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Wi-Fi Range Explained: Great Expectations vs. Harsh Reality of the Invisible Magic

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One of the most essential elements of a home router is its Wi-Fi range β€” how far its signals can reach. Signals are invisible, so their actual range is often up to interpretation, and hardware vendors tend to exaggerate this greatly.

This post will explain the coverage of a Wi-Fi band based on my real-world experience. When through, you'll be able to form realistic expectations and figure out the real-world range of your broadcaster, be it a router or a mesh unit.

Wi-Fi range and coverage: The Netgear RS700S in action (LED litghts)
You can't figure out a router's Wi-Fi range and coverage by looking at it intensely.

Wi-Fi range and coverage: It’s a greatly compressed large ball (or circle)

The first thing we should appreciate about a Wi-Fi broadcaster's coverage is that it emits signals outward to form an invisible ball β€” the range is the radius of spherical object.

However, most of the time, users don't look at Wi-Fi coverage this way.

The flat surface perception

We generally perceive our world as a flat surface β€” that's just how we move around in daily life. For this reason, hardware vendors often use square footage to show a Wi-Fi broadcaster's coverage, which is inherently incorrect.

However, using the cubic footage measurement can be too much for the mind, and the relationship between a Wi-Fi broadcaster and a specific device is indeed always on a leveled surface plane β€” it's a matter of which plane.

We'll get back to this shortly, but in any case, there's a massive gap between how far Wi-Fi signals can reach in theory and in real life.

Let's start with the theory.

Wi-Fi range in theory: It’s “clean” and generous

The way radio signals work is that the lower the frequency, the longer the wave can travel. AM and FM radios use frequency measured in kilohertz and megahertz β€” you can listen to the same station in a vast area, like an entire region or a city.

Wi-Fi uses 2.4GHz, 5GHz, and 6GHz frequencies β€” all are incredibly high. As a result, they have much shorter ranges compared to radios. That's especially true when considering the broadcasting power of Wi-Fi broadcasters is limited by regulations.

But, regardless of Wi-Fi standards, these bands generally share the following: The higher frequencies (in Hz), the higher the bandwidth (speeds), the shorter the ranges, and the more bandwidth progressively lost over increasing distance.

Generally, physically larger Wi-Fi broadcasters tend to have better ranges than smaller ones β€” they use all the allowed broadcasting power and have enough processing power to deliver the most bandwidth at the far end of the signals. Still, it's impossible to accurately determine each's actual coverage because it fluctuates wildly and depends heavily on the environment.

That said, here are my estimates of a home Wi-Fi broadcaster's ranges in the best-case scenario, specifically:

  • Outdoor environment
  • On a sunny day
  • No interference or broadcasters in close proximity
  • Maximum broadcasting power (30 dBm)

Note that Wi-Fi ranges don't die abruptly. They degrade gradually as you get farther away from the broadcaster. The distances mentioned below are when a client still has a signal strong enough for a meaningful connection, which also depends on hardware and Wi-Fi standards β€” a Wi-Fi 7 router is not better than a Wi-Fi 5 one, in range and whatnot, if the network consists of mostly Wi-Fi 5 and older clients.

  • 2.4GHz: This band has the best range, up to 200 ft (β‰ˆ 60 m). However, this is the most popular band. It's also used by non-Wi-Fi devices like cordless phones or TV remotes. Its real-world speeds suffer severely from interference and other things. As a result, for years, this band has been considered a backup, applicable when the range is more important than speed.
  • 5GHz: This band has much faster speeds than the 2.4GHz band but shorter ranges, maxing out at around 150 ft (β‰ˆ 45 m).
  • 6GHz(*): This is the latest band available, starting with Wi-Fi 6E. It has the same ceiling speed as the 5GHz band but with less interference and overheads. As a result, its actual real-world rate is faster. However, due to the higher frequency, it has just about 70% of the range, which maxes out at approximately 115 ft (β‰ˆ 35m).

(*) Wi-Fi 7 has a new feature called Automated Frequency Coordination (AFC) that, when implemented, increases the broadcasting power of the 6GHz band enough to make its range comparable to that of the 5GHz.

Some might consider these numbers generous, and others will argue their router can do more, but you can use them as the base to calculate the coverage for your situation.

Wi-Fi range in real life: The devil is in the little and big details

In real-world usage, Wi-Fi broadcasters in the same frequency band and broadcasting power generally deliver the same coverage. Specifically, they are all the same if you measure the signal reach alone.

What differentiates them is their sustained speeds and signal stability, or how the quality of their Wi-Fi signals changes as you increase the distance. And that generally varies from one model or Wi-Fi standard to another.

Your router's Wi-Fi range is always much shorter than the theoretical number mentioned above. That's because Wi-Fi signals are sensitive to interference and obstacles.

While the Wi-Fi range doesn't depend on the channel width, the wider a channel and higher the frequency, the less stable it becomes β€” it's more susceptible to interference and obstacles, and its range is more acutely hindered. So, within the same standard, more bandwidth generally equals higher fragility.

Below are the items that will affect Wi-Fi ranges.

It's worth noting that the new 6GHz band generally doesn't suffer from same-band interference other than when you use multiple broadcasters nearby. On the other hand, the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands have a long list of other non-Wi-Fi applications that can harm their ranges, and there are always many broadcasters in close proximity using these bands when you live in an urban neighborhood.

Common 2.4 GHz interference sources: Impossible to measure
  • Other 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi broadcasters in the vicinity
  • 2.4GHz cordless phones and other appliances
  • Fluorescent bulbs
  • Bluetooth devices
  • Microwave ovens
Common 5 GHz interference sources: Impossible to measure
  • Other nearby 5GHz Wi-Fi broadcasters
  • 5GHz cordless telephones and other appliances
  • Radars
  • Digital satellites
Common signal blockage for all Wi-Fi bands: Measurable, albeit challenging, walls and large objects

Physical objects, such as appliances or elevators, hinder all Wi-Fi bands. However, among 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.

