Broadband and WiFi are seen as a significantly more important domestic services than Radio, TV, bath water or refuse bin collections according to my kids . . So why is it we struggle with getting it to work where and when we need it too ?
This blog page will run briefly through how it all works and some tips and tricks that might help you to get yours working better.
Finally I have some ideas for decisive improvements during home extensions or renovations.
Where does Broadband come from?
Maybe a strange question – because it doesn’t matter a lot.
These days there are dozens of providers, they will all connect you the internet and you don’t even have to use or advertise them in your email address any more.
Just a couple of points here
- Where you live affects your choices of providers and service. (Check here) There are many different standards and technologies but they all connect you to the internet.
- Some subscription TV etc services may be closely paired and/or bundled with buying a matching internet service too so watch out for that too.
- Some alternative choices of service might not be true choices as many ‘alternative’ options actually re-use BT’s original home wiring and boxes – but the price or customer care might be different/better for you.
- For now I’m just going to assume that over wires, fibre, satellite or some other network you have “the internet” being delivered to a box in your home – generally called a ‘hub or ‘router’ by the supplier
‘My broadband is useless though’
The first thing to say is that a huge number of complaints I hear about ‘broadband’ are actually complaints about WiFi. Broadband is about the Router/Hub’s access to the internet while WiFi the ever- increasingly popular, way to connect nearby devices to the Router/Hub.
If you believe your service is ‘not right’ the first thing to do is get or borrow an ‘old fashioned’ internet/ethernet/Lan cable (it may well be marked Cat 4 5 6 etc.) and plug one end into the back of the Router/Hub and the other into a PC or laptop with a matching socket.
Turn off its WiFi to force it to use the new ‘wired’ connection and try the sites or services you are having trouble with again on that.
It is worth a visit to speedtest.net to run their connection speed test a few times too . . .
Do the download /upload speeds you get bear any resemblance to the predictions your supplier gave you? If not go to their help pages for specific advice on troubleshooting their router, settings or phone/cable line connections.
Once your Router /Hub is receiving the speed of service you paid for and supplying it out to a directly wired test-connection on your PC or laptop at least, we can move on to the various other ways of connecting up your TVs, printers and teenagers.
WiFi is the big thing today and so it may be useful to spend a few lines explaining what WiFi is and isn’t :
WiFI does away with that boring, simple, reliable, high speed internet cable we just used above by replacing it with a two-way radio signal. The lack of wires etc. means it is also becoming the standard ‘easy’ choice for printers, tablets, doorbells, thermostats, lights etc etc.
Many devices now come without any fixed internet connection socket; from Fire TV streaming sticks to the latest laptops and of course just about every mobile phone and tablet.
20 years ago it was a ‘reasonable’ goal to run Ethernet cable to everything. Today the majority of ‘connected devices’ in your home probably don’t even have Ethernet sockets. So, while some fixed cables can be very useful, you have to optimise the WiFi too!
In the ideal conditions found in sales-leaflets a wireless WiFi link is super-fast and can go tens or even 100’s of metres. What could possibly go wrong ?
Well, there are two blocks of radio frequencies allocated to WiFi. but they are all shared with everybody. Most UK homes will share WiFi signals with a dozen or more nearby home’s WiFi routers and, although you can’t ‘see’ them, each of them will have dozens more attached WiFi devices connected too. Just because a password and encryption makes ‘your WiFi network’ secure it is still quite performance-limited because it is sharing a very busy system.
The good news is that the technology-standards can often make all the overlapping WiFi devices take fair-turns to let each other get a word in. When it gets too much though you end up with poor or broken up pictures and ‘buffering’ alerts. The service delivered over WiFi just can’t keep up the necessary pace as well as that old directly wired Ethernet connection might have been able to.
But we love our WiFi and we wish it was even more super-faster too. . . So Router/Hub makers respond year by year with more and bigger aerials, transmitting on more frequencies, in-home-networks of relay stations etc. etc. to try to keep you happy.
Make sure your Router/Hub is up to date. A router older than 5-6 years will not deliver WiFi as well as a new one and several important things like Dual band (2.4 and 5GHz), optimisation, channel selection, speed, coverage and security technologies including WPA2 or 3, Guest access accounts etc. may be out of date or missing entirely.
Most broadband suppliers will update a customer’s router/hub fairly cheaply if a new contract period is signed up to as well.
The single best move you can make to improve your WiFi is to :
Place the main Router/Hub somewhere central and with a clear path to the most frequently used WiFi device locations (avoiding metal, brick or concrete walls).
Doing this will both reduce interference from outside the home and improve the signal to the main devices to the point that at least some of them can use the larger faster and less busy 5GHz band. (You can run 5 -10 metres of phone extension cable from the Master socket to the Router/Hub without noticeably reducing the Broadband speed)
In every case try to place the Router/Hub in the clear, at table or cabinet height, and away from cordless phones, TV’s and large metal appliances.
