flare activity this year is the cause of more radio frequency interference. Two is that with the exploding popularity of tablets, smart phones, and other wireless devices, people are finding themselves wanting to use these low-powered devices more, perhaps in parts of their house where they did not previously have any need for wireless Internet connectivity.
Looking for a solution to this problem, do-it-yourself people go off to the computer store where they find a “signal booster” or a “repeater” or “range expander” that promises to improve Wi-Fi coverage. All of those names are effectively synonymous. The promotional literature makes such claims as, “Expand the range of your wireless network” and “perfect to help cover large areas in multi-story homes, anywhere you need extra coverage for your wireless network.” That sounds so good that people buy the gizmo and take it home.
Once connected though, the buyer finds that rarely do these devices meet expectations. Often they either fail to work at all or can cause your existing Internet connection to perform worse than it did before. That is when most people call me. I wish they had called before they purchased, because I could have explained a few things about how wireless networks function.
In order to use a repeater/booster device on your home network, all your other network devices must have WDS (Wireless Distribution Service) implemented. This requires specific computer chips and firmware to have been installed in your existing router when it was built. If your main router did not come with these chips installed, then its signal cannot be boosted. WDS has never been certified by the Wi-Fi Alliance and so there is very little compatibility between different brands of network hardware.
If you do have WDS-enabled hardware and the repeater you bought works with it, then you will find the next big problem with these devices. The maximum effective throughput speed is suddenly half of what you were expecting because the repeater/booster has to repeat all communications going through it. In most cases the result is that the maximum speed of your connection to the Internet is cut in half. That is rarely satisfactory.
And finally, WDS does not support dynamic Wi-Fi Protected Access (WPA) and other dynamic key assignment technology in most cases. This means your entire wireless network can no longer use encryption with a secure password.
I have never seen a repeater advertised as “cut your Internet speed in half, and increase your wireless range.” That is what it actually does of course. Likewise, I have never seen one of these repeaters advertised as “works with our brand of routers but not with any other brands of routers.” There is some hope that in the future the Wi-Fi Alliance will get all the equipment manufacturers to agree on a set of standards so that different brands of hardware will be compatible. There is also work being done on dual-band Wi-Fi that will overcome the problem of the speed being cut in half. Until these new technologies are available though, the best and most reliable way to extend the wireless connectivity of your Local Area Network is going to require some wires.
Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at (903) 258 9084 or email FAQ8 @ SMAguru.com.