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Extend the Range of Your Wireless Network

written by: Lamar Stonecypher•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 4/12/2009

Have "dim spots" in your wireless coverage or need to eke out just a little further coverage? Here are some strategies to extend your network that range from free and do- it-yourself to hardware upgrades and new appliances.

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    With the increasing popularity of wireless networking through commodity-priced consumer hardware at home and the rise of wireless networking in the office, often one finds that he needs just a small improvement - a bit more coverage in marginal areas - to enhance the usability of the network. Here we'll look at some strategies to do just that.

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    Use Similar Hardware and Protocols

    This may seem like a no-brainer, but the best results are often obtained by using matching protocols and matching hardware. In other words, use the same manufacturer's hardware for the access point and the remote stations. Try to obtain a "pure" network where all devices use the same wireless protocol. For example, consider converting to a pure "G" or "Draft-N" network instead of having a mix of different protocols operating in your network.

    Presently, a purely Draft-N network at up to 300 MBs is most desirable because it offers the best combination of range, throughput, and security. Draft-N access points and, hopefully, receivers have two or three antennas. This is so they can use a multiple-input, multiple-out (MIMO) model that relies on multipath signals. Under this model, some parts of the signal arrive a bit later than other parts because the signal is finding multiple transmission paths to the receiver. This is also called "spatial multiplexing."

    In Wireless "G" (56 MBs) and "Super G" (108 MBs), those late-arriving signals were considered interference, and these protocols make no use of spatial multiplexing at all. Still a pure G network is preferable to a mix of G and B, even if some Draft-N devices are included in the network. Unless the access point also has N, a Draft-N device on a mixed network will operate like a G device.

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    Try Changing the Location of the Access Point

    If the connection for the wireless access point is DSL or ADSL, any phone jack in the house can provide for the access point. Placing the access point in the center of the house, or at least as high as possible, will increase the coverage area.

    You can also consider putting an older PC or laptop at that location to manage the router, but that's not really essential.

    Metal roofing and thick concrete walls significantly degrade a Wi-Fi signal, so consider that, too, when deciding on placement.

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    Try Tweaking the Antennas

    The best signal strength is derived when the receiver and the access point antennas have the same polarity. In other words, if the antennas are straight up on the access point, they should be straight up on the receiver. Wireless-N laptops usually have two or three antennas in the monitor frame, so that would be vertical polarity.

    Experiment with placing the antennas horizontal or even a 45-degree angle, and then test to see if signal strength or range improves.

    With Wireless-N, most of the signal is radiated at a right angle to the plane of the antennas. This means that you can roughly "aim" the access point by changing the orientation of the access point. I recently discovered that I got the best range by placing a wireless-N router high in a corner with the plane of the antennas at 45-degrees to the walls. This produced an amazing line-of-sight connection with a Wireless-N laptop at 723 feet out. With these same devices and same setup, I found that up to around 330 feet, good-to-excellent throughput could be maintained.

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    Experiment with Passive and Active Enhancements

    A vast number of do-it-yourselfers out there are experimenting with their Wi-Fi setups and telling about their results on the Internet. Some interesting enhancements have involved homemade antennas such as the Cantenna and antennas made from kitchen strainers and colanders.

    Parabolic antenna reflectors are another enhancement. They can be made out of wire mesh or solid sheet metal or cardboard covered with tinfoil and mounted directly on the antennas. This has the advantage of not voiding the access point's warranty because it's non-invasive. They can also be used to lessen "signal leakage" to areas that you don't want covered, like to your neighbors with the teenage kid and her Macbook.

    Range extenders and repeaters are active enhancements, but they entail additional hardware expenditure. The Hawking HWREN1 (Wireless-N) and the Belkin F5D7132 (Wireless-G) are examples of range extenders. These must be placed inside an area of good coverage from the primary access point and can almost double the coverage area, but at the expense of throughput. The overhead of a range extender can be a 50% decrease in throughput at the edge of the extended coverage.

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    So there you have it. The most effective way to extend a network's range is to upgrade all devices on the network to Wireless (Draft) N. Changing placement and antenna orientation may help, as may simple, inexpensive enhancements like adding parabolic reflectors for access point antennas or homemade dish antennas for mobile devices with USB stick receivers. Beyond homemade and DIY antenna enhancements, you can also go for a hardware solution and add a range extender.

    Good luck with improving your network! Thank you for reading this, and thank you for visiting Bright Hub.

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    Further Reading

    WEP, WPA, and WPS - Which to Use? - When setting up a home or small business wireless network, the first thought should be about security - keeping your information private and keeping unauthorized persons out. There are several standards for wireless networking and encryption. Which is the best choice for a small network and why?

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    Simplified Home Networking for Vista, XP, and Windows 7 - Want to set up the simplest wireless home network for your mixed Vista, XP, and Windows 7 computers? Want a network without a "boss" computer or cumbersome passwords that works even if some of the computers are not online and the simple rule for those that are connected is "share and share alike?"

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    Offline Google Gmail - How to Get it Up and Running in Windows - Gmail just got a little smarter. Unlike with Hotmail or Yahoo!, you can now use your Google Gmail in an offline mode. This is a minor boon for laptops, tablets, and the mobile warriors that wield them. Here we look at installing and using offline Gmail, complete with screen shots.

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    Get Organized with a Brother P-touch PT-1400 Labeler - Brother is a familiar name in reasonably priced handheld thermal-transfer labeling devices. Here we'll look at a mid-range commercial model that would be at home on the factory floor or assembly room, but is also not totally unreasonable in helping manage a home computer or audiovisual system.