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How to Prepare Your Wi-Fi for a Self-Quarantine

With a little tinkering, you can make bad Wi-Fi work a little better

Photo by Tayler Smith; Prop Styling by Caroline Dorn

OOffice workers everywhere have been asked to work from home in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus. And many of them are finding out that the Wi-Fi in their homes isn’t as good as it is at the office. Especially if they live in dense cities, there are dead spots in comfy corners, or constant freeze-ups on video calls.

Even without investing hundreds of dollars in new hardware (which is also an option I’d recommend and wrote about here), you can make your home Wi-Fi a little more reliable. With a little tinkering, even that terrible modem from your internet provider will work a little better.

Do a Speed Test

The first thing you should do is hit a website like speedtest.net or fast.com to test how well (or how poorly) your Wi-Fi is already working. Bring your laptop to problem spots, and where you think you’ll be spending the most time working from home, to do the tests.

Write these numbers down, and run the tests again from a few other spots in your house, noting where the speed really drops. Check the internet package you’re subscribed with to find out what internet speeds it promises, so you know what the maximum speed could be, in theory.

Move the Modem

Most of us hide our modem — they’re ugly, black boxes after all — but stuffing it under a couch or in the corner can make your Wi-Fi worse. Check where your modem is, pull it out from wherever you’ve hidden it, and try to put it in a higher, more prominent place.

If your modem is in a weird corner of the house but you can disconnect it and move it to a spot in the middle of your home, do so — though most of the time there’s only a single place you can wire it up. In any case, stop hiding it under furniture.

Change the Channel

In dense neighborhoods, Wi-Fi networks are competing for space in the airwaves — there are a number of allocated “channels” available, and if everyone in your building or on your street is using the same one this can result in interference, which slows your connection down and makes it less stable.

Think of Wi-Fi channels as a rowdy neighborhood bar: Too many people in that small space, and it gets difficult to move, let alone talk to the people next to you. There are two available channel spectrums, the older 2.4 GHz, which offers better range but lower speeds, and the faster, newer 5 Ghz — your router should provide both, and you want to make sure they’re both enabled.

To combat channel crowding, most routers allow you to manually change the channel they’re using. To understand if this will help your own situation, first you’ll need to perform a channel scan with a free tool and determine what the busiest channels are in your own area.

At my place, the scan indicates that the best available channel for 2.4 GHz is 6, and the Best 5 GHz channel is 136, based on the networks detected near me.

Once you know what channels not to use, you can change yours. Actually doing this varies wildly based on the type of router your ISP has provided, so look for a model number on the front or back, and search for how to change the channel on that specific model.

After changing the channel, perform a speed test again and you should see a notable difference, if the channel you were using originally was crowded. But there are certain types of routers (particularly older and more basic models) for which this won’t improve things that much.

Ignore Extenders, Get Mesh Wi-Fi

If you’ve made it this far and nothing has helped make your connection better, it’s time for some sobering truth: the modem provided by your ISP is awful, and the best way around that is buying a better access point.

When you look for ways to improve your Wi-Fi, you might see products that “extend” existing networks or “amplify” them to work better — avoid these, even if they’re cheaper than a new router. While these devices may help a small amount, they tend to make the situation worse: To use the bar analogy again, Wi-Fi extenders and amplifiers are like YELLING over the bar so you can speak to someone on the other side of the room, which isn’t a reliable way to communicate.

Instead, you’re better off buying a newer type of router that offers “mesh Wi-Fi.” These devices use multiple antennas to blanket your home in signal, working together to create a larger, faster network. On top of this, most mesh systems are much smarter than a typical router, automatically adjusting their own channels and other settings to provide the best connection.

The best mesh Wi-Fi option available right now is Google’s Nest Wi-Fi, which promises whole-home coverage and is easy to set and forget. It doesn’t require any technical knowledge and comes with Google Assistant built in.

You can start with a single Nest Wi-Fi, which is wired directly into your router, but if you can afford it, I recommend buying at least two of them and placing the second at the other end of the house, to provide better coverage in every room. As you experiment, you can add any amount of access points to the system if your home is larger or more complicated.

If you’d like a non-Google product with a similar level of simplicity, AmpliFi HD is a powerful Nest-esque device that you can extend with simple antennas that plug into a normal power outlet. No wires or extra configuration — just good Wi-Fi.

There are an array of other options out there that work well. Amazon-owned Eero is another stellar mesh Wi-Fi system, with additional features such as network-level ad blocking and VPN available as a subscription service. Netgear’s Orbi and Plume are also popular options.

Don’t Put Up With Bad Wi-Fi

If your internet is bad, don’t grit your teeth and work through it. There are easy ways to make it better, and it’s worth it — because it looks like we’re going to be working from home for a while.

Fascinated by how code and design is shaping the world. I write about the why behind tech news. UX Manager @ Shopify. https://twitter.com/ow

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