May/June 2021

Product Watch: Get More Out of Your Wi-Fi

William T. Ramsey & Phillip Hampton

Over the past 12 months, most of us have really taxed our home and small office Wi-Fi systems. With more people working from home and students engaged in distance learning, many home internet installations have groaned under the increased demand for Wi-Fi bandwidth. This demand surge is in addition to already increased usage of home internet Wi-Fi from always-connected home automa­tion devices, video streaming services and bandwidth-hogging gaming applications.

When we were young (back in the dinosaur age of touch-tone telephones with long-distance calling), major family squabbles would erupt over telephone usage. We remember competing with family members for access to prime phone time. Today these ancient battles seem farcical as everyone has their own phone, and long-distance rates are nonexistent. The real battle in today’s households, however, revolves around who is using up all the Wi-Fi bandwidth.

While many households scrambled to upgrade their remote meeting capabilities during last year’s pandemic with updated laptops/tablets, webcams, microphones and headphones, many overlooked the most important upgrade—their Wi-Fi router. We personally spoke with many colleagues who were struggling with maintaining satisfactory internet connections for Zoom meetings only to find out that they were still using a Wi-Fi router that had been installed five years or more prior. The facts are painfully obvious that the Wi-Fi equipment most used just five years ago is woefully inadequate for today’s audiovisual, interactive online experiences.

We set out to help many of our colleagues assess how to improve their Wi-Fi bandwidth and performance in their homes and small offices without breaking the bank. We share our assessment and conclusions below.

The first order of business is to determine how much band­width you have coming into your home. Broadband pack­ages with anywhere from 300 megabits per second (mbps) to 1,000 mbps (or 1 gigabit per second) speeds are commonplace. The low end of that scale should be considered an absolute minimum where videoconferencing, video streaming or inter­net gaming are taking place. Regardless of how fast your Wi-Fi signal is, if the underlying broadband connection into the home is weak, your online experience will not be good.

Once you have established that your broadband connection to the home is sufficient, you then need to evaluate the strength of your Wi-Fi signal. Most of our internet devices no longer plug directly into an internet port, so our online experience is totally dependent on our wireless connection to the internet.

There are various flavors (or versions) of Wi-Fi that have been standardized over the years by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). These different versions have confusing monikers that you will often see to describe the capabilities of a Wi-Fi router, e.g., 802.11n, 802.11ac, 802.11ax, etc. The distinction among all these various Wi-Fi versions is beyond the scope of this article. Our shorthand advice to col­leagues is to make sure your Wi-Fi router is at least Wi-Fi 5 compliant (802.11ac), which was officially approved in 2014. For future proofing your home technology, we recommend going ahead and getting a Wi-Fi 6 compliant router. This new standard that supports even higher Wi-Fi speeds was approved in 2019. Because most new smartphones and laptops that are coming on the market will support Wi-Fi 6, and Wi-Fi 6 is backward compatible with older devices, we highly recommend purchasing a Wi-Fi 6 router to take advantage of the faster con­nection speeds.

Another problem that many experience with their Wi-Fi signal is that the speed of the connection can vary significantly when there is only one Wi-Fi router providing coverage for a large area. The connection speed of your laptop or other device can decrease the farther you get away from the Wi-Fi router. Other factors such as thick walls, concrete and metal struc­tures can also impede Wi-Fi performance. We had some col­leagues complaining that they had just purchased a new Wi-Fi router located in the basement of their home, but they were still getting spotty reception on their Zoom calls when located in their third-floor office. The Wi-Fi signal had weakened signifi­cantly by the time it reached the third floor.

There are a couple of ways to remedy the weak signal problem in a larger home. One method is to deploy Wi-Fi range extenders in areas where the Wi-Fi signal is weak. Wi-Fi extenders simply repeat the Wi-Fi signal from the main router to an extended area. A Wi-Fi extender is most effective when it is physically hardwired back to the main router. As people normally do not like running network wiring in their home walls, we usually do not recommend this method to extend your Wi-Fi signal.

The second way, and our preferred method, to maintain a strong Wi-Fi signal throughout a home or small office is by deploying a mesh network. A mesh network is configured by placing multiple wireless mesh devices (nodes) within the home that communicate with each other and provide a seam­less, consistent Wi-Fi signal over a large area. The mesh router and nodes all communicate with the closest node and provide a blanket Wi-Fi connection over an extended area. A user can move throughout the area and connect to the nearest mesh Wi-Fi node seamlessly and automatically.

There are many mesh routers available on the market. We chose the Amazon eero 6 Wi-Fi mesh router because it is Wi-Fi 6 compatible and because reviews indicated that it was incredi­bly easy to install. The mesh system consists of three nodes, one of which is the main router that connects via a network cable to the incoming internet source (cable modem or broadband router). After plugging in the main eero router to our Google Fiber internet router, we then downloaded the eero app on our phone for further instructions. The app literally walked us step-by-step through setting up the remaining wireless nodes. We deployed the entire system in five minutes. The reviews about ease of installation were definitely accurate.

After the quick setup, we were eager to see if the mesh network indeed made a big difference in our Wi-Fi connectivity in some of the more remote areas of our office. The results were convinc­ing. Sitting in the same room with our original wireless router, we could get around 300 mbps on our Wi-Fi-connected phone. In the farthest room away from the router before we deployed the eero mesh system, our Wi-Fi signal was only about half as strong. With the eero mesh system installed, we saw the Wi-Fi signal hit 300 mbps, even when we were in a more remote area of the office. The problem with the weakened Wi-Fi signal in a remote office had been solved.

If Wi-Fi has been contentious for your family, you can be the hero by updating your Wi-Fi to the 21st century. Whether you just need an updated broadband connection, or you need more robust Wi-Fi coverage than a mesh router can provide, don’t just curse the mythical Wi-Fi gremlins in your network. Make an investment in a proper Wi-Fi setup so everyone can get their job done and maybe have a little fun, too. 

William T. Ramsey

Partner

William (Bill) T. Ramsey is a partner at Neal & Harwell in Nashville, Tennessee. He tries lawsuits, farms and fools with tech gadgets in his spare time. ramseywt@nealharwell.com

Phillip Hampton

Founder & Chairman

Phillip Hampton is the founder and chairman of LOGICFORCE, a legal technology consulting company. While he cut his teeth in the tech industry as a software developer, he has a passion for tech gadgets that make work easier and fun. phampton@logicforce.com

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