By Eric Geier
If you’re not getting the range you want from your home or office wireless network, there are many ways you can go about expanding your coverage. In this guide we’ll discuss some of the most popular methods, many of which involve upgrading and purchasing new gear (always a fun topic).
Replace Router With New Wireless N or AC Router
Wi-Fi products are designed to meet specific standards (set by the IEEE) so that devices from different vendors will work with one another. The popular standards developed thus far (from oldest to newest) are: 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, and 802.11ac. So if you have an older wireless b or g router, consider replacing it with a newer wireless n or ac device that offers longer ranges and faster connection speeds. With either wireless n or ac, you’ll see anywhere from a slight increase of range to a doubling or more of speeds from a device operating on an older standard. Though wireless n and ac routers may not significantly increase the range of your wireless network, you should at least get better speeds at longer distances.
Wireless n routers are faster and have greater range than routers using older wireless standards.
To figure out what sort of device you own, you ought to be able to see what standard your router uses just by looking at it. You might find a b, g, or n somewhere on it or in the model number. If that's not the case, search for your model number online to see its exact specifications. If the router was given to you by your Internet service provider or the Wi-Fi is integrated into the ISP's modem/gateway, you may have to call your service provider and ask what Wi-Fi standard your device uses. If your ISP won't help you upgrade, then it's probably time to upgrade your Internet service provider.
If you have a router that uses the b or g standard, you should upgrade at least a wireless n router; if your Wi-Fi is in fact integrated with your service provider’s modem/gateway, consider purchasing your own (much better) router and hooking it up to the ISP’s modem/gateway to increase the range of your wireless network.
Upgrade Network Adapters to Match Your Router
The wireless b, g, n, and ac standards are all backward-compatible with each other. So if you buy a new wireless N or AC router, all your computers and devices should still be able to connect. But you won’t get the maximum range and performance from the newer router unless your computers and devices are also using the same Wi-Fi standard. Take a quick inventory of all your computers and other network-ready devices (or at least those that need the furthest range) and check their Wi-Fi standard; consider upgrading their adapters if any are using an older standard than the one your router is using.
Of course, depending on the devices you own, figuring out what wireless standard they're using can be tricky. The Wi-Fi standard on PCs and laptops is usually listed in the name of the wireless network adapter: Open the Control Panel and navigate to Network Settings > Network Connections to check on your adapter. For iPads, tablets, and smartphones, check the specifications from the documentation or look online.
If your computer or device is using an older Wi-Fi standard you have a few upgrade options
The simplest upgrade you can make for any PC or laptop is usually to buy a cutting-edge USB wireless adapter, and then just plug it into a USB port. When shopping for a USB adapter for a desktop PC, consider purchasing one with a wire so you can place the adapter (and the antenna within) in an optimum spot. Of course, laptop owners should probably consider buying a shorter USB adapter so that it doesn’t stick out too much.
For desktop-PC owners, another option is to buy a PCI wireless adapter that you install inside your PC case (assuming you’re comfortable opening it up). When shopping for a PCI adapter, consider buying the antenna extension kit, if the vendor offers it, so you can place the antenna in an optimum spot.
For laptops that have a PC Card slot, another option is a PC Card wireless adapter that you simply slide into the slot.
Buy or Build a High-Gain Antenna
Most wireless routers and wireless adapters that have external antennas come with cheap omnidirectional antennas (those that send the signals equally in all directions). Replacing those cheap omnidirectional models with higher-gain antennas (those that concentrate the signals in a specific direction) can help increase your Wi-Fi range, especially if you have a home or office that's narrow and extends predominantly in one direction from the router's location. If that's the case, consider purchasing any higher-gain antennas that the vendor recommends for your particular router and/or wireless adapters. If you prefer to do (and make) things yourself, consider building your own as explained in this guide on how to extend your wireless network with a parabolic reflector:
DIY types can try their hand at mounting a homemade reflector onto their router.
Turn Your Cable or Electrical Outlets into Wireless Access Points
If you want to double or even triple your wireless network range, you can try adding additional wireless access points (APs) to the network. The traditional and generally more reliable way is to buy access points and run ethernet cables from your router to each additional AP, a process we’ll discuss later. But if you don’t already have ethernet ports around your home or office, you can try utilizing your existing cable or electrical outlets instead.
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To use your cable outlets, look into products certified by MoCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance); or, for electrical outlets, consider Powerline products certified by HomePlug. Both types of technology work in a similar fashion: You plug an adapter into an electrical/cable outlet and connect it to the router, bridging your network to the electrical/cable lines (or you can buy a router with a built-in adapter). If that works for your network, you can plug additional adapters into different electrical/cable outlets throughout the home or office and connect them via an ethernet cable to a computer or a wireless AP. If that's not feasible, you can also buy an adapter with a built-in wireless AP and use it to extend your network.
If you want to try this method, we recommend MoCA adapters from D-Link and Actiontec or HomePlug routers and adapters from TRENDnet, D-Link, Linksys or ZyXEL.
Add a Wireless Repeater
Another way to significantly increase your Wi-Fi coverage (often by up to 40 percent) is to add a wireless repeater or range extender. You should place this repeater at the outer (but good) range of your existing router’s coverage and it should repeat the network signals between the existing router and any Wi-Fi computers and devices that wirelessly connect to the repeater. The problem with this approach is that it significantly reduces the network speeds for those Wi-Fi computers and devices connecting via the repeater. Nevertheless, this performance reduction may be acceptable if you only plan to do basic Web browsing on those computers; you won't have much fun transferring large file transfers or streaming video between your computers on the network.
Wire Additional Wireless Access Points
The most reliable—but usually the most difficult—way to extend your Wi-Fi coverage by double or more is to wire in additional wireless access points (APs). This method is similar to using HomePlug or MoCA adapters, but it usually offers better connection speeds and performance. However, it requires running an ethernet cable from the router to each additional AP. So if your home or building isn’t already wired with ethernet jacks, this can be quite an involved project.
When shopping for an AP, keep in mind it is different from a wireless router. You only need one router in a home or building, so purchase an AP instead of a router when you want to extend your Wi-Fi coverage. The router is basically the network controller, and it hooks up to your Internet modem or is integrated with it. An AP doesn’t include any network control capabilities; it connects to the back of a router to simply provide additional wireless access. Good luck!