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A decade later, and Wireless networking still sucks

I would love to have a no-compromise wireless network in my home. In this imaginary scenario, I would be able to put a computer anywhere in the house, even carry one out onto the patio, and get something approaching gigabit Ethernet speeds. Heck, I’d even be happy with half that: 300 Mbps… or even a really reliable true 100 Mbps link- that would be nice.

Unfortunately, after about a decade of living with wireless, I can say that surprisingly little actual progress has been made. Using wireless still means giving up network performance…

And it can’t be said that I haven’t tried. I’ve had at least six different wireless access points or routers over the years. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on special high performance antennas, and have ran extra wiring so that my access points can be positioned at least somewhat effectively. Currently I have two 802.11n hubs in the house, and admittedly they are an improvement over what I had before. Within 25 feet without any walls between the router and the computer, I can under some circumstances get something around 100 Mbps. The network claims to be getting 240-300 Mbps, but real file transfers tell a different story. Right now I’m copying a 20 GB set of files over a supposed 300 Mbps wireless link. According to the file transfer timer, the expected completion time is four hours… 240 minutes… about 10 minutes per gigabyte, speaking in round figures. One minute per gigabit. Or under 20 Mbps, if my math is right. If I was *really* getting 300 Mbps, this whole transfer would be done in something like 10 minutes.

The real issue, though, isn’t the fact that the wireless networks of today still don’t quite deliver the bandwidth they claim. 100 Mbps is pretty good without a wire. No, the real point of difficulty was the fact that I had to put a qualifying statement in the sentence above: within 25 feet without any walls between the router and the computer. Put a perfectly ordinary interior wall, simple drywall and 2x4s without any lathe and plaster or metal, and the bitrate drops into the basement. My office is 30′ from that very same wireless router, and in that spot I am lucky to get over 10 Mbps- there are 3 of those darned walls in the way. Once again the network lies to me and claims to be getting 50 Mbps, but actual file transfers prove that is a very “optimistic” number. Less than 10 feet from where I’m sitting, I’d be very lucky if the file transfer I’m performing completed in less than 24 hours- all because of a couple of walls.

The solution? Wireless repeaters or full access points around every corner: that’s what is done in a business office, at least by any company that knows what they are doing and can afford to do so. To cover my house the same way they do at my office would require at least four access points, probably five: three on the main floor, and two upstairs. My house isn’t that big: under 3,000 square feet- the issue is walls.

Note that I have my hubs running on different channels on different bands: I understand quite a bit about wireless interference sources. You are to avoid such things as cordless phones, microwave ovens, Bluetooth networks, other wireless networks and the most critical: walls. Don’t place the access point within 3 feet of a wall. Don’t have any walls between your access point and your computer. Imagine your home. Now imagine achieving the necessary clearances and open path to accommodate these requirements.

The installation guidance for a wireless access point always makes me laugh: if you followed the guides. you’d have the access point sitting on a six foot high stand in the exact center of your room, or perhaps suspended three feet from the ceiling. It would be like some sort of mystical shrine, dominating your living space and enforcing a sort of reverential awe and fear. Perhaps you would be wise to leave offerings, or to pray fervently to the indifferent gods of WiFi for improved connectivity.

Or maybe you’d cast down your false idols, give up your dreams of freedom, and run a bloody wire. If only the idea of being untethered wasn’t so appealing…

2 comments to A decade later, and Wireless networking still sucks

  • I know whereof you speak. I’d be quite happy with reliable internet speeds, but even with my laptop in the same room it sometimes “stalls out.” Why? Because I have 8 – 11 other networks in range ( and I live in a house, not a apartment! ) Sometime it just smokes … usually when half the other networks are offline or ( I suspect ) idle. The rest of the time… I may as well be using dial up. It’s painfully slow even for surfing.

    I don’t really have an issue with running wires, though I already have all 4 ports on my combined modem/router/accesspoint full, so I need to figure out how to add a subrouter or something. But It would be nice to sit outside, or use a wireless webcam to keep an eye on the back of the garage at night.

    Maybe we should just use really high powered lasers with target tracking. Higher bandwidth and they can just burn through any walls, people or pets that get in the way of the signal 😉

  • A wireless network router… with fricken’ laser beams attached 🙂

    I’m thinking I might eventually buy a couple of Apple Airport Express devices and use them as range extenders. They are small, relatively inexpensive (about $100), and … well, like all the other Apple stuff I’ve absorbed into my collective recently, I expect they’d just work.

    Currently, one of my hubs sits in the living room, the other in my office: the living room hub is 5 GHz wide spectrum 802.11n only- that increases speed significantly at the cost of range, but a single wall kills even the longer-range 2.4 GHz signal. So long as there are no walls in the way (I.E.: I’m in my office, or in the living room/kitchen), I get good access. This is “working as expected” if you ask any wireless networking technical expert, but it is a far cry from the consumer expectation of plugging in one access point and covering their entire living space.

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