Home Networking - Part 3 - WiFi Systems

  • Wednesday, Apr 8, 2020

So, you’ve read through Part 1  and Part 2  of my guide to home networking (and if you haven’t, it’s well worth it before continuing to read here, as a lot of the terminology I mention below is explained in more detail there). So what methods are available for expanding and improving your home WiFi network? Below, I will go through each of them, going from the best solution to the worst.

NB - I haven’t covered any WiFi 6 (802.11ax) devices below - once this technology becomes more mainstream, I will write an updated article).



2.4Ghz vs 5Ghz - a reminder


A comparison graph of 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz WiFi

As we saw in Part 2 , most current WiFi devices operate on the 2.4Ghz and/or 5Ghz frequencies. 2.4Ghz is older, more congested as it is being used by more devices and has a lower maximum speed but long range. Its maximum speed realistically is about 60-70Mbps.

5Ghz is newer, less congested as a result, has a much higher maximum speed, but less range compared to 2.4Ghz. Its maximum speed realistically is about 300Mbps. It’s worth keeping this in mind as we move through the options below.



Wireless Access Points


Ubiquiti Unifi Wireless Access Points

These are devices designed to be positioned in various places throughout a house/office, then wired back to your main router using ethernet cables. Each one broadcasts WiFi in a similar way to a router, on both the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz frequencies.

But why ethernet cable? An important concept to explain here is that of “fronthaul” and “backhaul”.


A network diagram showing wired backhaul

As you can see in the above diagram, an internet connection comes into the primary WiFi router, and then an ethernet cable connects this router to a secondary access point. Both the primary WiFi router and the secondary access point broadcast the “MyHome” WiFi network - same name (SSID) and same password. You configure all your devices to connect to “MyHome”, and as you move around, the devices will switch between the signal of the primary WiFi router and the signal of the secondary access point as one becomes weaker, and one becomes stronger. This principle can be replicated, so that multiple access points, connected back to the primary router with ethernet cables, broadcast the “MyHome” WiFi network. This “MyHome” network will appear to all your devices as one single WiFi network, even though it’s actually being created by multiple wireless access points. Most large office buildings, and something like Virgin Media’s WiFi service on the London Underground, use this principle, so everyone connecting only has to connect to (what appears to be) a single network once.

The “MyHome” WiFi network is what’s known as “fronthaul” - this is the network your devices connect to. But the access points themselves need to connect back to the primary router to get an internet connection - this is known as “backhaul”.

Ethernet cable is by far the most effective solution for backhaul. It’s fast (1000Mbps true speeds, or even 10,000Mbps if you use the latest cabling standards), and my happiest clients by far have ethernet cabling running through the house. Not only does it enable you to use a multiple access point setup, it enables you to use a wired connection for as much as possible (remember, as we saw in Part 2 , if it doesn’t move, use wired ethernet). However, it can be tough to find a way to get this cabling run (one client got ethernet run to every room whilst the electrician rewired the house, which is the most elegant, but most expensive, solution). The ethernet cable itself is extremely cheap, but installation can be difficult and/or expensive.

One you have ethernet runs, it’s simple to plug in Wireless Access Points at the end of each run to create strong WiFi throughout the house. For example, the client I mentioned above (who got ethernet installed as the property was rewired) has 5 Wireless Access Points throughout the house. They collectively broadcast a single WiFi network across the house and it’s possible to walk through without losing connectivity. They are hooked into a controller that ensures a seamless single network and enables me to remotely configure and troubleshoot them.

Two product lines I often recommend and install are Ubiquiti UniFi  and TP-Link Omada EAP . Both offer a central controller enabling you to configure multiple access points at once. Ubiquiti UniFi products require the controller to be running to make configuration changes (but once these are saved it doesn’t need to be running unless you want advanced features), and the TP-Link Omada products can be configured by directly logging into them or by using a controller. I tend to prefer the UniFi line, as they have more advanced controller features and enable me to easily remotely support installations - but the TP-Link Omada line is cheaper, and offers similar performance. There are, of course, other brands available - as always, a good resource is SmallNetBuilder’s Wireless AP Ranker , as well as Jim Salter’s excellent AC Access Point Roundup .

