Don't Settle for Lousy Home Wi-Fi

03/25/2015 04:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2015


My brother-in-law was conversing with my wife and myself via FaceTime on his iPhone when he complained that his signal kept breaking up. I knew the problem couldn't be at my end -- I subscribe to Time Warner Cable's top 300 Mbps broadband service, and my wife's iPhone 6 was connected to our home Wi-Fi hotspot supplied by a state-of-the-art 802.11ac Wi-Fi router.

After some investigation, we discovered my b-i-l's video burping problem: his Wi-Fi was supplied by a AT&T U-verse cable modem/router supplying an embarrassingly paltry 18 Mbps (megabits per second). Embarrassingly because AT&T's U-verse 18 Mbps service and Time Warner Cable's Ultimate 100 Mbps service cost exactly the same -- $45/month. (Further embarrassing comparisons: "Performance" 25 Mbps Comcast Xfinity service is $30/month, while 50 Mbps service via Cablevision's Optimum Online is $45/month).

But I digress.

This fractured FaceTime episode exposes three disturbing problems in our increasingly Wi-Fi dependent lives: our underwhelming and non-competitive national broadband infrastructure controlled by local monopolistic cable companies, none of which we can do much about, and the lies your Wi-Fi router tells you, which you can certainly do something about.

Let's talk some Internet connection basics first.

Our Internet Kinda Sucks

Internet connections, wired and wireless, are like water pressure. The greater the water pressure, the faster and the more effectively the job gets done. If your pressure is low, your morning shower annoyingly takes forever. Low water pressure from a hydrant and forget about dousing a home fire.

Same with broadband and Wi-Fi. The faster your speeds, the faster your email comes in, the faster email attachments download, the faster Web pages fill, the less music streaming buffers and the fewer breakups there are in video calls. High-definition video streamed via Netflix, Hulu and other services to your TV, requires the highest pressure/speed to ensure burp-free viewing.

The greatest need for speed will be for 4K streaming. Netflix and Amazon have already begun pumping out 4K programming for streaming to the 4 million 4K UHD TVs expected to be sold this year. How much speed? Netflix requires connection speeds of at least 25 Mbps for 4K streaming.

Unfortunately, most of the U.S. broadband infrastructure is incapable of delivering these minimum 4K streaming speeds. According to the most recent "State of the Internet Report" from Akamai, the average U.S. broadband speed is merely 11.1 Mbps, which ranks 16th in the world, half the average of perennial broadband leader South Korea at 22.2 Mbps. Although we're getting 1.5 Mbps faster speeds than our average speed of a year ago, Norway, Romania and Lithuania have all shot passed the U.S.

That's just embarrassing.

If your broadband and Wi-Fi connections from your cable ISP (Internet Service Provider) are lacking, there are alternatives. Your cable ISP may offer faster speeds than you're subscribed to. If not, check to see if there's a local DSL (Digital Service Line) supplier, which you can find here.

Wi-Fi Varieties

Piping decent wired broadband connectivity into your home is step one. Step two is spreading Wi-Fi around your abode and its surroundings.

There are several varieties of Wi-Fi, each version providing progressively faster speeds than the previous version. 802.11 is the technical designation for the Wi-Fi standard established by the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) in 1997. The most prominent versions are 802.11b (2000, 11 Mbps), 802.11g (2003, 54 Mbps), 802.11n (2009, 600 Mbps) and, most recently, 802.11ac, with top speeds of 1300 Mbps, or 1.3 gigabits per second (Gbps).

By way of comparison, your LTE smartphone's theoretical speed is around 12 Mbps; T-Mobile's LTE Wideband service, available in a growing number of U.S. cities, boosts speeds to around 100 Mbps.

Both 802.11n and 802.11ac (or just N and AC) Wi-Fi are delivered over both 2.4 GHz and new-ish 5 GHz frequency bands that deliver higher performance at greater range; so-called "tri-band" AC routers broadcast Wi-Fi over 2.4 GHz and separate high and low 5 GHz bands.

These 5 GHz bands are practically empty compared to crowded 2.4 MHz bands in which most neighborhood Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and many cordless phones live, along with interference from other electrical devices such as your microwave oven. The experience difference between 5 GHz and 2.4 GHz is the difference between driving on a empty multi-lane freeway vs. a two-lane highway at rush hour.

