This post will help almost anyone, including those without networking know-how, set up a home Wi-Fi network from scratch. If you’ve never worked on a router before — or don’t even know what it is — you’re at the right place.
Already in the know? This can still be a fun read.
A bit of a warning: This is a very long article, so put aside some time for it.
Dong’s note: I originally published part of this post on February 15, 2018, and updated on April 30, 2020, with a great deal of additional up-to-date and relevant information, based on readers’ questions and requests.
Home Wi-Fi network basics
Generally, a home network includes wired and wireless parts. You can see the former, such as network ports and cables. For the latter, the Wi-Fi part, you will likely need to use a bit of imagination.
In between these parts are the hardware, namely a set of a modem and a router; or a gateway. And it’s a good idea to know the role of each.
Understanding wired hardware: Ports and cables
One of the first things you’ll run into when dealing with a home network is likely the network ports. They are holes that you can plug a network cable into. Physically, these ports all look the same, but they can be quite different in what they do, and in their speed grades.
Note: Technically, we’re talking bout the BASE-T or BaseT type of computer networking — the name refers to the wiring method used inside the network cable. But you can ignore this extra technical information since this type is the most popular by far. In your home, chances are you won’t find any other type.
Generally, you’ll find network ports on the back of a router. (More on what a router is, below). There are two types, WAN (or Internet) and LAN. Most routers include one WAN port and a few LAN ports.
The WAN port tends to have a different color and is separate from the LANs for easy recognition. So what do they do?
WAN stands for wide area network, which is a fancy name for the Internet. This is the port you use to hook the router to an Internet source, like a modem. (More on modem below). The port on the source itself is a LAN port.
LAN stands for local area network. It’s generally a port type that hosts local devices. Specifically, you use them to connect wired devices, like desktop computers or printers, to your home network. Devices connected to a router are part of a local network.
A router tends to have more than one LAN port, but if you have many wired devices, you’ll run out of them fast. To add more, you need a network switch.
A switch is a device that adds more LAN ports to a local network. (The LAN ports on a router, as mentioned above, are actually part of the router’s built-in switch.)
A switch comes with multiple LAN ports. You connect one of them to a router, and now the rest of the switch’s ports will work just like those of the router itself.
So, a switch always loses one of its ports to connect itself to an existing network. That said, you want to get one that has the same number of ports as the number of wired devices you want to add to the network, plus one. Or just get a switch with plenty of ports to spare.
Common port speeds: Gigabit vs. Faster Ethernet vs. Multi-gig
You might have heard of Gigabit. That’s currently the most popular network standard speed grade, which is generally also used to classify a device. For example, a switch with Gigabit ports is known as a Gigabit switch.
A Gigabit port can deliver 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) — that’s 1000 megabit per second (Mbps), or 125 megabytes per second (MB/s). At this rate, you can transmit a CD worth of data (some 700 MB) in about 6 seconds. Pretty fast.
There are other common speed grades, including Fast Ethernet and multi-gig. Despite the name, Fast Ethernet is only 100 Mbps which is ten times slower than Gigabit — so, it’s not fast. (There’s another standard that’s only 10 Mbps, but it’s so old you can pretend it doesn’t exist.)
Multi-gig, on the other hand, is faster than Gigabit and can deliver up to 2.5 Gbps, 5 Gbps, or 10 Gbps. The latest Wi-Fi 6 routers tend to have one or a few multi-gig ports, in addition to their Gigabit ports.
Port types and network cables
All network ports share the same port type, which is 8-position 8-contact (8P8C). However, this port type is more widely known via a misnomer, the Registered Jack 45, or RJ45. So we’ll keep calling it RJ45.
This port type work with all RJ45 network cable types, including CAT5e, CAT6, CAT7, and likely future revisions. It’s a network cable when it has two 8P8C connectors at both ends.
Generally, all cable types can deliver 1 Gbps (Gigabit) to up to 100 m (328 feet) in length, though CAT7 can do that in a greater length. Generally, if you need to expand your network really far out, it’s a better idea to put an active device — like a switch – in between.
All cable types mentioned above can also handle multi-gig. Here’s the length in which each type can deliver up to 10 Gbps:
- CAT5e: 45 meters (148 feet)
- CAT6: 55 meters (180 feet)
- CAT6a: 100 meters
- CAT7: Over 100 meters
So, for most homes, the popular CAT5e cable will suffice. But it doesn’t hurt to run higher-grade (and more expensive) cables.
