When I connect to an unfamiliar Wi-Fi network, I run Ookla's Speedtest from a browser or mobile device. The app measures the connection's download speed, upload speed, and ping time (Figure A). Ping time measures delay: how long it takes to get a response, while the other numbers measure bandwidth: how much data can be transferred per second.
A fast network produces a pleasant work experience: Hangouts run smoothly, Google search results appear quickly, and Docs save automatically with no lag.
Unfortunately, many small business Wi-Fi networks are less than optimal. The same is true for many home offices. These slow networks slow down your work, which can be especially noticeable if you rely on web apps, streaming, and storage.
For a single-location small business, at least four items affect your wireless network speed:
- The devices that connect to your network: your laptops, tablets, and phones
- Your Wi-Fi access point
- Your modem
- Your provider's internet connection speed
I've run into three organizations recently that had "Gone Google" but hadn't upgraded or adjusted their Wi-Fi setup or internet connection. If you're in a similar position, here are a few tips that may help you improve your Wi-Fi network performance.
1. Upgrade to current generation Wi-Fi devices
Newer devices support greater bandwidth. Roughly stated:
- 802.11ac devices support maximum bandwidth about 3 times that of 802.11n
- 802.11n devices support maximum bandwidth about 3 times that of 802.11g
- 802.11g devices support maximum bandwidth about 5 times that of 802.11b
If you have any 802.11b devices on your network, remove or replace them, if possible. If you must continue to use an older device, upgrade the network card. For example, on an older laptop, turn off the built-in Wi-Fi and instead use an 802.11n usb adapter.
You might also consider creating and maintaining a Google Sheet to track your Wi-Fi devices. List the person using the device, along with the device make, model, MAC ID(s), and Wi-Fi modes supported (e.g., 802.11b/g/n/ac).
2. Choose your channel (2.4 GHz vs. 5 GHz)
Ideally, your Wi-Fi access point will support connections from 802.11ac and 802.11n devices, via connections on either the 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz channels.
2.4 GHz connections tend to offer excellent range, but they may be affected by interference from Bluetooth devices or microwaves (watching YouTube while warming up lunch in the microwave may not work so well). In general, 5 GHz connections support greater bandwidth but less range.
Test the actual performance of your devices with your access point:
- Take a new device to the location (or locations) where the device will most often be used
- Connect to the 2.4 GHz network
- Run a few Speedtests
- Connect to the 5 GHz network
- Run a few more Speedtests
- Connect the device to whichever network performs better
Some devices have problems when using both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. In some cases, turning Bluetooth "off" may improve Wi-Fi performance.
3. More coverage: Extenders, mesh networks, and Powerline
To extend your network's range, add a Wi-Fi repeater, which receives the signal from your Wi-Fi access point and re-broadcasts it. Place the repeater at a location as far away as possible from your Wi-Fi access point, but where the signal to the repeater is still strong. Like all Wi-Fi devices, repeaters support different protocols (802.11ac, 802.11n) and channels (2.4 GHz, 5 GHz). Where possible, consider a repeater from the same vendor as your access point.
Unfortunately, most range extenders create an additional Wi-Fi SSID (i.e., Service Set IDentifier — or the public name of a Wi-Fi network). That means you need to configure and choose when to connect your devices to the extender or to the main access point.
To provide Wi-Fi to a large area without extra SSIDs, consider a mesh network. Connect one mesh device to a "wired" connection, then plug in additional mesh devices to power outlets in locations nearby. Each mesh device acts as a repeater. Small business or home offices can create mesh networks with devices from Open-Mesh.com. (Open-Mesh is an alternative to Cisco Meraki solutions.)
For home offices, Powerline devices convey your internet connection over your home's power lines. This may make it possible to obtain a connection in a location where Wi-Fi is weak. The source Powerline device plugs into your Wi-Fi router, and destination Powerline devices plug into outlets on the same power circuit. The destination devices can provide Ethernet connectivity, or (in some cases) serve as an additional Wi-Fi access point and SSID. House wiring varies significantly: you may obtain different speeds by placing the Powerline devices in different outlets throughout the house.
4. Manage bandwidth with app settings
Some apps offer settings to reduce the bandwidth used:
- Reduce bandwidth in a Hangout by changing settings to Medium or Low
- Reduce data usage in Chrome for mobile devices (Settings | Bandwidth management | Reduce data usage | "On")
- Reduce photo upload size to Google+
- Adjust YouTube video quality settings
In a limited bandwidth environment, these setting may have a noticeable impact on app and network performance.
Upgraded equipment, smart channel selection, and bandwidth settings are just the start. Wi-Fi speed improvements also may result from moving your router, tweaking DNS settings, or even installing new firmware. In many cases, your internet connection, not your Wi-Fi devices, may be the limiting factor in your connection speed.
What sort of Wi-Fi networking setups have you seen small businesses adopt? In your professional experience, are slow networks still an issue? Share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.
Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.