networks Frustrated by a slow connection? Unless your home is located in a rural area with few neighbors, this is likely something that affects you. But before we look into what might interfere with your Wi-Fi, let’s talk about what it is.
What actually is Wi-Fi?
In regular-people terms, Wi-Fi allows electronic devices – smartphones, tablets, or laptops – to exchange data, or communicate, using radio waves.
And just like visible light can be obstructed by certain materials, so too can your Wi-Fi signal. Air or clear glass, for example, let light pass through with little problem, while other materials, like water or tinted glass, only let some light through. Wood and metal, though, completely block the light.
What affects signal strength?
Wi-Fi communication takes place in the 2.4, 3.6 and 5 GHz frequency bands. The two most common sources of wireless network interference are 2.4 GHz cordless phones and microwave ovens.
People are so reliant upon fast, reliable Wi-Fi these days, it’s no wonder Benjamin Finio, lecturer in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University, created a science experience for young students to look into what causes interference in signals.
Your neighbors’ Wi-Fi may impact your speed
Wi-Fi at certain ranges are like really congested highways. If you use a 2.4 GHz router and live in a densely populated area, like an apartment complex or a long row of townhomes, your neighbors’ Wi-Fi networks could interfere with yours. This bogs down the network and may negatively impact device performance.
If multiple wireless networks are competing for the same channel, this can cause problems. To fix this, you may want to change your router’s wireless channel.
WifiInfoView is a free tool for PCs that shows you information about the Wi-Fi networks in your neighborhood, including their frequencies and signal channels. Once downloaded, access the Channel header and sort by Wi-Fi channel. You should be able to see if channel 6, for example, looks cluttered and you should consider switching to channel 1.
For a Mac, hold down the Option button and click on the Wi-Fi icon. Then, select Open Wireless Diagnostics. Select Window, then Scan, then Scan Now and your computer will indicate the best 2.4 and 5 GHz channels for your router. For more details on that, click here.
Your walls may be affecting your signal
Wi-Fi signals are capable of passing through walls and other obstacles relatively easily – in theory. But in reality, some walls, like concrete (think: dorms), are thicker and may cause the slowing down or blocking of signals. Basic building materials like drywall, plywood and glass are easily penetrable, but harder, denser materials, such as brick, metal, tinted glass, or stone, may cause problems. If your building’s walls are made up of these materials, which can be common in older buildings, your wireless speed and range may be compromised. Metals absorb Wi-Fi signals.
Near an elevator? Elevators also block Wi-Fi to a great extent.
Household appliances could be the culprit, too
Some smaller household appliances can contribute to wireless interference, including cordless phones, baby monitors and even your microwave. Depending on the severity of the obstruction, you may even have the wireless network cut out when the microwave or cordless phone is in use.
Problems with cordless phones can be solved by replacing your phones with phones that operate on a different frequency, such as 900 MHz or 1.9 GHz. Cordless phones using the 2.4 Ghz frequency will interfere with wireless networks.
Other potential sources of interference include fluorescent bulbs, 2.4 GHz video cameras, and Bluetooth radios.
Looking like stormy weather?
Perhaps not surprisingly, weather events, like rain, snow, and even heavy winds, can obstruct wireless signals. Trees are notorious for absorbing signal energy.
What should you do to prevent interference?
According to tech expert Chris Hoffman, where and how you position your wireless router can boost your signal strength.
To achieve the best signal possible at home, Hoffman suggests the following tips:
- Place the router in the middle of your house, not in a side room. This makes the signal more broadly accessible to all areas of your home.
- Stand your router straight up and make sure, if you have an antenna, that it’s in the upright position, too, even though it can move horizontally in many cases. Facing up is generally the best position, he says.
- Get your router up off the floor and store it in an elevated position, on a desk or bookcase, for example.
Hoffman also suggests you heed the materials near the router. Routers next to metal filing cabinets or desks or walls, for example, could cause some problems. (Note: Signals can travel through wood, but metal will likely obstruct them.)