Building a Home Wi-Fi Network
There are more internet-connected devices in our homes than ever before, from the ubiquitous smartphones and tablets, to smart doorbells and heating controllers, and now even your Intelligent Fridge and Intelligent Toilet. Many of the more traditional devices can have hard-wired connections. Others, however, are entirely dependent on Wi-Fi for their connectivity. With so many devices running on your network, we would always recommend connecting devices via ethernet cables, if possible, as they will perform faster, be more reliable and free up precious bandwidth for the Wi-Fi only devices.
Bandwidth isn’t the only concern, though. Home size and shape, among other things, can restrict your Wi-Fi network’s range and lead to connectivity issues. One thing is for sure: We all need to have good Wi-Fi connections around our homes. In today’s world, it’s as essential as hot water!
We have advised and assisted many homeowners, property developers, architects and others on the best ways to set up strong and vibrant Wi-Fi networks in homes. This guide will condense that advice and provide some practical guidance to ensure you get the most out of your Wi-Fi.
Where Wi-Fi comes from
In the most basic terms, Wi-Fi is simply the wireless version of your wired internet, which means it comes from your internet service provider (ISP). Your internet connection is achieved through a modem, but a wireless router is needed to broadcast the Wi-Fi signal. Your ISP will give you a router, usually free of charge. However, there is a reason they are free – the ISP-provided routers are usually cheap and don’t perform particularly well, providing limited coverage. There are alternatives to the ISP devices readily available from on-line and electronics stores. These can be relatively cheap, but not necessarily much better. There are high quality manufacturers, who have been supplying the commercial sector for years. The good news is that they have recognised how important Wi-Fi is to the residential market and have developed products aimed at this market.
Wi-Fi coverage and signal strength
Wi-Fi may seem mysterious, but, it’s actually just a radio signal, albeit a clever one. Whilst standing next to your router may give you 100% signal, it may not be the most convenient place to be. As you move away from the router the signal strength will reduce until you can’t pick it up at all.
Like any other radio signal, Wi-Fi is also subject to interference. This can be from physical objects like brick walls, curtains, furniture, doors, even books on shelves. Many modern construction techniques use metal stud-work for internal walls, creating an impenetrable ‘Faraday cage‘ for radio waves – essentially an area where radio waves can’t get in or escape. Wi-Fi is also subject to interference from other radio signals like your neighbours’ Wi-Fi, microwave ovens or alarm sensors.
If you are relying solely on an ISP-supplied router, chances are your Wi-Fi signal does not reach every corner of the home. And that’s likely to be frustrating! Wi‑Fi these days is so important to our modern lifestyles, that we can’t afford to have ‘dead zones’ around our home where we can’t get Wi-Fi signal. Moreover, your need for a strong Wi-Fi network in your home doesn’t necessarily stop at the walls of your house. Homeowners probably also want to have Wi-Fi when sitting in the garden, entertaining at the BBQ, perhaps even in the garden shed!
If you are concerned about your Wi-Fi connectivity, your first step to better coverage and a stronger Wi-Fi signal in your home is to upgrade your router. Better routers will broadcast a more robust Wi-Fi signal throughout your home and outdoor areas. A new router might not fix all of your Wi-Fi connectivity issues, however. If your experiencing ‘dead zones’ around the home, they may be caused by interference to the Wi-Fi signal.
Building a Better Wi-Fi Signal
You may have heard of Wi-Fi ‘boosters’ – don’t use them! Essentially these work by taking the existing Wi-Fi signal and rebroadcasting it. So, if the booster is placed a distance from the router where it is only receiving 50% signal, then that’s the maximum signal it can rebroadcast. By the time you install a second booster, you may only be rebroadcasting a 25% signal.
The best way to ensure good Wi-Fi coverage throughout our homes is to effectively replicate what the router is doing. We do this by use of Wireless Access Points “waps”. These are devices which are hard-wired using an ethernet cable back to your router [Read: how to cable a home] . Many access points don’t need a local power supply as they get their power from the network switch. This is known as power over ethernet (POE).
In practice, we will want a number of access points throughout the home, each giving a 100% Wi-Fi signal. To determine the optimum number of access points, we do a ‘soak test’. However, due to the possibility of interference noted above, we’d always recommend redundant cabling for some extra places through the home, so further access points can be added on later if required.
If it isn’t possible to install cables for the access points, then you could consider a ‘mesh network’. A mesh network is composed of many nodes and works by passing data from one node of the network to another. You can think of a mesh network as a chain of links. Each link (node of the mesh network) is connected to the others so that the whole chain (the network) can reach a further distance – much further than any one link (node) could reach. Your data on the Wi-Fi network is passed from one node to the next until it reaches back to the router.
Setting up the right level of security on your Wi-Fi network is paramount to prevent hackers accessing your sensitive data. You can’t physically contain the Wi-Fi signal itself. So, unlike with hard-wired networks, hackers could penetrate your unprotected Wi-Fi network without ever setting foot in your home!
The SSID is the technical term for the Wi-Fi network’s name. This is the name you look for when logging onto Wi-Fi on a wireless device such as your smartphone.
List of Wi-Fi Network Names
You can always see what network SSIDs are around you by looking in your WiFi setting – you can see in this image what networks are near our offices.
On your ISP-supplied router this will have been set in the factory to a default value, as will its password. We recommend you change the SSID name to something more meaningful to you. If you use good quality access points, you can define your own SSID. As an added layer of security, you can also make the network invisible so you need to type the exact name when connecting.
Additionally, you will need to set the password for your Wi-Fi network. Don’t use WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) as the security, as it is an old standard subject to hacking and provides limited security protection. We recommend everyone use WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) security for their homes or WPA Personal, which is designed for home networks.
What makes a good password?
Any password you define needs to be memorable or written down but hidden so you can refer to it when required. If someone wishes to gain access to your home network they need to either physically plug into your home using a network cable, or via your wireless network using your Wi-Fi password. So you’ll need to come up with something that all family and friends can use but too complicated for someone to guess. Check out what Google has to say about it: how to choose a good password.
A Wi-Fi network based on quality access points will also allow for remote monitoring and control over the network. Don’t worry, this doesn’t give remote access to the data on your network.
Wi-Fi control is particularly important for households with children. The settings can allow you to restrict their devices using user groups and time schedules. You may also consider creating a guest network. This way you can shield your visitors from other network devices and even control how long or at what speeds they can connect.
Helping You Achieve a Robust Wi-Fi Experience
As with all technology, you get what you pay for; but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the most expensive option is the best. You will find Wi-Fi networks are no different.
A generic wireless network will offer acceptable connectivity. As you roam around an area your device will connect to an access point and remain so until it is forced to connect to another. Other networks built from more intelligent access points have the capacity to perform much better and reduce radio-waves, giving a seamless performance no matter where you are or how old your devices are.
When we investigate our client’s Wi-Fi requirements, we often recommend a higher performing network to ensure the best experience.