If Smart TV’s and games boxes which need fast, good, internet access are in fixed positions anywhere near the Router/Hub then ideally : Get an Ethernet cable and connect them directly into the Router/Hub. Most TV and games devices still have an ‘Ethernet’ socket on the back for this very reason. Their connection is now not in competition with ‘next doors’ WiFi or someones iPad movie. (Check in the manual if device settings may need to be changed to select the Ethernet socket rather than WiFi)
What about things that need WiFi and/or are far from the router/hub ?
Where more distant parts of a larger home are not getting a good signal WiFi boosters may help. There are two main types and the right choice is critical.
1) WiFI to WiFi boosters are a self contained WiFi relay station.
They often plug into a mains socket for operating power.
They receive WiFi from the main Router/Hub and re-transmit it again in another location. They clearly cannot provide or re-transmit a faster or clearer signal than they are receiving themselves so the ‘best location’ to install them will generally be around half way between the main Router/Hub and the place that is currently getting a weak signal.
If positioned at the ‘far end’ (where you already know the received signal is too poor) you will just get a ‘too poor’ quality WiFi connection that now ‘looks’ at first glance like it should be a better/strong one. Every added ‘link’ in the daisy chain makes the signal at the end a little worse though.
The latest version of these are so called Mesh Network WiFi extenders where 2, 3 or more units share the WiFi bands, signal and paths they all have between themselves to identify the best route for a ‘daisy chain’ of WiFi signals. It’s a bit like your Sat Nav finding a ‘minor roads’ route when a motorway is not available. Clever and useful but not ideal for speed!
This system is reasonably easy to set up though.
2) Powerline adapters are a different idea.
An Ethernet cable connects one of the Router/Hub’s rear outputs to a ‘Powerline’ box, plugged directly into a wall mains socket. (Avoid plugging into mains extension leads)
However this time the ‘Powerline’ adapter turns one of the Router/Hubs wired internet connection into a secure/encrypted network of signals that can be carried around on the house’s mains electricity wiring.
Each of those adapter plugs has one or more Ethernet sockets to connect directly to a nearby TV, games console, computer or other device. This creates a ‘wired’ connection that is great for TV streaming or Gaming without digging up the floor!
Adapter plugs are also available (see picture of Wifi starter Set) that can turn the received signal into a NEW (i.e. not daisy-chain boosted) WiFi transmission from the ‘other room’s’ adapter plug.
It is possible to have 5 or 6 adapters on one ‘Powerline’ network to provide good fast wired and/or WiFi access to TV’s , Printers, gardens, office or pool rooms this way even if the main home WiFi can’t be made to reliably reach that far. Some of the very latest ‘Powerline’ adapters come configured to act as that sort of WiFi network ‘out of the box’
In summary, each approach has its merits. Ideally you would try both but my experience, for what it’s worth, is that ‘Powerline’ adapters are the most reliable, being less affected by the increasing levels of local WiFi congestion.
They are a more expensive solution than boosters and require a little more ‘setting up’ but if you do go this way I like the Devolo 1200+ and 1200+acWifi units as a value for money ‘sweet spot’
If you are building or renovating a home it is a good idea to think about all the electronic services you may need in advance. CCTV, Doorbells, Smart lighting controls, Security, Telephone, TV, Audio and ‘Internet’ distribution may all need or benefit from direct wired connections tidily built into the walls and floors. Ideally install in conduit where you can so that replacement or additional cables can be more easily added.
(Be careful if moving BT/Openreach Master Sockets yourself as they still own them and may refuse to support any they didn’t move/install themselves)
It is no longer necessary or useful to have multiple Ethernet points in every room (and the associated miles of cables and cabinets full of multi-way Hubs, Switches, bridges etc.). On my home network less than 25% of the connected devices could conveniently use a fixed Ethernet connection even if one was nearby.
Despite that, if you are building or renovating it is cheap and easy to do and so I would suggest installing some fixed Ethernet cables from the Router/Hub location to a few ‘strategic’ locations.
- the location of any incoming telephone or cable sockets/services
- the main Study/office, Printer, TV, games or AV viewing areas,
- security, heating controls and CCTV systems boxes
- the loft
- whichever part(s) of the home or gardens will likely get the weakest WiFi signal from the Router/Hub.
(Cat6 cable is going to be fine for this, but Cat7 or 8 are available if you really must have the best and latest)
Basically consider this Ethernet cabling as ‘motorway’ for jumping the internet availability to other parts of a large building and/or focused points of high usage (like a TV room with 4K streaming devices). As well as hard wired devices it is then easy to add an additional WiFi base station at any of those points if it turns out you need it.
Hope that helps
Thanks for reading