Digitally Enhanced

Digitally Enhanced

18.11.2016 Wi-Fi around the home: Weekender Digitally Enhanced Column 26

With the NBN rolling out throughout our region and people enjoying faster connections from their home to the Internet, I am commonly asked about the best way to connect devices within the home to take advantage of the increased speed. Many people are interested in wireless but because of [Global warming or Donald Trump or a bad neighbour or insert some other crazy concept] many people do not achieve brilliant wireless speeds throughout their house. Although the NBN is being blamed for a number of things, the NBN is not responsible for poor wireless in your house. What the NBN does is highlight other potential bottlenecks.

When the Internet was first introduced in Australia on 24 June 1989, the speed was such that it may have been quicker to drive to the library and borrow a book rather than try and look up information on the Internet. The fastest dial-up modem at the time allowed speeds of 9.6 kilobits per second (kbps). To put that speed into perspective, to send a photo taken from a modern smartphone at speeds of 9.6kbps would take close to three hours.

Through the nineties a variety of modem transmission standards were introduced that allowed speeds to increase to 14.4kbps then 33.6kbps and the major breakthrough was made – and a technician from a major company at the time told me that this was as good as copper was ever capable of – when the 56kbps modem was introduced in 1998. When we use the same units commonly used today, that speed is 0.056 megabits per second (Mbps).

ADSL was first made available for consumers by Telstra BigPond in 2000 and suddenly copper was delivering speeds of 1.5Mbps – 26 times faster than some believed copper was ever capable of. As the years rolled on, we saw new standards introduced with new technologies – including the popular ADSL2+ at speeds of 20Mbps – until we now have our current NBN with speeds up to 100Mbps.

With NBN speeds more than ten thousand times faster than the original dial-up connections from 1989, the NBN highlights the need for other infrastructure to be brought up to speed.

In the early days of Internet access, there was one computer in the home with a modem and that was the computer you sat at to connect to the Internet. As time moved forward, there may have been another computer that you used somewhere in the house that had a separate modem or, in some circumstances, it may have been cabled back to a central point.

In September 1999, the 802.11b Wi-Fi standard was released and it was some time after that when the idea of moving around your house carrying a (heavy) notebook while still connected became a viable option. The maximum theoretical speed of this standard was 11Mbps so it was still dramatically faster (200 times) than the dial-up modems at the time. By the time the first iPhone was introduced in June 2007, it came with the ability to connect to 802.11b and 802.11g. The newer Wi-Fi standard had theoretical speeds of 54Mbps compared to the common ADSL speed of 1.5Mbps (36 times faster). There are now a plethora of Wi-Fi standards (a; b; g; ac; n – I need to write an article just on these standards) with theoretical speeds of up to 780Mbps but this is the area where people experience some dissatisfaction with their Internet connectivity. Take the newest standard. 801.11ac has an upper speed limit of 780Mbps but can go as low as 6.5Mbps. It uses the 5GHz frequency range.

There are two main problems people experience. Firstly, they may have devices that are not capable of the newer standards. The 801.11ac standard was released in December 2013 so it wasn’t common in devices until well into 2014. Secondly, and this is the most common problem, Wi-Fi is subject to a range of potential obstructions. You are transmitting a very weak non-ionising radio signal. Your device (PC; phone; TV; etc.) is receiving and transmitting the same signal. The quoted approximate range for these devices is 35m BUT anything you put between these two devices can absorb some of the signal and reduce the range and, most importantly, the speed. Place a metallic object – such as a fridge or oven – in the middle and much of your signal is absorbed. To varying degrees, walls; people; appliances; furniture; etc. can all reduce the available signal. In an increasingly crowded radio spectrum, other radio signals – particularly from nearby Wi-Fi devices – can also interfere with the signal. In the past when our Wi-Fi speed was 36 times faster than our Internet connection, we didn’t notice some of the interference or a slower Wi-Fi speed. But today, when our maximum Wi-Fi speed is only 7 times faster than our Internet connection, the range of minor issues impacting Wi-Fi are suddenly major issues.

There are solutions though. Firstly, Wi-Fi works best when there are no obstructions between devices and there is no outside interference. So…living in a metal shed that is built as a Faraday cage and having no internal walls would be the best solution. Assuming that may be a little over the top for some of the readers of this column (priorities folks) then there are alternatives. The best solution is cabling. If you can cable to each individual device you want to use then you will experience reliable speeds of 1,000Mbps. The next best alternative combines Wi-Fi and cabling. Ensure that all of your devices are capable of the latest standard and situate multiple Wi-Fi devices throughout your house all wired back to the central NBN router. As an example, I have three wired Wireless Access Points in my house to give consistent coverage across the entire footprint with automatic hand-off from each separate device. Lastly, if cabling is difficult in your environment, you can use wireless repeaters. As the name suggests, wireless repeaters take the original Wi-Fi signal and repeat the signal. You can repeat multiple times but each time you repeat the signal you introduce a small amount of latency. Not perfect but a completely reasonable solution.

As NBN speeds continue to increase over the years to come, these problems will be further highlighted but I can guarantee you that there are many organisations working on new standards to overcome these looming issues. One resident complained to me that they needed a solution for their Wi-Fi as it worked everywhere throughout the house – except the toilet. They didn’t like the suggestion of not using their phone in the toilet! And that, my friends, is what we call progress!

Mathew Dickerson