By the way, if you plug a Fast Ethernet (100Mbps) device into a Gigabit port or even a multi-gig port, it will work. That’s because wired network devices can connect interchangeably regardless of the speed grades and cable types.
However, in this case, the connection speed between a pair is always that of the slowest party involved. Specifically, if you plug a Gigabit and a multi-gig device into a Fast Ethernet switch, the connection between the two devices will cap at 100 Mbps.
Modem vs. Router vs. Gateway
Every home network must have a router. And if the network has access to the Internet, chances are there’s a modem involved, too. So what is a gateway and what does it do? We’ll find out below.
One thing is for sure: I wouldn’t have to write this part if folks didn’t have the habit of calling these three things arbitrarily.
What is a modem?
The word actually is more like MoDem. It’s an acronym for a device that works both as a modulator and a demodulator. A modem converts computer data signals into those of the service line and vice versa.
The service line in question can be anything, but predominantly it’s either a telephone line or TV cable (coaxial). That’s the reason why you likely have a DSL or Cable modem, respectively.
It’s fairly easy to identify a modem. It’s a device that always has one service port to connect to the service line, that comes into your home from the utility pole outside, and one network port. This network port is where you connect the WAN port of the router into, as mentioned above.
Some cable modems also have a phone jack for phone service, but generally, if you see one network port and one service port, it is a modem.
A modem can bring Interne to just one device, which is why we need a router.
What is a router?
As mentioned above, a router always has one WAN (Internet) port to connect to the Internet source. On top of that, it also has a few (usually four) LAN ports for wired devices. Most, if not all, home routers have a built-in Wi-Fi access point — it’s a Wi-Fi router.
As for how to identify, a Wi-Fi router tends to have a few antennas, though some might have internal ones. But generally, if you look at its label, you’ll see the word “router” on it.
The job of a router is to create a network that allows multiple devices to talk to one another locally. On top of that, it also shares the single broadband connection of the Internet source (the modem) to the entire network.
It does all that via NAT and DHCP functions which you can learn more about on this post on IP addresses.
A router + a modem = a gateway
A gateway is just a combo device that includes a router and a modem in a single hardware box. That said, a gateway will generally have a service port plus a few (usually four) LAN ports. It tends not to have a WAN port.
If you use equipment provided by the service provider, chances are it’s a gateway. In this case, the company technician might call it a “modem”, which contributes to the confusion.
You can also buy a retail gateway. The Netgear Orbi CBK40 is an example — it’s a cable gateway. Considering nobody bothers to use the correct terminology, Netgear actually calls it a Cable Modem Router.
Now that we’ve gone through the visible hardware part of a network, let’s find out about the invisible part of it, the Wi-Fi.
Understanding Wi-Fi: Distance vs. signal strength
The only thing you can literally see about your Wi-Fi network is the antennas, and that’s only true when you don’t have a router with internal ones. On a mobile device, that’s almost always the case, the antennas are blended in with the device’s chassis.
And then what happen in between those antennas are pure mysteries.
How Wi-Fi works
The details of Wi-Fi can be overwhelming — more about that in this post about different Wi-Fi standards.
But all standards, including the latest Wi-Fi 6, share this same principle of radio broadcasting:
You have a broadcaster (your router) that emanates radio signals outward, and a receiver (your laptop) that catches those signal to form an invisible link that can transmit data between the two. One broadcaster can handle multiple receivers at a time.
(That is when we use the most popular mode of Wi-Fi, called infrastructure. There’s another mode, ad-hoc, where you can connect two Wi-Fi receivers directly to each other. But that’s a bit too much of technical detail.)
That said, Wi-Fi is a wireless alternative to network cables. In other words, when a device connects to a router using Wi-Fi, it actually uses an invisible network cable, so to speak. The length of this “cable” is the router’s Wi-Fi range.
Wi-Fi range in theory
One of the most popular questions I’ve gotten is the specific range of a Wi-Fi router. There’s no exact answer to that, but you can figure out the ballpark numbers.
The way radio wave works, the lower the frequency the longer the wave can travel. AM and FM radios use frequency measured in Megahertz, so you can listen to the same station in a very large area, like an entire region or a city.
Wi-Fi uses 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz frequencies. Both are extremely high. As a result, they have much shorter ranges.
Generally, when out in the open, on a sunny day, you can expect a home router‘s Wi-Fi signals to reach up to some 200 feet (60 m) and 150 feet (46 m) away, on the 2.4 GHz band and 5 GHz band, respectively.
Some might consider these numbers generous, others will argue their router can do more, but you can use them as the base to calculate the coverage for your situation.
