Recently I’ve received a lot of questions about getting the best Wi-Fi coverage — stuff I’d already covered a great deal. Some even complained that there was just “too much” information in my posts. “It’s overwhelming,” they said.
Everyone wants the best Wi-Fi coverage with the least amount of effort!
So this post is where I point you in the right direction with links to other detailed pieces on the subjects, just in case. It’ll save you time. And I plan to update it regularly.
A bit of warning: You might get overwhelmed by the number of related posts.
Want to get a fast answer? Use the Table of Contents below.
Table of Contents
Understanding the obvious
Since Wi-Fi is a complicated realm — there’s no one-size-fits-all — it’s a good idea to understand its nuance.
That said, let’s start with a few seemingly-obvious items we often overlook that might lead to unnecessary Wi-Fi issues. The entire post only makes sense if you read this part.
1. Wi-Fi and Intenet are two different things
I remember leaving an Airbnb review recently and putting “excellent Wi-Fi” as one of the positive notes. Well, by that, I meant the place had fast Internet. I’m sure you can relate to how we tend to use one to mean the other.
But in reality, Wi-Fi and Internet are two different things. We need to keep that in mind when troubleshooting or setting up a new network.
If somehow you actually don’t know that, this post will explain them in detail. But the most important thing to keep in mind is this: getting a new Wi-Fi router does not necessarily improve your online experience — that’s on your Internet.
2. Wi-Fi coverage is a sphere
Ideally, a Wi-Fi broadcaster (a Wi-Fi router or access point) broadcasts signals out omnidirectional — it’s like a light bulb or the sun.
That means the coverage is somewhat like a sphere with the emitter in the center. (It’s more like an egg in most cases, or even less ideal than that — it’s impossible to have a perfect orb — but you get the idea.)
I wrote a long post on antennas, dBi, Wi-Fi, and FEM, you might want to check it out.
3. Wi-Fi is invisible and its range is hard to predict
The diameter of the sphere, in any direction, is a Wi-Fi broadcaster’s range. So the million-dollar question is, what’s the length of this diameter?
There’s no exact number. It varies depending on the environment, the hardware, and the Wi-Fi band. Also, the signals don’t die abruptly but wane slowly, and they are only meaningful when a device can connect to them at a certain speed — the detectable range is much longer than the useful one.
Generally, the lower the GHz in frequencies, the longer the range but, the slower the speed. In my experience, Wi-Fi 6’s 2.4GHz band has almost double the range of the 5GHz band but is just a fraction of the real-world rates.
So here’s my general real-world estimate: out in the open, you can expect a home Wi-Fi 6 router’s effective range — that’s when you can still get a good connection using a typical receiver like your phone — to be around 75 feet (23m) to 150 feet (46 m), depending on the hardware.
Inside, though, each wall or large object will decrease the range by 10% to 50%, in that direction, depending on the material and thickness.
That said, it’s worth noting that Wi-Fi is invisible and has a high level of unpredictability. If you treated it as something you can see or touch, like a car, it’d make no sense to you. This post will walk you through the intricacies of Wi-Fi as a whole.
And that brings us to what we can do to optimize a router’s coverage.
Tips on setting hardware for the best Wi-Fi coverage and performance
These are general tips. Some apply to all situations; others are only to specific homes.
1. Run network cables
It might sound counterintuitive but getting your home wired is by far the best way to get the Wi-Fi coverage you need. That’s especially true if you’re thinking of going Multi-Gig and getting 2.5Gbps, 5Gbps, or even 10Gbps connections.
Sometimes you need to run only one cable. Others you might want to wire the entire home. In any case, network cables will give you the most options for the best Wi-Fi coverage and performance.
What you might not know is that wiring can be quite fun.
After wiring, placement is the second most important in Wi-Fi setup. That said, it’s the most important for those who can’t run wires.
Common Wi-Fi placement rules
Considering the sphere notion above, it’s best to your Wi-Fi broadcaster (router, access point) as close to the center of the area you want to blanket as possible.
If you need to use multiple broadcasters — like a router and a few access points or mesh satellites — arrange them in a way so that their combined spheres cover the entire house.
No matter where you can place your broadcaster, make sure:
- Keep it out in the open
- Don’t cover it with anything. (The aluminum foil idea you might have heard of is total nonsense!)
- Keep its antennas, if any, in the vertical position, and then leave them alone.
Wi-Fi placement rules: Wired vs wireless
Sometimes, running a single network cable helps a lot. For example, you can use the cable to connect your modem or Fiber ONT, which tends to be at a corner of the house, to the best place where you want the router to be.
Or, if you use a mesh system, run a cable to link the router at one corner of the house and the satellite at another to form a reliable and strong backhaul connection between the two.
If you use a mesh system in a fully wireless setup (no network cable involved), the placement of the hardware can be tricky. But generally:
- Place the satellite around the main router.
- Use a Tri-band broadcaster — one that has an additional 5GHz band to work as the dedicated backhaul. If you want Wi-Fi 6E, use Quad-band hardware.
- The satellite should be at the ideal distance from the main router where its signal is around -70 dBm in strength.
3. Cut down the number of legacy and “smart” Wi-Fi devices
Wi-Fi Internet of Things (IoTs) devices tend to use dated Wi-Fi standards and can bog down a modern Wi-Fi 6 (or later) router. That said, consider:
- Avoid using no-name Wi-Fi smart devices
- Use Smart Home devices that have a separate hub, which is the only Wi-Fi device involved.