Here are my rough real-life estimations of how much a wall blocks Wi-Fi signals β€” generally use the low number for the 2.4GHz and the high one for the 5GHz, add another 10%-15% to the 5GHz's for the 6GHz band:

  • A thin, porous (wood, sheetrock, drywall, etc.) wall: It'll block between 5% to 30% of Wi-Fi signals β€” a router's range will be much shorter when you place it next to the wall.
  • A thick porous wall: 20% to 40% β€” the case of most walls.
  • A thin nonporous (concrete, metal, ceramic tile, brick with mortar, etc.) wall: 30% to 50% β€” the case of most walls.
  • A thick nonporous wall: 50% to 90%.

Again, these numbers are just ballpark, but you can use them to know how far the signal will reach when you place a Wi-Fi broadcaster at a specific spot in your home. A simple rule is that more walls equal worse coverage, and generally, a single wall will reduce the signal by approximately 30%.

That said, in real life, when all adverse elements are taken into account, and depending on the situation and where you stand from the broadcaster, we need to discount the theoretical ranges mentioned above between 40% and 90% to get a broadcaster's realistic coverage.

So, what exactly can you expect a particular Wi-Fi router to cover? Let's get into a bit more detail.

The practical calculation of a broadcaster’s Wi-Fi range and coverage

To get the best range, your devices should be at the same level β€” the same plane β€” as the Wi-Fi broadcaster.

Specifically, if you leave the router on the floor, then your devices should also be on the floor. If you hold your phone in your hand while standing, it'll have a shorter range β€” it's on another plane.

That's why you should elevate your Wi-Fi router by putting it on a shelf or mounting it on the wall, slightly higher than other common objects like tables and desks. The objective is that you want to create the highest chance of having the lines of sight or the minimum objects between it and clients.

That said, on the same surface, in perfect condition, as mentioned above, a 5GHz broadcaster blankets a circle of 150 feet (46 m) in radius, which is Ο€ Γ— 1502 or approximately 70,000 feet2 (β‰ˆ 6000 m2). That's the best-case, impossible, 100% unrealistic scenario.

In real life, we don't have a room that large and an environment that clean.

In fact, pick any room of your home, place the router at the center, and within 10 or 15 feet (a few meters) from it, chances are there's a wall in a direction. Behind that first wall, the signals are greatly reduced. After that, there will be more rooms and more walls that progressively block the already degraded/weakened signals.

Chances you can't place the broadcaster ideally at the center to begin with, and most likely not all devices are on the same optimal coverage plane.

Consequently, in a typical home with all the walls and interference accounted for, the realistic radius of a 5GHz Wi-Fi broadcaster's coverage circle is reduced to 20 to 30 feet, which translates into an area of roughly 1200 ft2 to 2800 ft2 (263 m2) with the latter being the borderline-impossible max.

Now add about 30% more for the 2.4GHz band and reduce approximately 25% for the 6GHz band.

So, here's the general realistic coverage of a Wi-Fi broadcaster's band in the shape of a circle on the same surface level (plane) as the broadcaster itself:

  • 2.4GHz: between 1600 ft2 (150 m2) and 3000 ft2 (300 m2) β€” this band is really slow, and at the end of the range, its data rates are hardly usable, especially when you have more than one device.
  • 5.GHz: between 1200 ft2 (112 m2) to 2800 ft2
  • 6GHz: between 800ft2 (74 m2) to 1800 ft2 (167 m2)

In most cases, expect your real-world experience to be somewhere in between. It's a good idea to be cautious on this front β€” I'd only count on the low ends. I've never experienced any broadcaster that can deliver 3000 ft2 of coverage in a residential home.

Note that this coverage circle is not exactly round. The side with fewer obstacles (walls) has a more extended range, and the one with more walls will have a shorter range. This is why a bathroom generally gets the worst signals β€” those granite panels and fancy tiles don't help.

Linksys Velop Pro 7 Three Angles
Generally, a mesh system is needed when a single broadcaster doesn't provide enough Wi-Fi coverage.

The takeaway

Generally, inside a home, you will never be able to find a single Wi-Fi broadcaster with coverage of 3000 ft2 (300 m2), even on the 2.4GHz band.

However, depending on the situation, 2500 ft2 (β‰ˆ 230 m2) is possible. The key is to get the top-tier hardware and place it as close to center of the desired coverage as possible, elevated from the ground.

While the said coverage is not a definite number β€” it's not a guarantee β€” you can use it as a starting point when shopping for a new router or a mesh system. Or maybe it's time to move to a more airy home.

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8 thoughts on “Wi-Fi Range Explained: Great Expectations vs. Harsh Reality of the Invisible Magic”

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  1. Great article! Can you go into more detail on why it’s important for devices to be level with the router? I guess the signal strength isn’t equal in the spherical ball?
    I ask because I’m trying to cover a rather vertical residence with multiple floors, each one with relatively little area.

    • That’s how a sphere works, JS. Touch the outmost horizontal side of a ball πŸ€ with your finger, the moment you move the finger up or down, it will no longer be in contact with the ball — it gets out of “range” because it no longer on the same original plane as the ball’s center.

  2. Brilliant article. For years I have been battling wifi dropouts from 1 (important) device. I tried all sorts of workarounds including using dongles on a USB cable extension for better positioning. Only this week I realized that by raising the height of my AP, connection went up by about 10 RSSI and the dropouts stopped. such a simple fix in the end.

  3. Great write Dong! This will shed light on lots of misinformation out there, especially those bogus manufacturer claims!
    BTW, AM frequency is in the Khz range!


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