(There is indeed specifical Wi-Fi equipment that can deliver signals for miles. But they cost a lot and generally won’t work with your laptop or your phone.)
The closer to the broadcaster, the better the signals are — you’ll get faster connection speeds. At the end of a range, chances are your device can hardly maintain a connection. Unlike the Big Bang, Wi-Fi’s radio waves don’t go on forever.
Wi-Fi range in real-life
In real-world usage, chances are your router’s Wi-Fi range is a lot shorter than you’d like. That’s because Wi-Fi signals are sensitive to interferences and obstacles.
Common 2.4 GHz interference sources:
- Other 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi broadcasters in the vicinity
- 2.4GHz cordless phones
- Fluorescent bulbs
- Bluetooth radios
- Microwave ovens
Common 5 GHz interference sources:
- Other nearby 5GHz Wi-Fi broadcasters
- 5GHz cordless phones
- Digital satellites
As for obstacles, walls are the most problematic since they are everywhere. Different types of walls block Wi-Fi signals differently, but no wall is good for Wi-Fi. Large objects, like big appliances, or elevators, are bad, too.
Here are my rough estimations of how much a wall blocks Wi-Fi signals:
- A thin porous (wood, sheetrocks, drywall, etc.) wall: It’ll block between 10% to 30% of Wi-Fi signals — a router’s range will be that much shorter.
- A thick porous wall: 20% to 40%
- A thin nonporous (concrete, metal, ceramic tile, brick with mortar, etc.) wall: 30% to 50%
- A thick nonporous wall: 50% to 90%.
Again, these numbers are just ballpark, but you can use them to have an idea of how far the signal will reach when you place a Wi-Fi broadcaster at a certain spot in your home. A simple rule is more walls equal worse coverage.
Best practices for great home Wi-Fi network
Considering how Wi-Fi works as mentioned above, the following are a few things you should do to get the best Wi-Fi experience.
1. Hardware placement
All home routers use omnidirectional antennas. As a result, wireless signals are broadcast outwardly as a sphere – more like a horizontal ellipse — with the router being in the center. So if you place your router by the side of your home, half of its coverage will be on the outside.
Wi-Fi broadcaster placement: Dos
Here are the best places to put your Wi-Fi router.
- Center: As close to the center of the house as possible. Since, in most cases, the Internet drop is at a corner of a house, you can run a network cable from the modem to the router.
- High ground: It’s best to place your router above the ground. If you have a two- or three-story home, put the router on the second floor. If it’s a single-story home, place it on the ceiling or top of furniture, like a bookshelf.
- Out in the open: Avoid putting your router in a closet or behind a large, thick object — such as a TV or a refrigerator. Generally, you want to set the router in an open space.
- Vertical antenna position: That is if you want to signal to go out horizontally. Use the antennas in the horizontal position if you want the signal to go out like a vertical ellipse.
Wi-Fi broadcaster placement: Don’ts
Here are a few examples of where you shouldn’t place your Wi-F router:
- A closet
- Behind a large appliance like a fridge or a TV
- The laundry room
- A basement that has thick walls or below a thick concrete floor
Hardware placement for a mesh Wi-Fi system
In a large home, a single router might not cut it, you’ll need multiple broadcasters to form a Wi-Fi mesh system. Generally, a single router can cover about 1,800 ft² (170 m²). Each extender (or a mesh point) can extend another 1,500 ft² or so.
In this case, it’s best to use network cables to connect the hardware units. If that’s not possible, consider the following:
- Place the broadcasters of the systems at a good distance (not too far, not too close) one another. Generally, this distance should be about 30 ft (9 m) to 50 ft (13 m) if there’s a wall in between, or up to 75 ft (23 m) if there’s a line of sight.
- Minimize the number of walls or obstacles in between them.
- When there are two or more satellite units, place them around the main router to form a star topology — find out more on this post of mesh systems. You want to minimize the time signals have to hop before they get to the end device.
Note that a wireless mesh setup is generally not good for real-time communication applications, such as gaming or video/audio conferencing. For that you need to have wire backhaul, or the device will need to connect to the network via a network cable.
2. Get your own equipment
You generally have more control and better network when using your modem and router instead of using equipment from your Internet provider.
If you use cable Internet, replacing the ISP-provided gateway with your own also saves yourself from having to pay for the monthly rental fee.
3. Use network cables when possible
Again, when you need to extend your network, it’s best to run network cables to connect hardware units.