The very best way to setup wireless access points is to turn off the WiFi on your primary router completely, and use as many access points as you need to cover your property. It’s best not to mix and match brands, but rather to pick one system. This makes roaming between each access point much smoother, as they are designed to work this way. Whilst it’s possible to keep the WiFi on your primary router enabled, then add one or more access points, this can often cause problems as your devices roam between them - sometimes they can get stuck on the router even if the access point is closer, with a better signal (and vice versa).

To confuse matters, it is actually possible to take some routers and configure them to work as if they are an access point . The advantage of using a router is that you may have an old one lying around. Also, most routers have a switch built in for connecting any wired devices. The disadvantage is that they generally don’t offer as seamless of a roaming experience as a multiple access point setup (a bit like when you mix and match access points of different brands, or mix a router with an access point).



Wireless Mesh Systems


A network diagram showing wireless backhaul

If you can’t run ethernet, the next best thing is something called a Wireless Mesh System. These work in a similar way to Wireless Access Points, with one important difference - WiFi is used for the backhaul, instead of ethernet. This immediately puts them at a huge disadvantage in comparison. Most mesh systems will use the 5Ghz frequency to create a backhaul as it has the most potential speed, and the least interference. However, even the best current 5Ghz connection will never match the stability, speed and range of an ethernet cable.

Each mesh node is like a combination of a Wireless Range Extender (more on those below) and a Wireless Access Point. They usually have one 2.4Ghz radio, and two 5Ghz radios per unit (referred to as “Tri-Band”). This means there is a dedicated 5Ghz radio just for the backhaul linking back to the router/other mesh points (as an ethernet replacement), and they are also able to output a 2.4Ghz network and a 5Ghz network for wireless fronthaul. However, they rely on a strong wireless connection between each unit and the router (no good with very thick walls). The limited range of 5Ghz often means you will end up having quite a few mesh nodes, as they daisy-chain with each other using the backhaul radio.

Some cheaper mesh systems only have one 2.4Ghz radio and one 5Ghz radio per node (known as “Dual-Band”). This makes them yet another step worse - the backhaul is usually on 5Ghz, but this same single 5Ghz radio is also used to provide fronthaul - meaning the speed of both is immediately cut in half, bringing down the speed of the entire 5Ghz network by at least 50% (here is some background as to why ). It essentially makes them little better than glorified Wireless Range Extenders (see more below).

There are many brands of Wireless Mesh System available, and generally the Netgear Orbi, BT Whole Home WiFi, Eero, Linksys Velop and TP-Link Deco are all considered to be reasonably good. Bear in mind, a Tri-Band system will offer the best performance - but still nowhere near the level of stability and performance that something with an ethernet backhaul would provide. Dual-band will work, but with significantly reduced performance. Some mesh systems actually have an ethernet backhaul option, as well as additional ethernet ports for connecting wired devices to each one (as in the diagram above) - but a lot of them lack the advanced features and dedicated controller that Wireless Access Points have.

SmallNetBuilder has a Wi-Fi System Ranker  to provide more insight.

NB - If you choose to go for a mesh system, bear in mind that your results may vary. Unlike an ethernet cable, which has a stable and predictable connection, mesh systems rely on WiFi to talk between themselves and back to your router. You may find that your house has walls that are simply too thick for the nodes to talk wirelessly to each other - and some types of insulation are foil backed, which can play havoc with WiFi signals as well. It’s best to buy any mesh system from a retailer with a solid and long (14-30 day) return policy so that you can try any system out for a few weeks and play about with where you position each node. You may find mesh isn’t the solution for you and you need to return it.



Point to Point Wireless Bridges


Point To Point Bridge

These are actually designed to be mounted high up on buildings to wirelessly link them together across up to 15km(!) They come in either 2.4Ghz or 5Ghz versions. They have extremely powerful directional radios, and it is actually possible to use them indoors to try to penetrate walls/floors/ceilings. You can sometimes get away with just one pointed directly at your main router, but they are designed to be used in pairs, which can start to become expensive. Also, they are merely a replacement for ethernet backhaul, and still require a Wireless Access Point at the end to broadcast WiFi fronthaul. However, a good model with direct line of sight can actually provide surprisingly good performance. Recommended product lines are Ubiquiti airMAX  and Mikrotik Wireless Wire .



