Improving Wireless Connectivity

There are several methods for improving your signal strength that go beyond simply adding additional access points. Consider the following suggestions as practical methods to improve your range and better utilize your access points’ native throughput.

You encountered the first method earlier when you measured and optimized the placement of your first wireless access point. If you can eliminate an extra wall, you can improve your connection for essentially no (or low) cost.

Improve the quality of your device’s antennas. This includes not only adding or modifying the antenna on your access point but improving the quality of the antenna attached to your connected systems.

Buy devices that let you substitute better antennas than the manufacturer provides, or ones that are known to have quality reception. This advice is relatively easy to follow for access points and NIC cards that go into desktop computers’ PCI slots; those devices most often have screw-on antennas.

About half of the wireless PC cards that go into laptops are closed cards with no possibility of altering their antenna. The only practical thing you can do to improve your signal for those kinds of laptop connections without an external antenna is to try different orientations of your laptop to see if there is a preferred direction.

Try turning your laptop in 45-degree increments. Also, try adjusting the plane of the laptop. This isn’t really ideal, but we often do the same thing for AM/FM radios, so the technique does work more often than you think it would.

We have a slight preference for notebook wireless cards with a replaceable antenna. However, given a choice between one card that has a replaceable antenna and another card that doesn’t but is from the same vendor and offers enhanced proprietary protocols, we opted for the matching vendors.

Usually you are better off matching vendor products to one another. Buying an up-to-date wireless NIC card is often a good idea in any event because the industry has been pushing up the power of these adapters.

Earlier NICs had strength levels of 30 mW (milliwatts) or less. You can now find cards on the market that have signal strengths of 100 to 200 mW. Consider the strength of the card as one of your criteria for its purchase, it’s often the major difference between the lower end and the upper end cards in a vendor’s wireless NIC line.

Here’s a short checklist of things for you to consider in order to improve your connectivity:

  • Eliminate as many walls and ceilings as you can. Each wall or ceiling can diminish your access point’s range by anywhere from 3 to 100 feet depending upon construction and the angle of the transmission reception.
  • If you have to transmit a signal through a wall or door, select the material that is most transparent to the signal, such as plaster walls over metal doors.
  • Lessen the angle through an obstruction. A 1-foot-thick wall would appear 2 feet thick at a 45-degree angle; at an 85-degree angle that wall would be the equivalent of 11.5 feet thick.
  • Keep your wireless devices away from sources of RF noise, and try to eliminate interference of 2.4 GHz networks with other 2.4 GHz devices. If possible, consider using 5 GHz wireless networks as a base.
  • Do adjust and work with your devices’ antennas and positions to maximize the signal.

We’re big fans of wireless repeaters. There aren’t a lot of these devices on the market yet, but they have started to appear. DLink sells a model for home networks that can be used as either an access point or a repeater, the D-Link DWL-900AP+ AirPlus Enhanced 2.4 GHz wireless access point.

It’s meant to mate with one of the other access ports in that series. We’ve used two of these devices as repeaters, one on a floor below and another on a floor above the D-Link access point that connects to our network.

In repeater mode these units improve the signal level by about 50 percent. The range of the signal from the repeater isn’t strengthened enough to dramatically improve the signal on one of the floors in a room that doesn’t have line-of-sight access, but they work well in line-of-sight applications.