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Improve and Troubleshoot Your Wireless Network

Get the most out of your wireless access points

Improve and Troubleshoot Your Wireless Network 
Chris Peters - March 27, 2012
Your wireless network can be a lifesaver for adding more devices on your network, but when it is not working at its best, it can negatively affect productivity at your office. Find out how you can troubleshoot and get the most out of your wireless access points.

Is the wireless signal at your organization slow, inconsistent, or nonexistent in certain parts of the building? If you struggle with an unreliable wireless signal, the solution may be as simple as moving your access point or changing the channel. Below, we'll show you techniques even non-techies can use to extend the range and coverage of your network.

Diagnosing a Problem Signal

Wireless devices such as laptop computers use radio frequency (RF) waves to communicate with one another. Just like the radio waves that you hear on your car radio, the RF waves from a wireless access point (AP) — the device that links up your wired and wireless networks — get weaker and weaker the further away you get from the source. Moreover, metal, concrete, wood, and other electronic devices can all interfere with a wireless signal, distorting it and limiting its range.

Before you can fix a temperamental signal, you need to make sure that the signal really is the problem. Site surveys can help you determine exactly where you have coverage and where you don't. You can get a very rough measure of the strength of your signal by carrying a laptop around your organization and seeing how many "bars" you get. On your computer or smartphone, you'll see an icon that indicates the signal strength. More bars or levels indicate a stronger signal. To get a more precise measurement, you'll have to download special software or buy a device specifically designed to measure the wireless signal. There are also free applications like HeatMapper for Windows or Netspot for Macs that you can use. For more information, look up "site survey" using your search engine.

Using a site survey tool, look for the following:

  • Your wireless device keeps dropping its wireless connection.
  • Your connection is unacceptably slow.
  • At certain places in your office, your signal never works. In other words, your wireless signal isn't covering your entire office.

Discovering the Source of the Problem

All the various wireless problems out there can be summed up in two main causes: your wireless equipment isn't as powerful or reliable as you'd like it to be, or something in your environment is interfering with your wireless signal.

Some factors that can cause a weak or distorted wireless signal Solutions
1. Your access point might not be in the best possible location. Solutions #1 and #2.
2. Your wireless signal isn't as strong as it could be. Solutions #6 and #7.
3. Your wireless signal is experiencing physical interference. The signal from most access points will extend for about 300 feet in ideal circumstances. However, certain materials, such as concrete, wood, and metal can attenuate or distort a wireless signal, so your range depends on the design and construction of your building. If you have a strong connection on one side of the wall, but no signal or a weak signal on the other side, there's probably something in the wall blocking your signal. Solution #3, but almost any of the solutions below might help.
4. Your wireless signal is experiencing electronic interference. Most wireless equipment operates in the 2.4 GHz frequency of the electromagnetic spectrum. Unfortunately, there are several other common devices that use this same frequency. For instance, cordless phones, microwaves, and garage door openers. Cordless phones are especially troublesome since they're so prevalent. Furthermore, your access point might be conflicting with a neighbor's access point. If your wireless signal is inconsistent then interference might be the problem. In other words, the signal gets weaker when the interfering devices are in use and stronger when they're not. Solutions #4 and #5.
5. The wireless standard you are using is no longer sufficient for your needs. There have been three popular wireless standards: 802.11b, followed by 802.11g, succeeded by 802.11n. The latest standard, 802.11n, has twice the range of 802.11g or 802.11b, and it's quite a bit faster. Solution #8.

Solutions

  1. Most access points broadcast to an equal distance in all directions. Putting the access point in a central location might allow the signal to reach more places in your building.
  2. Putting the access point up high on a wall, or on the ceiling, can also increase your range.
  3. Move your access point away from any materials that might be distorting the signal (such as concrete, metal, books, and so on).
  4. Move your access point away from any electronic devices that might be distorting the signal (for example, microwave ovens, cordless phones, and so on).
  5. Change the channel on which your access appoint is broadcasting. Wireless devices in the United States operate on one of 11 different channels. When two devices are using the same channel, the interference and signal distortion is greater. Furthermore, several of the channels overlap with one another. So if one device uses channel 3, and another device uses channel 4, the interference will still be strong if the devices are close to one another. The "non-overlapping channels" are 1, 6, and 11. Choose one of these 3 channels to start with, and if your signal is still weak, switch to another. For more information on changing the channel, see the manual that came with your access point.
  6. Using a stronger antenna for your access point or your wireless adapter could boost the strength of the signal. However, a lot of wireless manufacturers design their equipment so the antennae can't be replaced, so check your manual first. If you choose to go this route, search on the Internet on what would work best with your model.
  7. Consider buying a wireless repeater, also known as a range extender or a range expander. This device will receive a wireless signal and then retransmit and amplify that signal, which could significantly increase the range and coverage area of your wireless network. However, a repeater will also cause your wireless network to slow down. There are several brands of repeaters on the market, and some access points allow you to and configure it to act as repeater. Check the manual that came with your access point for more instructions.
  8. Switch to 802.11n wireless equipment (sometimes known as MIMO equipment). 802.11n equipment functions like older wireless equipment, except that it's faster, and it has better coverage. In theory equipment based on this new protocol could reach speeds of 600 Mbps (vs. 802.11g's 54 Mbps maximum), though in practice speeds that high are rarely achieved.

Before you make the switch to 802.11n, there are still some potential problems to be aware of when considering the upgrade. All of your equipment has to comply with the 802.11n standard in order to take full advantage of the gains in speed and range. Older b/g adapters can connect with an 802.11n router if the access point is backwards compatible.

Additional Resources:

Image: Router, Shutterstock