MyRSF

Wi-Fi For Homes/Small Business

This page gives a short introduction to WiFi and provides information to get consistent high speed wireless access throughout your house or small business. It is specifically targetted to larger homes and for those that have very high speed Internet access (500 Mbps or 1 Gbps).

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WiFi Basics

WiFi is a short range (less than a few hundred feet outdoors, less than 80 feet indoors typically), high speed (near gigabit) wireless standard used for local networks. It is used by all smartphones, laptops, tablets, etc.

Unless you have a very small house (less than 1,500 square feet), you will need several WiFi Access Points spread through your location to give you seamless uninterrupted coverage. These Access Points (APs) are typically connected back to your Internet router or gateway either via an Ethernet wire, or wirelessly. Many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) supply routers that also have a WiFi access point built in, but unless you have a small location, you'll need other APs.

While WiFi can theoretically transfer data at near gigabit speeds (which is typically the fastest wired home Ethernet and Internet speeds), in practice you won't get those speeds unless you are a few feet away from a WiFi access point. In a well designed location with a fast Internet connection, a modern laptop can achieve around 500 Mbps wireless connections over WiFi. Smartphones and iPads top out around 200 Mbps. This assumes you have a the latest WiFi technology called 802.11ac. If your Access Point is more than a couple of years old, you won't be able to get even these speeds.

When setting up a WiFi network, it is important to understand frequency bands and channels. WiFi operates at two different frequency bands, and has many channels in each band. The 2.4 Ghz frequency band supports 3 non-overlapping channels, and has a typical maximum transfer rate of 144 Mbps, while the 5 Ghz band supports 24 non-overlapping channels and maximum transfer rates close to 1 Gbps (1000 Mbps). Some older devices can only use the 2.4 Ghz band. The 2.4 Ghz band also has almost twice the distance reach of the 5 Ghz band. However the 5 Ghz band is what you need to use if you hope to get very high speed connections.

So, for high speeds, you need to design a network that provides good coverage for the shorter range 5 Ghz band, and also have a 2.4 Ghz band network for older devices and areas that are farther away like outdoor patios. Client devices like laptops and phones will automatically choose the frequency band and AP it connects to using its own algorithms. For instance, here's an article that describes how Apple devices roam to various APs.

The Simple Option: Mesh Network

Starting in 2017, several manufacturers started shipping consumer focused mesh networks to provide seamless WiFi throughout a medium to large house. Click here to read a review of several of them. There are two that I would personally recommend, Google WiFi and Ubiquiti's AmpliFi.

Google has a very simple home WiFi system called Google WiFi. The access points are unobtrusive white pucks. One puck is connected via Ethernet cable to your Internet modem or router. The other pucks (you can have as many as you need) only need a power plug as they link to the main unit wirelessly forming a wireless mesh network. For best performance, you can also wire the remote pucks via Ethernet back to the main gateway puck. Aesthetically, you are going to have these pucks on coffee tables around your house, near a receptacle.

Google WiFi has a rich feature set (Click here for Google's guide). It has an app that allows you to see bandwidth usage on a per device basis. It has Family features to restrict access, and a guest feature to restrict guest access to just the Internet.

While Google WiFi works well, it does have limitations. It only has one form factor, the round puck. Other systems will have weather proof outdoor units, ceiling mounts, and single gang outlet mounts. Also, it doesn't allow fine grained security rules to be created, nor does it allow you to see and modify channel assignments.

To implement a WiFi system using Google WiFi, read the Google information above and the "How Many and Where" section below to help you determine where to place pucks. While you can have all pucks connect to each other wirelessly, remember that the more you can wire via Ethernet cable, the better your network will be.

Ubiquit's AmpliFi system is similar to Google's in that you have a central router/WiFi device through which all wired and wireless traffic passes. But the remote units are meant to plug directly into a wall receptacle. So, unlike having Google's white pucks on tables, you have these vertical APs that plug directly into a wall receptacle. One other big difference is that the AmpliFi remote units cannot be Ethernet wired back to the main unit - they are only connected wirelessly.

AmpliFi has more features and a user interface that allows you to see overall traffic and breakdowns of where your traffic is coming from.

The Best Option: Unifi WiFi

Ubiquiti makes a very broad range of wireless products mostly targeted to businesses. While their products are business grade and can be found in offices, hotels, and stadiums, they are also very affordable and easily purchased directly from Amazon.

Their WiFi family of products is called UniFi and includes the following:

  • UAP-AC-PRO: A ceiling mount AP that is also weather resistant (can be mounted under an eave or garage). Can also wirelessly mesh with mesh devices below.
  • UAP-AC-IW: An in wall AP that mounts to a single gang wall opening. Can be wired or wirelessly connected via a mesh network.
  • UAP-AC-M: An external, all weather AP that can be wired or wirelessly connected via a mesh network.

Most UniFi products are powered via Power Over Ethernet (POE), meaning that a single wire can transport both 1 Gbps Ethernet and power to the device.

