Data Doctors: Dealing with Wi-Fi dead zones

Q: I’m having trouble connecting to Wi-Fi in various parts of my house and yard. Should I add a range extender or just buy a new Wi-Fi router?

A: Wi-Fi connectivity has become one of the most common problems most of us face, whether it’s at home, at the office or on the road.

Weak signals in specific areas can be very frustrating as you’ve become accustomed to having the internet at your fingertips at all times.

Common causes of problems

If your wireless router is fairly old and you’ve never done a firmware upgrade, you may be surprised by how much better if operates if you simply do the update.

If you’re not familiar with the process, go to the support section of your router manufacturer’s website and search for “firmware update” to get specific instructions.

The farther you are from a wireless router, the more likely it is you will experience performance issues, which is why the concept of a “range extender” makes sense.

But before you attempt to use a range extender to solve your problems, you need to make sure you understand all the potential causes.

If you live in an urban area surrounded by many other wireless routers, your problem may be less about range and more about congestion.

Wi-Fi signals are transmitted on an open frequency that can be shared by many devices that can cause interference, and there are a finite number of channels in which they operate.

If you can see a long list of wireless access points available to your device when you initially try to connect, your router could be trying to use the same channel as lots of other routers, causing congestion.

Adding a range extender to solve a congestion problem won’t get you very good results, so using resources to see whether changing channels might help is another possible solution.

Newer wireless routers are capable of automatically avoiding congested channels when they are rebooted, and most routers do diminish in performance over time. So if yours is more than 3 or 4 years old, upgrading to a newer one may be the best solution.

If you do decide to try the range-extender solution, try sticking to the same manufacturer as your router for the best results.

Mesh networks

If you do decide to purchase a newer router, there have been so many technical advances over the past few years, especially if you have a large area with “dead zones” to cover.

A “mesh network” — which was once the domain of expensive, high-performance business networks — is now readily available for consumers.

Instead of relying on a single device to do all the work, newer offerings from companies, such as Linksys, Netgear and Google, use multiple transmitters that talk to one another around your house, removing the “single point of failure” issue.

The technical merits of the higher-performing platforms that typically use MU-MIMO (multi-user multiple input, multiple output) allow you to keep adding devices to increase your coverage area without a huge degradation in performance.

Ken Colburn is founder and CEO of Data Doctors Computer Services. Ask any tech question on Facebook or Twitter.

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