You should always use the 5 GHz network for video streaming. I use 2.4 GHz for wireless peripheral connections, such as to my Wi-Fi printer. Check your N or AC router's instruction manual to set up a 5 GHz network, if you haven't already done so.

Lies Your Router Tells You

You may have noticed a weird discrepancy in the speeds I rattled off above. I mentioned I get up to 300 Mbps from Time Warner Cable, but AC Wi-Fi is capable of delivering up to 1.3 Gbps.

So why aren't I or anyone else getting 1.3 Gbps wireless connectivity from their AC router?

All AC routers are marketed to reflect their theoretical top speeds. For instance, the sales copy for the Netgear Nighthawk X4 AC2350 router ($280) I've been testing (pictured above, left) says it's capable of "up to 1.73Gbps, and a combined speed of 2.33Gbps," hence its AC2350 sobriquet. Other AC routers similarly brand themselves to reflect their top theoretical speeds -- the Asus RT-AC3200, the Belkin AC 1750, the Buffalo AirStation Extreme AC 1900, the D-Link AC3200, the Linksys EA9200 AC3200, the TP-LINK Archer CP AC1900, the TRENDnet TEW-828DRU AC3200, to name a few.

But Wi-Fi hotspots can't deliver wireless connection speeds any faster than the incoming wired connection from your cable or other ISP (Internet service provider); top theoretical AC router speeds are only available in a direct computer-to-computer wireless connections, which you'll never do.

Hence the router lie.

So, if AT&T U-verse only delivers 18 Mbps to my brother-in-law's home, his router (or, in his case, his AT&T U-verse-supplied Arris NVG589 combined modem/N router) can only deliver Wi-Fi up to 18 Mbps, usually less. And if multiple devices are drawing from that 18 Mbps, everyone's connections will slow down.

And an AC router can only deliver peak performance to gear capable of receiving AC signals, regardless of what speeds are touted on the box or the sales copy.

For instance, my older MacBook Air laptop is not AC capable. As a result, I only get top speeds of "only" around 70 Mbps over 5 GHz from the Netgear Nighthawk (tests conducted using Ookla's site) and around 85 Mbps from my go-to Asus RT-AC68U AC router (pictured above, right), but only around 55 Mbps from the Arris Touchstone TG1672 modem/N router supplied by Time Warner Cable.

On my AC-compatible iPad Air 2, however, I'm getting around a robust 225 Mbps over AC Wi-Fi from both the Netgear and the Asus (tested via the free Cloudcheck app) routers, but "only" around 85 Mbps from my Arris N modem/router.

Still way better than 18 Mbps, eh?

Expanding Limited Wi-Fi Range

The other problem with home Wi-Fi is getting it where you need it.

Wi-Fi normally transmits out to around 150 feet, but this is range assumes line-of-sight between the router and the receiving device.

In the real world, walls and ceilings can limit Wi-Fi reception to a few yards, which is where an AC router comes in handy. Instead of just transmitting indiscriminately in all directions, AC routers use "beamforming" -- transmissions are concentrated to where the router senses AC devices are located.

But that doesn't mean every corner of your abode will be covered. If centrally located, an AC router should be able to douse a 3,500 square foot house with Wi-Fi. If you live in a multi-level dwelling, or you want coverage on your patio or out by the pool, and your AC router is located anywhere other than the center of the house, you'll need a Wi-Fi extender or repeater.

The most comprehensive and effective Wi-Fi expansion/repeater solution I've run across is the ActionTec WCB3000N ($150), but setting it up is not for the technically faint of heart.

Easier is a plug-in expander/repeater such as the palm-sized 2.4 GHz/5 GHz Amped Wireless REC15A ($90). You just plug it into an AC outlet where you get at least 70 percent Wi-Fi reception and run through a quick online set-up to add around 6,500 square feet of Wi-Fi coverage. Easy peasy.

Then there's the just-announced Sengled Boost ($50), an app-controllable LED light bulb with a built-in Wi-Fi repeater. I'm getting one this week so will let you know after I've had a chance to figuratively and literally light it up.

Bottom line: If your current ISP or router doesn't supply the Internet connections you need, you don't have to settle. There are ways of getting faster and wider connections either via setting up a 5 GHz network on your current N or AC router, buying a new AC router, extending your Wi-Fi's reach via an extender/repeater, or hooking up with a new ISP and getting more megabit bang for your buck.