If you have a large home, consider using multiple hardware units connected to the main router via network cables to make sure you get the best coverage and the fastest speed.
When running network cables is not an option, you can try Powerline adapters (which turn the electrical wiring of your home into network cables).
Note that a Powerline’s performance varies a great deal depending on the wiring of your home, and will not work with power-strips or surge protectors. They are generally much less reliable than network cables and not suitable if you have very fast Internet or intend to use Wi-Fi 6.
4. Schedule a periodical restart
Just like a computer, a reboot helps the router refresh and work better. While most routers can work 24/7, it’s a good idea to give it a restart once or twice a month.
Many routers, like those from Asus, have a reboot scheduler within their interface that you can use.
Types of routers for a home Wi-Fi network
Routers for a home Wi-Fi network come in all shapes, sizes, and costs but as far as this post is concerned, there are only two types: Those that have a web user interface and those that don’t.
The former tend to give you a lot of customization and settings while the latter doesn’t give you much more than naming your Wi-Fi network and picking a password for it.
Routers without a web interface
They are convenient to use and easy to manage, but in return, they require the Internet to work, connect to the vendor at all times, and, therefore, pose a privacy risk.
I call these “data mining” routers. They are not my type.
Routers with a web interface
The good news is the majority of routers — virtually all those from real networking vendors — on the market have a web interface. As a result, all you need is a web browser (Chrome, Firefox, Edge, and so on) to work with them.
And since all computers and mobile devices come with a browser, you can manage them right away, without having to download an app.
For convenience’s sake, some of these routers also come with a free mobile app, but it’s always better to handle them via web UI.
Home Wi-Fi network: Router setup
Generally, a network consists of a few hardware pieces, the Internet box (a modem or a gateway), a router which we’re trying to set up, and of course, your computers. Following is how you connect them.
Connecting the hardware
1. Connect to the Internet source
Plug the router’s WAN (Internet) port to an Internet source (such as your cable modem or a gateway) using a network cable.
If you use a modem (or a gateway), connect its service port to the service line.
Note: I assume that you’re using a modem (or gateway) that has already been activated. If it’s a new device entirely, you will need to call the service provider to activate it first.
2. Connect your computer to the router
Plug another network cable into your computer’s LAN port and one of the router. Most routers have four LAN ports; you can use any of them.
If you have one of those new laptops that don’t have a network port, you can get a network dongle for just a few bucks.
If using a network cable is not possible, don’t worry. You can use the router’s default Wi-Fi information — generally found on its underside.
3. Power on
Plug all hardware devices into power and turn them on.
And that’s it. You have finished with the hardware setup part. In fact, connect all wired devices to the router’s LAN ports and you’re game. For the Wi-Fi network, though, you need to do a few more things.
Getting your home Wi-Fi network up and running
To configure a Wi-Fi network, you need to first login the routers web interface. It’s where you can make all the change.
1. Log in the router’s web interface
You can access a router’s (or gateway’s) interface using a web browser (such as Firefox, Chrome, or Safari) from a connected computer.
If you’re setting up a new router, the first time you launch the browser, you’ll likely automatically get to the web interface where you can follow the setup wizard.
But you can always manually log in to the router’s interface by pointing the browser to its friendly URL or default IP address. The table above lists the default login info of most routers. Can’t find it? You can always quickly figure out its IP yourself.
(Note that nowadays most new routers require you to create a new username and password during the initial setup before you can access its full interface as well as the Internet.)
Once you’ve logged in, the rest is rather self-explanatory. Though different networking vendors tend to have different interfaces, they all share similar sections, including Wi-Fi (or Wireless), WAN, LAN, Admin, and so on.
Most importantly, all of them have a password for the interface that you need to change right away from the default value.
2. Change the router admin password
This password keeps your network safe from hackers. Pick a strong password that’s hard to guess. You’ll need to use this password only when you want to access the interface. Make sure this password different from the Wi-Fi password.
3. Customize your Wi-Fi network
A Wi-Fi network includes a Wi-Fi name and a password. Like any proper name, the Wi-Fi network’s name is public, everyone will see it. That said, pick one of your likings.
The password, on the other hand, needs to be a secret. Choose one that’s hard-to-guess but easy to type in, especially on a small screen like that of a printer. Generally, a string of random numbers (and letters) will do. Again, make sure this password is different from the router’s admin password, above.
Use the most common encryption method — currently WPA2 or WPA3 — for the password. Note that some existing Wi-Fi clients won’t work with the newest WPA3. You might want to avoid using that or use it in the mixed WPA2/WPA3 mode.
