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Wireless Tips To Spare The Air

We often hear how we need to be good global citizens -- reduce, reuse, recycle, and do all we can to combat climate change. We have work to do and I am hopeful the coming years will see us all rise to the challenge.

Just like our planet, WiFi is a shared resource and has come an incredibly long way since the first version of 802.11 appeared in 1997. Then, the maximum connection speed was 2 Mbps, compared to the 1.3 Gbps we see today with 802.11ac. 

Yet many of us are not good WiFi citizens. We are not doing all we can to best use this resource and optimize its consumption. This is especially true in multi-tenant business units or multi-unit dwellings (apartment complexes) where one only has to peruse the many advertised WiFi networks to see how we are clogging the airwaves. 

There are a few concepts you can focus on to help ease the congestion:

Location, location, location

Maximize your coverage by placing the WiFi access point (AP) in the center of the business (or home), rather than tucking it away under a desk in the corner. Connection speed is directly related to proximity; the faster you connect, the less airtime you use to send and receive your data. 

Come out of the cupboard and flaunt your AP in plain site. While I know many APs are far from aesthetically pleasing and look something like the proverbial spider from Mars, keeping it behind doors and walls will attenuate your signal and limit connection speed, slowing down your transmissions.

Out with the old, and in with the new 

Newer devices come with newer technology, so your wireless gear may not need to support legacy 802.11 protocols and slower data rates. I would recommend disabling 802.11b and 802.11g in the 2.4-GHz band. You should also disable the lower data rates, allowing only 12 Mbps and above in 2.4-GHz band and 24 Mbps and above in the 5-GHz band. If your smartphones do not support at least 802.11n, it's smart to replace them with new ones. To upgrade wireless devices with a USB ports, you can buy a dongle that supports 802.11ac. These cost less than $20 and it will breathe new life into your old device for a very modest fee.

When it comes to access points, upgrade any gear that does not support at least 802.11n in both the 2.4-GHz and 5-GHz bands. If buying new ones, ensure they support 802.11ac.

Make it easy on devices with band-specific SSIDs 

Empirically, the best practice has been to advertise a network on both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. This is fast changing as the number of devices proliferates, and it is now imperative that the majority connect to 5 GHz. This band has more capacity and does not suffer the interference challenges 2.4 GHz experiences from Bluetooth, microwaves, and channel limits. In fact, many vendors are now making 5 GHz the default operation with a scheme that looks something like below: 

SSID_2G         2.4-GHz only network

SSIG_5G         5-GHhz only network

This has the added benefit of making it simple to ascertain if your device supports 5GHz. That task can be tricky with 802.11n, where the device vendors do not make it clear if 5GHz is supported or not. 

When buying new devices, ensure they support 5 GHz. I will not buy a device that only supports 2.4 GHz unless that is the only choice (my Amazon kindle is a good example).

Avoid the 802.11ac speed trap

802.11ac promises some very high connection speeds, but those speeds have some requirements:

  • Using 80-MHz channels. This is not really practical, because WiFi has only three non-overlapping channels available. In a congested area, you will be right back to 2.4 GHz interfering with your neighbor's territory. Set the channel width to 40 MHz in most cases, and even 20 MHz in very dense areas.
  • Proximity to the access point. In order to achieve the maximum connection speed, you need to be very close to the AP. Also remember this is your physical speed, and not the amount of useful data you have to send. A typical user could connect at 100 Mbps, but needs only 5 Mbps for even advanced usage.
  • Multiple spatial streams are required to achieve the maximum rates. Very few devices support three spatial streams -- the majority of laptops can use two, and smartphones use one.

Don't forget about wires 

If your device has an Ethernet port and is next to the router, plug it in, disable WiFi, and spare the air.