WiFi is everywhere and, for most readers, that it includes your home. While desktop computers still frequently use Ethernet, the majority of laptops, tablets and smartphones use WiFi; indeed, the latter two often can’t connect to anything but a wireless network, be it your home router or a carrier’s cellular data.
In an ideal world, this reliance on WiFi would be only an advantage, but in truth the technology isn’t perfect. Though more reliable than ever, many homes and businesses still struggle with “blind spots” with low or no coverage. Here’s how to find – and eliminate – these wireless dead zones.
Setting Up A WiFi Analyzer
Before you resolve any problems with your WiFi network’s coverage you need to determine where they exist. If you’re reading this article because you want to resolve a blind spot you already know about, you might be able to skip this step, but gathering more detailed information on the size and severity of the WiFi dead zone can be useful.
A WiFi analyzer is just a conventional computing device (laptop, tablet or smartphone) with software installed that lets you take a closer look at wireless networks in your area. In my opinion an Android device is the best choice because there’s a high-quality analytic app, WiFi Analyzer, available for free. This app can tell you not only the signal strength of your network but also provide information about the strength and operating channel/frequency of other networks in the area. That’s key data because a blind spot can sometimes occur when two networks interfere with each other.
The second-best choice is a Windows notebook. Laptops running this operating system are popular and there are several software tools available including inSSIDer, Wi-Fi Inspector and NetStumbler. These tools provide the basic signal strength information you need as well as some additional details. The latter two are free, but inSSIDer costs $9.99 per month. In exchange, it provides the most robust feature set and arguably the best interface. InSSIDer also works on Mac.
Linux laptops are not common, but if you have one you can try LinSSID, a free Wi-Fi analyzer available on Sourceforge. It is similar to inSSIDer as it’s developed with that program as its role model.
Users on iOS have few options. The best choice I can come up with is Network Multimeter, but many users complain it is unreliable. Even on my network, which doesn’t have any blind spots, the multimeter can swing wildly for no apparent reason. You could potentially use this for diagnosing complete dead zones but the app lacks the logging, graphing and precise signal strength data it needs.
Once you have decided on the device you’ll use to gauge WiFi strength, you must walk around your home or business using the analytic tool of your choice to read signal strength. I recommend organizing the data with a spreadsheet, categorized by room, listing the strength of WiFi in each corner of the room and in the center. If you’d like a quicker approach, you can focus only on areas you normally sit down to use a laptop or tablet.
Solving Blind Spots For Free
Now you know where your problems lie – but what do you do about them? There are a few free options that may work.
First, have a look at the channel your WiFi network is using and see if it overlaps with other nearby networks. The best analytic tools, like WiFi Analyzer for Android, can provide this information. Networks that use the same channel may interfere with each other. In a urban area it’s not uncommon to see three or four networks trying to use the same air space. Fortunately, you can resolve this by forcing your router to use a different channel.
Channel interference isn’t the most common cause of a blind spot, however. That honor goes to the construction of your home or business. WiFi can be blocked by thick concrete walls, plumbing or the earth itself. Any dense object in a direct line between the router and a device can interfere. Redesigning the interior of your home isn’t practical, of course, but changing the location of your router can have the same effect by changing the line between your router and your device. Even moving the router a few feet can have a positive impact, though it may create a new blind spot somewhere else.
Owners of desktops and laptops might also try to build their own do-it-yourself signal booster. This generally consists of a sheet of metallic material, like tin foil or an old soda can, that’s cut in a U-shape around a system’s WiFi antenna. This can improve a signal enough to make it usable, but it only works well with systems that already have an external antenna.
Solving Blind Spots With Money
The tips above might resolve your problem but they aren’t magic. There are situations where no amount of tinkering will get rid of a blind spot. What you really need is a way to strengthen and extend your wireless signal.
Owners of 802.11g (or older) routers should consider upgrading to a new 802.11n or 802.11ac router and upgrading any old 802.11g devices to a 802.11n or 802.11ac antenna. These new standards add a 5 GHz band to the existing 2.4 GHz band, boosting range and penetrating objects that normally block 802.11g WiFi signal. Be careful to read the specifications of any new router or antenna, however, because these new standards only dictate potential support for the 5 GHz band; cheap models often do not include it.
If you already have at least an 802.11n router, but still have trouble, you might instead look at installing a WiFi repeater, extender or bridge. These can pick up the signal from another router and repeat it, extending network range and providing a way around dense obstacles. There’s a variety of options available for $20 to $30 and many routers can be set up in repeater and/or bridge mode. That’s a great choice if you own a second router that you no longer use.
Another option available to desktop and laptop computers is an external antenna, if one’s not already in use. An antenna doesn’t remove a dead spot, but it can work around it by making your computer’s WiFi antenna easy to position in a location with maximum reception. Many antennas come with a cord between three to six feet long and USB models can have their physical range improved further with a USB extension cord.
Blind spots can be frustrating, but they’re not difficult to tackle if you have the right tools and are willing to spend money on a repeater. Even large homes can get by with no more than a WiFi repeater or bridge, especially if you’re using new 802.11n or 802.11ac equipment. Only businesses will see need for multiple repeaters or bridges.
Have you had trouble with blind spots, and if so, what steps did you take to fix it? Share your experience in the comments!