The Wi-Fi killers

What’s the number one threat to the smooth running of your Wi-Fi network? Interference, and plenty of it.

It isn’t only interference from neighbouring networks that you have to worry about – indeed, some experts suggest conflicting Wi-Fi traffic is relatively harmless – but all manner of electrical devices inside and outside of your premises.

Overlapping networks

The sheer ubiquity of wireless networks is staggering. From the fifth floor of the PC Pro office in Central London, for example, there are no fewer than 36 different Wi-Fi networks (both business and domestic) fighting for attention in the 2.4GHz band.

The sheer ubiquity of wireless networks is staggering

That’s only the 802.11 networks; anything from wireless security cameras to Bluetooth headsets, to the microwave in the office kitchen may also be operating in that unlicensed spectrum or creating interference.

Not only do the majority of homes and businesses now operate Wi-Fi networks, but they’re also increasingly likely to be using 802.11n equipment, which offers a far greater range than previous generation 802.11abg networks.

With an indoor range of up to 70m and the ability to pass through multiple brick walls, there’s every chance that the router from next-door-but-one is sharing the same airspace as yours, whereas that simply wouldn’t have been the case even two years ago.

In flats or apartments, where the signal comes from all sides, the problem is multiplied. The congestion is exacerbated by standard router setups that often leave neighbours sharing the same Wi-Fi channel.

“A lot of [Wi-Fi router] manufacturers have a default Wi-Fi channel. Many choose channel 1,” said Roger Tao, European strategic technology product manager at D-Link. Indeed, 11 of the 36 Wi-Fi networks accessible from the PC Pro office were fighting for space on channel 1.

With Britain’s biggest ISPs handing out millions of the same router to their customers, you’ll often find clusters of routers sharing the same channel.

Three of the 11 routers using channel 1 that were visible from the PC Pro office were BT Home Hub devices, while our tests in a domestic environment revealed all three Sky routers within range were also clinging to channel 1.

BT Home Hub

BT has recognised this problem: the last generation of Home Hub routers automatically scanned for the least congested Wi-Fi channels, while the new Home Hub 3 also switches channels to avoid other RF interference from, say, wireless video senders.

Too many cooks

With Wi-Fi traffic reaching rush-hour M25 levels in urban areas, some people are tempted to cheat.

By downloading an American or Asian version of your router’s firmware – or even changing the location settings in the current firmware – it’s often possible to unlock the 14th Wi-Fi channel in the 2.4GHz spectrum.

This is technically illegal in the UK because it creeps outside of the unlicensed spectrum: 2.4000-2.4835GHz is the allocated spectrum, while channel 14 operates at 2.484GHz.

While some people might be tempted to bend the rules to avoid Wi-Fi channel congestion – just as many people were when in-car FM transmitters were still illegal – switching your router to channel 14 isn’t necessarily a panacea: some client devices simply refuse to operate on channel 14.

Another commonly used tactic to overcome interference is to increase the number of access points, especially in business premises. Yet, according to a Cisco white paper “20 Myths of Wi-Fi Interference”, this can often make matters worse.

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