Understanding WiFi

It’s hard to beat the mobility and convenience of WiFi. But WiFi is not perfect. WiFi operates in two unlicensed wireless frequency bands, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. The two WiFi frequency bands have pros and cons, and it’s important to understand how and when to use each band.

If you have a newer “AC” type WiFi home router, it probably supports both bands simultaneously so that each device can use the best frequency band based on the intended use. Wireless routers with external antennas are usually a bit more expensive, but they typically have better wireless range and perform better in larger homes. 


2.4 GHz Frequency Band

Positive:

  • Signals can pass through walls, making it easier to cover your entire home.

Negative:

  • Limited spectrum available, only 3 unique channels. 
  • Narrow channels, which means lower (but still adequate) data rate to a device – typically up to 100 Mbps at short range.
  • Higher chance of interference with your neighbors, as signals can pass through walls and there are only 3 channels to choose from.
  • Operates on the same frequencies used by microwave ovens, so may have poor internet performance while operating your microwave.

5 GHz Frequency Band

Positive:

  • Many more available channels.
  • Supports wider channels, which means very high data rates (200+ Mbps).
  • Reduced potential for interference with neighbors, as it has many more channels to choose from.

Negative:

  • Signals cannot easily pass through walls, making it more difficult to cover your entire home.

Setting Up My Wi-Fi Network

In my home, I have created separate network names for the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands, which enables me to control which band each one of my devices uses. I mainly use 2.4 GHz for my mobile devices as it can more easily cover my entire home and continues to work even as I move around. And the data rate requirements for my mobile devices isn’t that high. For my fixed-location devices that are not using a wired interface, I use the 5 GHz band if the signal is strong enough in that location. I usually get very good 5 GHz performance if I am in the same room as the wireless router, or one room over (only one wall).

Instead of letting my router automatically pick a wireless channel within each band, I do it manually. But you might want to try letting the router do it automatically first, as it’s a hassle to log into the router and wade through the complex configuration options. 

Helpful Apps

I have downloaded an OSX application to my laptop called WiFi Explorer that enables me to scan for Wi-Fi interference around my home and then select the channel with the least amount of neighbor interference. But this is for the techie in your household. Or simpler yet, you can use two free apps that can be downloaded to your smartphone to analyze the Wi-Fi performance within your home. One application is called Speedtest, and the other is CloudCheck.

Speedtest is available from both the speedtest.net website and as a mobile app. Speedtest will show the speed between your end device (laptop, smartphone or video streaming device) and a selected server somewhere in the internet. When using Speedtest, it’s important to pay attention to the speedtest server being used. Speedtest usually does a decent job of choosing the best server (fast and local) that will not limit the test results. But double-check the server if the results don’t make sense.

CloudCheck is more sophisticated, but only runs on a smartphone or tablet. CloudCheck will help you separate the speed capabilities of your home network versus your ISP’s connection from your modem to the internet. CloudCheck has special software built into some commonly available retail home routers, such as the ASUS RT-AC66 unit, which can help more accurately measure the home networking performance.

Summary

Set up a wired connection from your device to the router for the highest speed and reliability. For Wi-Fi devices, choose 5 GHz if you’re in the same room or in direct sight of the router. Choose 2.4 GHz for all other locations. If you want to keep things simple, and if you don’t need speeds higher than 50 Mbps to individual devices, just use 2.4 GHz all the time.