Most routers have more than one band. They are Dual-Band or Tri-Band routers. In this case, you can use SmartConnect, where the router lump all bands together in a single Wi-Fi network (SSID). Or you can manually create an SSID for each band.
4. Initialize the Internet connection
Depending on the router, you can do this on the Internet or WAN or Setup part of the interface. For most Internet connections, you can leave it at Auto and let the router detect the setting by itself.
A few Internet plans, especially those with static WAN IP addresses, will require you to type in the settings correctly. In this case, you need to consult your provider.
Other than that, you can play with different parts of the interface to figure out additional features and settings.
Running into problems? Knowing how to reset a router will help.
Home Wi-Fi network maintenance
A router works non-stop for days or even months on end, so once in a while, it might run into problems. So, knowing when to restart and also how to reset it will come in handy.
Before you can do a reset, you need to know what it exactly is.
Reset vs. restart
Everyone knows how to restart a router. Just unplug it from the power and then plug it back in. Some routers also have a power on/off button for this. Restarting helps solve some issues, and just like with a computer, it’s a good idea to restart a router once in a while.
Reset, on the other hand, erase all the settings of the router and bring it back to the state when it left the factory. So resetting can be quite dangerous. Among other things, it’ll cause your current Wi-Fi network to disappear.
For that reason, it’s a good thing that it takes a bit of work to perform a router reset. But first, let see when you’d want to reset a router.
When to do a router reset
Again, you’ll lose all the settings after a router reset. So don’t do this for fun. You only do that when finding yourself in one of the following situations:
- You lost the admin password to access its web interface, as mentioned above. A reset will restore that to the known default value.
- You want to re-setup your home network from scratch or suspect that some home has hacked your router.
- The router has issues that a restart doesn’t solve.
- You no longer need it (before you give it away.)
There are two ways to reset a router: using the reset button or via the web interface. You can reset a router as many times as you like, it doesn’t physically harm the hardware.
Router reset via the reset button
- Locate its reset button. It’s almost always on the router’s back or its underside. This button is usually recessed to prevent users from pressing on it by accident.
- Plug the router into power, wait about a minute for it to boot up fully, then use a pin (or a pointy object) to press and hold the reset button for about 10 seconds. As a result, the router will reset and restarts. You’ll notice that if you look at its status light.
If you want to make sure the router has reset, wait a minute or two for the router fully boot up again to see the Wi-Fi network is gone, and the default Wi-FI network is now available.
Router setting backup and reset via the web interface
If you still have access to the router’s web interface, you have the option to back up its settings before the reset.
- Log in to the web interface, as mentioned above.
- Navigate to the reset function. The table below shows how you can find the Reset function within the web interface of popular routers. Generally, you can see this function in the Administration or System section of the interface.
- Here you can backup the settings in case you want to restore the router’s current condition after a reset.
- Click on the button (or link) to proceed with a reset. The process will take a few seconds to complete.
Router firmware update
Firmware is the operating system of your home Wi-Fi router. That said, you should perform a router firmware update once in a while. New firmware helps improve performance, security and often brings in new features.
Generally, if a router has a mobile app, you can use the app for the firmware update. Most new Linksys routers also have automatic firmware update function, which you can turn on in step 3 below.
Five steps to perform a router firmware update
- Look for the latest firmware. The easiest way is to Google the router’s model and “firmware,” such as “Asus RT-AC68U firmware”. Most of the time, the first result is the place where you can find the latest firmware.
- Download the firmware. In most cases, the firmware is inside a zip file. You need to open this file and drag the firmware out to a location you know, such as the desktop, on your computer.
- Login the router’s web interface and navigate to the firmware update section. The chart below shows how to find this section in the interface of popular routers. Note that in this section, you will also be able to configure the auto-update (if available) or perform the router’s self-update process. Some router will give you a notification as soon as you log into its interface if there’s a new firmware available.
- Proceed to upload the new firmware.
- Confirm the update and wait for the process to complete.
Note that the update process takes about 5 minutes and can’t be interrupted. Consequently, if you if unplug your router during this process, you might damage it. Also, during this a firmware update, you have no access to the Internet or your local network.
Setting up and managing a home Wi-Fi network can be intimidating, mostly because we can’t see the router’s wireless signals. But that’s where the web interface comes into play.
Once you’ve worked with one router’s interface and understand the general idea of how a network functions, you can work on any router. And nothing feels more satisfying than getting the home Wi-Fi network you want, by yourself.