Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Curb your enthusiasm... for WiFi.


Everything is WiFi nowadays.
There is hardly a dead spot anywhere, and we are constantly being bombarded by the wonderful convenience that is wireless internet.

From an end-user point of view, this is pure bliss.
To have internet everywhere in your home and office, to be able to walk around and be connected at all times - what's not to love?
Unfortunately, like a lot of things, WiFi solutions really should come with T's and C's, because there are some things that WiFi simply cannot do, no matter how much you wish it could.

Back in the days when internet speeds rarely exceeded 4Mbps (I remember how amazing a 4Mbps ADSL connection used to seem...), local connections (cabled and WiFi) always exceeded internet speeds.
This meant that your internet connection was always the bottleneck - every other part of the network was quicker.
Then internet got quicker. ADSL suddenly found itself running at 10Mbps, LTE took off, and fibre has now started to infiltrate offices and homes at the speed of light, literally. Well almost...

So now that internet connections are becoming faster and more stable, we have a situation where the internet speed is not always the bottleneck anymore.
To illustrate this, take the following example:


  • A local WIFI network runs at a theoretical maximum speed of 300Mbps:
    • First off, the "300Mbps" figure here is misleading - what the router manufacturers don't tell you is that this is shared bandwidth - i.e. you need to divide 300Mbps by the number of connected devices, to get your actual theoretical max. speed per device.
    • Secondly, shared bandwidth is not necessarily distributed evenly, in part because there are just so many factors that come into play around WiFi speeds.
      These include (but are not limited to):

      - Distance from the Access Point
      - Specs of the WiFi adapter that you are using to connect with
      - Environmental factors (a Netgear specialist even informed me that microwave ovens, office plants and water play a role in degrading WiFi signal)
      - Surrounding WiFi networks (channel interference)

      The list goes on and on.
      Some routers do offer more advanced features (QOS, Dual Band etc.) to try and workaround the above issues, but you'll be paying extra for that of course.
    • Thirdly, what you gain in range / stability, you will lose in speed.

      This applies in several scenarios:
      - I have found that using 40Mhz channel width on a 2.4Ghz network has resulted in higher speeds overall, but due to a wider channel, there is a higher likelihood of overlap with neighbouring WiFi networks, and potentially less stability.
      - In my experience, device connection speeds were lower when using 20Mhz channel width, however this setting is regarded as more robust - good for use in a highly congested 2.4Ghz environment.

      It is also important to consider range vs. speed, when installing a WiFi booster.
      WiFi boosters offer a simple, off the shelf, minimal config means of boosting your existing WiFi network signal and eliminating deadspots.
      In theory, a wonderful proposition.
      In practice, not quite so simple, especially if you are trying to cover a large area...

      Here's the thing - every boost results in a 50% speed decrease. 50%!!!
      This means that if you are boosting a 300Mbps WiFi network, your boosted signal will only have a theoretical maximum speed of 150Mbps - that's quite a drop off!
      Now connect 10 devices to that boosted network, and all of a sudden you're wondering where the hell your 100Mbps fibre internet speed just disappeared to... in this case, the boosted WiFi just won't be able to keep up with the 100Mbps internet speeds.

So next time you find yourself wondering why your internet is slow, don't forget to eliminate WiFi as the possible culprit as well.
If you're installing a new WiFi network, also be sure to properly survey where the WiFi is going to be installed, and give some thought to these points:

- Are there a lot of concrete walls nearby which will degrade the WiFi signal?
- Is the neighbourhood already flooded with other 2.4Ghz WiFi networks?
- Does the signal cover the entire premises or will you need to consider a booster of some sort?
- How many devices are likely to connect to the WiFi? Consider smartphones and tablets as well, not just PC's.

May your WiFi experiences be filled only with high speeds and low latency :)

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