5 ways to extend your wireless network’s range

Posted in Technology on Wednesday, 16th September 2009 at 10:32AM

5 ways to extend your wireless network’s range

This article covers how I managed to go from no signal at all to a full strength signal in my studio at the end of my garden with an 802.11g wireless router.  In between my router and the studio were two brick walls and about 30 metres of garden but I needed to get a signal in order to work so these are a few of the factors that worked for me.

Update 31/01/2010 – I recently read a really promising review for a new product for mac users called the “Bear Extender N3″ which promises to boost the range of your airport by 200%.  A good review can be read on TUAW by following this link or you can visit the product site directly .  If you’ve had any experience with the Bear extender please let me know how you got on.

Update 11/04/2012 - Another new product has hit the market which looks like a good bet for extending wireless range.  The Amped Wireless High Power R10000G Router and Smart Repeater got a pretty glowinmg review from Engadget despite somewhat lacking in fetaures - http://www.engadget.com/2012/04/06/amped-wireless-high-power-r10000g-router-and-smart-repeater-hand/

Method 1 - Positioning

Ok, this may seem obvious but it is definitely the first port of call and was the first change I made in order to get any signal at all.  I managed to take one of the walls out of the equation by threading the power cord under the floorboards to the router’s new location under the bathroom.  I saw an immediate, if slight improvement in signal strength but not yet to a usable level.

Method 2 - Build a parabolic reflector

I was skeptical about this one at first, but I needn’t have been.  The basic principle of this is to build  a foil covered curved reflector to focus the signal from you router in a specific direction. I followed the DLTV video below and used the template they suggested at www.freeantenas.com, making an individual reflector for each antenna of the router.  The results were quite surprising with an immediate increase in strength by a couple of bars but after a few hours of trying to work with it I realised that transfer speeds were low and it still wasn’t stable enough for a working environment with frequent dropouts continuing to be an issue. However, this may be a good budget option to try before investing in more expensive solutions.


Method 3 – Buy a booster antenna

My next attempt was slightly less home-made and involved purchasing a 9dbi SMA antenna from eBay.  It was pretty cheap at just under £10 and promised to boost my signal by up to 4x.  Having unscrewed the small antenna that was supplied with my router and screwed on the giant replacement I just about managed to squeeze it back under the bath and switch it all back on.

Once again, initial tests seemed promising with a 3-4 bar signal being received down at my studio and the added bonus that this was omni-directional, extending the reach of my network in every direction unlike the reflector which was just directed towards my studio.  The first problems started to emerge after trying to use the router for any length of time with a return to the drop-outs and fluctuations I had encountered with the reflector.  This was a bit disappointing but I thought that maybe if  I tried using the reflector in conjunction with the new antenna the combined benefits might be what I needed.  Unfortunately I think the reflector was too small to have any meaningful impact on such a large antenna and there wasn’t room under the bath for a giant parabolic reflector.

After a few days of getting by, the death nail of my latest attempt was courtesy of my neighbour.  He uses a TV signal sender that he had been using happily for many months without a problem and which had mysteriously become unusable all of a sudden with broken images and interference.  I commiserated him on this unexplained technical fault and quietly headed back up stairs to dismantle my bath.

Method 4 - Upgrade your router

I was starting to get a bit desperate by this point and in need of a definitive solution so I decided it was time to throw some money at the problem.  I was still operating on an 802.11g network and this suited me fine as much of my equipment (an old imac, web-cam and airport express) all operated on g but my Macbook Pro was my main workhorse and he needed wi-fi fast so I invested in a Apple Airport Extreme 802.11n router.

I was hoping to be able to utilise the 5GHz spectrum and have a dual 5GHz and 2.4GHz setup using both routers but I quickly discovered that whilst using 5GHz does offer better transfer rates it also suffers from reduced range and in my case this meant a range even worse than my g router. With this in mind I switched off the g router and went wholly over to 2.4GHz 802.11n and was finally able to do a full days work without losing my signal.  This also meant I could no longer use my Airport Express and web-cam on the same wireless network, but work comes first and I decided I would have to make do.

This was all fine until I decided to build a greenhouse in between the house and my studio, not thinking about the wi-fi implications.  Back to my studio Monday morning and low and behold, no signal!  It was at this point my wife suggested I demolish the greenhouse but this wasn’t an option as my melons had already germinated.  A solution needed to be found.

Method 5 - Install a range extender / repeater

I was running out of ideas and needed to think of something fast.  After browsing the web for solutions I decided to try a wifi extender, an option I had up till now hoped to avoid as I didn’t want to waste energy on a third router.  After a lot of research I realised that none of these devices were perfect and each had their detractors so I let price decided and went for the Belkin Universal Range Extender from a company called ‘Bargain Stock’ (they deal mainly in B-grade stuff) for £17.  I have also recently read a glowing review for a similar device on Engadget which might also be worth a look, you can read it here.

Initially there were no life signs from the unit and I eventually deducted that the company had included a non OEM power adapter with the unit which didn’t actually work.  This might sound like a bad start but it actually turned out in my favour because as a result I realised that the unit could be powered from a spare USB adapter I had lying around.  This meant I could plug it into the USB hub of my monitor and the unit would only be powered up when I was in my studio at work negating some of my worries about power usage.

It wasn’t 100% straightforward to set up on the mac and I was glad of my XP / Parallels install for inputting the security settings and a couple of reviewers on amazon gave some useful tips which got me through the install procedure. After an hour or so the unit was connecting to my secure wireless network at full strength and without drop outs.  The improvement was dramatic with streaming video now a real possibility for the first time.  The belkin only functions on 802.11g networks and I couldn’t find any affordable solution for n networks but again this turned out to be a benefit as I could now dedicate my airport extreme to the higher speed  5GHz n spectrum and the g network for all my older devices.  The laptop automatically switches to the 5GHz network when I am in range and back to the 2.4GHz network when I am in my studio.  The two networks are linked at the routers so I can now access all my devices all the time.

It took me a lot of hard work and time to get there but I think I have finally found the perfect solution.  I hope this might help save some time for others out there with similar problems and do let me know if you have any ideas or methods you found to extend your wireless range.

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Recognising (and being able to verify by measurement) the benefits of directional antennas:
I understand that that wireless ‘internet’ throughput is governed by:
1. WiFi Signal strength
2. Interference (possibly from neighbour Wifi on the same or adjacent channels).
3. Your wired ‘internet’ connection.

A 3dB gain in signal strength at any single point in space = double the signal strength.
Therefore 10+ dB gain (from either a parabola or corner antenna) is phenomenal.

If you are able to connect to your Wifi at greater than -50dBm you should be observing some pretty good data rates.
Your article indicated that regardless of increased signal strength you were still experiencing drop outs.

Did you perform a ‘site survey’ (available on many devices identifying all WiFi devices in range).
What else are we missing?

I’m going through the same process myself.
I hope to update you with results in the next couple of weeks.

Posted by Colin Rhodes on Sunday, 20th January 2013 at 7:47AM

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