UniFi APs require a central management computer to be available 24x7. Configuring and managing such a computer for a home is a pain, so I opted to host my management console externally in the cloud using a service called Hostifi. Hostifi is a custom cloud service that runs UniFi management consoles.

Once you have a UniFi management console running on your PC or in the cloud, you adopt each access point into your management console. Once all APs are adopted, you can then create one or more SSIDs (for instance, your main one and a guest one) and whatever changes you make to the network are updated across all APs.

Take a look at the General Design Rules section to see set up tips on how to configure each AP. For instance, you want to manually assign frequency channels to each AP according to where they are physically placed so that you don't overlap channels.

How Many and Where

Here's a diagram showing access point placement for an approx. 6,000 sq ft main floor house.

Seven access points, or about one per 1,000 sq ft (including the garage). Since 5 Ghz WiFi signals in particular do not penetrate through many walls very well, you need a lot of access points if you want to have a robust high speed wireless network. In this example, ceiling mounts were used since the house had an accessible attic to run Ethernet cables to each access point (power for each access point is also delivered via the Ethernet cables, so no wires of any sort are seen in such an installation).

A good rule of thumb is to place an AP in every second room. You generally only want at most one set of walls between you and an AP. Yes, you can get by with less, but your wireless speeds will drop dramatically. With access points in the $100 range, it doesn't make sense to economize.

Ideally, you will want to run an Ethernet wire to each AP location, with all such wires brought back to a central location somewhere (usually a centrally located closet). Even a tiny broom closet like this one can house the required electronics for your Internet and wireless system.

Here, there is room at the top of the closet, out of the way from all the hoses and brooms, to wall mount a small 19" equipment rack (see below). From top to bottom, there is an Ethernet patch panel, the firewall router/switch, and a 16 port POE switch to power the APs. The black box underneath the rack is a small computer UPS, allowing WiFi to work even in a power outage. That particular POE switch was chosen since it doesn't have a fan (larger units typically have fans) so it doesn't make noise.

General Design Rules

  1. Use a single SSID (network name) for both the 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz frequency bands. You will sometimes see people creating two wireless networks, one for each frequency band, like "Blarb-2G" and "Blarb-5G". Sometimes this is done because the router/AP isn't flexible enough to have a single network name span both frequencies. But this isn't good practice. Modern smart phones, for example, will choose which band they want based on signal strength and throughput. Assign a password.

  2. Create a "Guest" network SSID, which is locked down to only allow access out to the Internet. Use a very easy to remember password since guests will ask for this and you don't want to be hunting for where you wrote the password.

  3. Manually assign channels for each Access Point. While some APs can automatically choose their own channels, it rarely works well in practice. Draw a map of your deployment and figure out which APs get assigned what channels, with the idea being that adjacent APs do not have the same channel.

  4. Use only channels 1, 6, and 11 in the 2.4 Ghz frequency. These are the only non-overalapping channels. Microwave ovens interfere with channels 6 and 11, so use channel 1 for the AP closest to the kitchen. Use only 20 Mhz wide channels for the 2.4 Ghz band (if you are given the option).

  5. Use 80 Mhz wide channels for the 5 Ghz band. Using these wider channel widths allows you to get more range and speed from your WiFi network, and for a home installations, there is plenty of bandwidth to use, so you might as well make it as fast as possible (this design rule would be different for congested, very dense environments like crowded offices or public facilities). With 80 Mhz wide channels, this means that the available channels in the 5 Ghz band are centered on channels 42, 58, 106, 122, 138 and 155. Again, spread these channels around such that adjacent APs do not use the same channel.

  6. If you can, adjust the signal strength of the 2.4 Ghz band to be at low or medium strength, except for those APs that need to cover a wide area, like those expected to cover a yard. This will allow devices to preferentially use the less crowded and higher speed 5 Ghz band.

  7. Do not turn on Fast Roaming. These protocols are still in flux. Experiment with them if you like, but I've found that a proper designed network, with good 5 Ghz coverage allows devices to seamless transition from one AP to another without the need of Fast Roaming.

  8. Use a WiFi sniffer device, like described in the tools section below, to measure signal strength in all important areas of the house. Bathrooms are particularly difficult since they are enclosed and usually away from APs, and people like to read their devices in there.

Tools

You need some sort of WiFi sniffer tool to see how good signal strengths are around your house either before or after you install your new WiFi network. The best device to run a sniffer on is your smart phone since it is also the weakest WiFi device you will be using. You want to design your network for the weakest device.

If you have an Apple iPhone, you only have one choice, and that's to use Apple's Airport Utility app, which has a secret built in WiFi analyzer. Click here for a tutorial on how to set this app up to analyze your WiFi environment.

For Android devices, use WiFi Analyzer.

Both analyzers show signal strength in db values. The higher number the better, but since these values are negative numbers, be aware that a -50 db signal strength is higher and better than a -70 db signal strength.

Ideally you want 5 GHZ signal strength to be at least in the -60's. Numbers in the -70's are acceptable, but when signal strength degrades to the -80's, that's marginal.