- Use a separate Wi-Fi network (access point or band) for these devices.
If you want to know the real reason why using dated Wi-Fi clients is no good, I detailed that in this post on Airtime Fairness.
4. Separate the bands
When possible, separating the Wi-Fi bands instead of using “Smart Connect” gives you more control of the network. You can segment the network accordingly. Such as:
- Delegate the 2.4GHz band to slow devices.
- Put fast devices on the (first) 5GHz band.
- Connect mixed 5GHz devices to the second 5GHz band (if available).
- Use the 6GHz band (if available) exclusively for fast clients.
On top of that, many routers also give you the option of creating virtual networks out of a single band, such as a Guest network. You can use them for this purpose.
Using all of the bands as a single network gives you the convenience of not having to reconnect when you move far from the router — the 2.4GHz band has the best range — but it tends to cause more bandwidth and performance issues in my experience.
At the very least, all bands have to work in compatibility mode, which is never a good thing.
5. Turn off VPN when not needed
If you work from home and need to connect to your office, then VPN is helpful. Sometimes, it’s a requirement. That’s because a VPN allows your device to be part of a remote network securely. For the same reason, VPN is also useful when you travel.
However, when you don’t need to be part of a remote network, using a VPN will only worsen the connection’s speed, not to mention the privacy risks – your device’s online activities go through the VPN server.
That said, when you’re at home and use a third-party VPN just so that you have “better security,” you should consider turning it off or removing it. You’re probably fooling yourself at the expense of your connection speed and privacy, not to mention the monthly cost.
6. Prioritizing your bandwidth
No matter how fast your Internet has limited bandwidth, a single device can use all of that in a specific task.
For example, when you download a large file, the process will use all available Internet bandwidth until the task is complete. During this time, other devices might have problems staying connected. That’s especially problematic when you’re on a video call.
That’s where a feature called QoS, or Quality of Service, comes into play. QoS helps prioritize the Internet bandwidth at a device or application level. A good router always has this feature built-in.
7. Getting the right hardware
Getting yourself a new Wi-Fi router or mesh system is a consequential task and a tricky one. Everyone has different needs.
This task is easy only when you live in a small house, preferably alone, with slow Internet. But if you do, then chances are you’re not reading this right now.
Again, since there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, I’ll offer here some general bullet points for you to consider:
- Don’t be “cheap”: The Wi-Fi router is the most important gadget in your home — it’s like running water. Spend money where it matters.
- Size matters: You don’t need a humongous router, but tiny, cute compact devices will never give you good performance and range. It’s just physics. A fast, powerful router needs to be of a certain physical size — though not always, they tend to be bulky, ugly, or even slightly noisy, or all of that. Pick a combo you can tolerate
- Avoid vendor-dependent devices: Specifically, I’d stay away from hyped-up, and highly sponsored/affiliated Google Wifi/Nest, Eero, and alike. Their requirements (login account, live connection with the vendor at all times, etc) can translate into privacy risks. But most importantly, they are just too small to deliver fast performance. In fact, none of their current variants can reliably deliver faster than 300Mbps at farther than 40 feet (12 m), in most cases.
Also, consider these when you need multiple broadcasters, such as in the case of a mesh system:
- If you can’t run network cable, a tri-band system — one with an additional 5GHz band — is a must. (If you use Wi-Fi 6E, then it must be a quad-band system.)
- If you have wired your home with a network cable, then get dual-band hardware (tri-band if you go with Wi-Fi 6E). Or you can also get a few access points.
- Don’t believe in the hype of Wi-Fi 6E. This latest standard is only good for a wired system and you need new clients, too.
- Avoid getting Wi-Fi extenders (or the so-called “boosters”). They almost never will work out.
If you need more help, check out this post on how to best use multiple hardware prices.
Extra: Tips on getting the most out of your broadband connection
In land-based broadband access, you generally have two options Cable vs Fiber-optic, of which the terminal device is a modem or an ONT, respectively. The former is more affordable but generally has a slow upload speed.
But no matter what you get, here are a few suggestions:
- Get a standalone terminal device (modem or ONT)
- Avoid combo gateway, which is a Wi-Fi router with a built-in terminal device. The new xFi Advanced Gateway from Comcast is an example.
- For cable: pick the right modem for your speed grade.
- For Fiber, have the ONT installed at a good place in your house — see placement above.
- For cable: Use just the Internet, and remove all TV or phone options. After that use streaming, such as YouTube TV, and a separate VoIP phone service.
- When possible, use your own equipment instead of renting one from the provider.
And by the way, if you have already set up your broadband and want to know when to fix it yourself and when to call the provider, this post on Internet troubleshooting will walk you through a few detailed steps.
Among the challenges of being at home all the time, keeping everyone in the house happy and happily connected ranks at the top — they are daily matters.
After years, I still have yet to find an enduring solution for the former, but hopefully, the tips above will help you make the most out of your existing Wi-Fi or set up a new network at its best. Doing well on this front helps the other, too.
That said, keep in mind that networking is always complicated.
To get a solution that gives the best Wi-Fi coverage and performance for yourself, you need to understand your home’s layout, what you need, and how Wi-Fi works. Yes, it’s kind of like looking for a partner — as in the other type of networking — only with much lower risks, financially and especially emotionally.
In any case, remember: you never get everything. I speak from experience.