WiFi And The Last 100 Feet Still The Weakest Link In Wireless

I am amazed that we don’t hear more grumbling about one of the least consumer-friendly aspects of wireless life -- the home WiFi network. It is beyond me how most ordinary non-geeky beings out there manage a set of router technologies and protocols that to this day are a challenge to set up and deliver uneven performance and unexplained breakdowns. I have been testing and using home networks since the days of proprietary hardware that hadn’t even heard of an 802.11x standard. I have set up and troubleshot them all. Even I find myself scratching my head over incomplete connections, missing SSIDs, weird performance drops from the highest-speed protocols, etc.

I wonder how people who don’t have my experience with the stuff handle these inevitable hiccups in everyday home connectivity. In the end we are all in the same boat, and probably rely on the default solution. When all else fails, reboot the router. I don’t know why it often works or how. It is the modern connected world’s rough equivalent to banging the TV to get better reception. It must rattle something in there into place.

I am enthused but never fully satisfied when each new generation of protocol and hardware hits the market. I have a recent issue Netgear R6300 router that has all the latest bells and whistles. There are dual bands running at insanely high Mbps speeds, designed for a dozen or more connected devices, and USB ports for adding storage. It even has downloadable smartphone apps for controlling the network.

It also sports the latest and greatest 802.11ac protocol that employs “beamforming” that actually helps the router locate an “AC” compatible device in an environment to optimize the direction the signal is aimed. This is intended to optimize the signal to concentrate it at and track the receiver.

Even without the beamforming capability (which requires compatible receivers) I was impressed by the bump in speed under the new hardware that apparently has very strong signal power. I compared performance around my home/office network across both frequency bands on a three-year-old 802.11n and the new router and found tremendous gains. We are finally at the point where a router in an upper floor can reliably stream high-definition video with nary a hiccup to iPads, connected TVs, etc. In fact, both iOS AirPlay and Google Chromecast -- which rely heavily on WiFi performance -- were substantially faster. And the mobile app allowed for easy and more user-friendly access to tweaking tools.

But we are not there yet. At the upper end, on the 5.6G-hz band that is supposed to provide the best performance for 802.11n and 802.11ac protocols, I find throughput is all over the map. This is as true with the latest Netgear router as it was for me with an aging model. This band, which is best for streaming media without interference from ordinary appliances, pops up and down the performance charts and is the most likely place for a total flake-out.

Overall, the situation is getting better. I have some hope for the beamforming technology to optimize and normalize signals, but this technology only works with other AC devices. The next generation of iOS devices and Apple TVs will likely support the technology, as the newest MacAirs do. But in my experience with devices like OTT boxes, Android phones and tablets and game consoles, their ability to connect to routers even on the 5.6GHz band is haphazard.

Ironically, both out in the wild and in my own home, I find myself reverting to my iPhone’s LTE or a portable LTE hotspot for device connectivity that usually beats the available WiFi.  

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4 comments about "WiFi And The Last 100 Feet Still The Weakest Link In Wireless".
  1. mike boland from BIA/Kelsey , August 30, 2013 at 1:24 p.m.
    Great angle here Steve, as always. I like the banging on the TV analogy. It might sound ignorant or simplistic as I don't cover networking hardware, but I've been surprised there isn't a feature to remotely reset a router. Or maybe there is, but it should be standard in all routers, including the low grade one my mom uses. I just picture her bending down under her desk to execute the manual process of unplugging the AC adapter to reset the damn thing 6 times per day. I know you can remotely reset from any browser but that process is almost worse than the manual furniture burrowing (back injuries notwithstanding). An app or proprietary remote device to reset it would be nice. But then again, perhaps that's hardware companies implicating themselves or passively admitting that they require frequent reboots...
  2. Steve Smith from Mediapost , August 30, 2013 at 1:32 p.m.
    Mike. I have the same Mom and have had to save her repeatedly from WiFi disasters, as I have with many friends. I am not sure how many silent sufferers there are out there who have routers in their homes they really aren't connecting to. I can tell from the latest round of hardware and software, including the Netgear unit I mention above, that they are trying to take an inherently complex technology and make it more friendly. But there just are too many inexplicable hitches to WiFi to regard it as the appliance you want to power all of this stuff in the home.
  3. Norm Archer from Ping4, Inc. , August 30, 2013 at 3:23 p.m.
    Having intermittent WiFi problems is like throwing out your back. You have no idea how it happened, and are forever wondering when it might happen again. And it does. My 2 TB Apple Time Capsule, which I thought would last me a few years, is already performing terribly for no apparent reason whatsoever. It's so hot I could melt cheese on top. Pass the pain pills.
  4. Steve Smith from Mediapost , August 30, 2013 at 3:31 p.m.
    Norm, I feel your pain. I have gone through so many routers over the years that just seem to burn out in some inexplicable way. It is as if some key part actually gets dodgier and dodgier so that now I have gotten used to replacing it every couple of years just because it seems to get worse over time. Have no actual basis for thinking so. Just seems to be. Again, that is not how necessary appliances behave and yet we are depending on these things now as we would air conditioning.