Wireless Range Extenders


A wireless range extender

There are a few things to note about these.

There is the very cheapest type. These only operate across one wireless band (2.4Ghz usually), and effectively reduce the maximum performance of that band by 50% as soon as you turn them on (here is some background as to why ). This is because they use half of the signal for backhaul to talk back to the router, and the other half to broadcast their extended network. I don’t recommend these at all as they have a significant performance penalty.

A better version are dual band extenders. These have both the 2.4Ghz wireless band and the 5Ghz band. This means you can use one band solely for the backhaul talking back to the router, and the remaining band for a fronthaul extension of your wireless network. This way you avoid the 50% performance penalty. But obviously they rely on placement where they get a strong enough signal to talk back to the router. This could be difficult depending on the thickness of your walls.

An important thing to note - despite some brands advertising these products as “boosters”, this simply isn’t possible. The idea is to correctly place them - rather than put them where WiFi is already weak, hoping they will “boost” the signal, you need to place them where the signal is still strong, but starting to get weaker. A lot of people plug these devices in where the WiFi signal from the main router is already weak - all this will do is extend an already weak signal. Below is a good diagram of correct placement (and there is more detailed information on Netgear’s website ):

Optimal Range Extender placement

Range extenders also create a messy wireless setup, as you usually end up with one network called, for example, “MyHome”, plus others called “MyHome-Ext1”, “MyHome-Ext2” etc. for each one you plug in. Given that most dual band extenders cost about the same as a single tri-band mesh unit, they really should be seen as a last resort.

NB - As with mesh systems, bear in mind that your results may vary. Unlike an ethernet cable, which has a stable and predictable connection, extenders rely on WiFi to talk back to your main router. You may find that your house has walls that are simply to thick for the extender to talk wirelessly to the router - and some types of insulation are foil backed, which can play havoc with WiFi signals as well. It’s best to buy any extender from a retailer with a solid and long (14-30 day) return policy so that you can try it out for a few weeks and play about with where you position it. You may find an extender isn’t the solution for you and you need to return it.



Other devices




Powerline Adapters


Powerline adapter

These “work”, but their performance is extremely variable. It’s less to do with the age of the wiring of your house, but exactly how the house has been wired, where they are plugged in, and a little bit of pure luck. The speeds they list (“up to 1000Mbps” etc.) are never anywhere near the actual speed you get, and they often suffer from erratic latency issues (meaning the internet can be jumpy). They are highly susceptible to interference from something as simple as plugging a hairdryer or vacuum cleaner in, and often decide to just stop working for no reason, meaning you have to unplug all the ones you have in your house then replug them to get them in sync.

However, I have used a pair to get from a client’s house to the summer house at the end of his garden, where at the other end there is a Wireless Access Point plugged into it. Because the summer house only gets occasional use, he is happy to deal with the issues that arise from their use, given the alternatives listed above are less practical and/or more expensive. However, we did try to use a pair inside his house and the performance was pretty poor and we ended up sending them back and found a way to run an ethernet cable instead (not possible between the main house and the summer house without digging a trench).

Also, you can get these homeplugs with WiFi integrated into them, which I highly advise against, as there is just too much crammed into one box. Their wireless performance is generally dreadful. It’s much better to get the wired only ones, using them purely as a substitute for ethernet backhaul, then plugging in a Wireless Access Point (or a router configured as one) at the other end.





Hopefully, the above information will arm you with all the knowledge you need to create the best possible WiFi network you can throughout your home. Basically, use multiple access points with wired ethernet, mesh/point-to-point bridges if you can’t run cables, and as a last resort use a dual band range extender. I advise against single band range extenders and powerline adapters - they are more trouble than they are worth.

Having chosen a router and a WiFi system, there is one more thing that you can try to eek a little bit more performance out of the UK’s weak broadband infrastructure - “Smart Queues Management (SQM)” , which you can find all about in Part 4 !

And as always, for expert advice and installation, contact Hither Green IT .