Over the years I’ve implemented several wifi solutions in larger commercial and residential settings, sometimes replacing existing equipment to improve coverage. After much experimentation, trial and error, and sometimes frustration, I now recommend wifi equipment from only two manufacturers: Ubiquiti Networks and Amped Wireless.
But before we go into that . . .
Improving wifi coverage
Don’t throw out your existing wireless access point or router until you’ve checked the following (I’ll use the terms wifi router and access point interchangably because these tips apply to both):
- Relocate the router to as central a location as possible (vertically as well as horizontally if you’re trying to cover multiple floors)
- Generally, the higher you place the router, the better the coverage will be. This is because there are typically many more large objects close to the floor than close to the ceiling (especially metal ones like stoves and refrigerators)
- Small differences in placement and antenna position can make a big difference. Many wifi routers have 2 or 3 external antennas that can be rotated. One parallel to the ground and one sticking straight up is a good starting point.
- Don’t rely on the wifi “bars” on your laptop or mobile device to gauge the impact of any change you make. Use a measurement app like the free Wi-Fi Analytics Tool for Windows or Android, or Wifi Scanner for Mac OS.
- Rule out sources of interference. Microwave ovens, compact flourescent bulbs and older technology cordless phones are all common culprits.
- If the wifi access point cannot be centrally located and has a replaceable antenna, a high gain antenna might help. Both directional and unidirectional models are available.
For installations where it’s convenient to run cable, nothing beats the UniFi access points from Ubiquiti Networks. The standard model is appropriate for most situations and is capable of speeds up to 300 Mbps with a range of up to 400 feet. The UniFi access points look similar to smoke detectors and are designed to be ceiling mounted. The nice thing about these APs is that your wifi devices will see one wifi network, even if multiple access points are installed. They also support Power Over Ethernet (PoE), simplifying cabling.
For residential settings, mount one near the center of each floor, run ethernet cable from each AP to your router, and run the configuration software. (If your existing router provides wifi, be sure to disable it.) The configuration software is a joy to use and its default settings are typically fine. Two or three APs will provide a perfect wifi signal in all but the hugest of homes. Save money by buying a 3-pack!
Commercial applications may require some experimentation because of all the extra equipment and metal objects that are present in office and warehouse environments. One standard AP should cover 5000 sf of office or open warehouse space. Ubiquiti also makes a long range AP that should cover up to 10,000 sf, but I generally prefer to use multiple standard APs. (3-pack of UniFi PRO access points is a great start). The reason is that wifi requires 2-way radio communication. Although a long range AP can blast a stronger signal to your wifi device, your device must transmit a strong signal back to the access point. The amount of power that mobile devices like smartphones can transmit is limited.
For retrofit residential applications where it’s impractical to run cable for access points and/or you want to cover a whole home with minimal fuss and equipment, your best bet is an Amped Wireless high power router. This is functions as both a router and access point, so there’s only one piece of equipment to worry about.
Physical installation is easy. Amped ships the router with all ports very clearly labeled about what plugs into what. However, the configuration process is somewhat disappointing for an otherwise excellent product. To complete setup, you must reboot the router multiple times. Annoying. I also had trouble configuring Amped routers from Mac computers using the Safari browser. You need to replace the host name in the url (the part following “http://”) with the router’s IP address every time it loads a new page. Fortunately configuration is something that needs to be done only once!