Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: WiFi vs. Ethernet pits reliability, convenience

September 21, 2013

A lot of us have moved to WiFi not only on the road, but in the office, as a cheaper alternative to running physical Ethernet cable. Having chosen WiFi, however, a lot of WiFi users seem to complain about speed problems when they’re using it. Is your WiFi slower than you like? Maybe I can help.

First, some background. If it’s stable, reliable speed you’re after, ditch the WiFi and go with Ethernet cable. It’s a pain to run the cable, but Ethernet is fast, far faster than WiFi. The price for that Ethernet speed only starts with the cost of buying and running the colorful Ethernet cables. There is also the cost of moving it when the computers themselves move and the cable has to follow them. Visitors can’t just pop open a laptop and go to work wirelessly; they’ll need a physical hookup. Ethernet is fast, but not very versatile.

WiFi is much more convenient, but it’s famously slow. Generally speaking, basic Ethernet is much faster than the quickest WiFi, even if the WiFi is perfectly set up, which it almost never is. If you’re going to rely on WiFi, you should know how to optimize its signal to give you the least trouble.

First, a bit of engineering background. WiFi operates on very high frequencies, which means that even small things can reduce the WiFi signal to an unusable pittance. The usual WiFi frequencies are used by a lot of other devices too, such as baby monitors, Bluetooth, and even microwave ovens, all of which can mess with the WiFi signal.

This can create maddening frustration when your WiFi unaccountably departs for no apparent reason, when someone has just picked up a cordless phone or warmed up a cheese burrito. Even some fluorescent light ballasts can generate interference with WiFi frequencies. If your WiFi ebbs and flows, it may be caused by interfering devices. Unless you’re prepared to spend vast sums of money for an engineer to test everything, you’ll need to use trial-and-error to discover and eliminate them.

Distance is a big factor, too. Just like radio stations fade out as you drive away from them, so do WiFi router signals, but much sooner. Router manufacturers typically say that a WiFi signal will go about 100 feet with reasonable reliability. You may get more or less, depending on a lot of factors, including the configuration of walls and where the router is placed. That means the router should go near where the people using it will go, wherever that might be. That’s why routers are often placed roughly in the center of a small office space, so the signal goes equally to all corners.

Because WiFi is high-frequency, almost anything gets in the way, just as it does with light, which is merely waves of yet-higher frequencies. Water is a sneaky problem because it’s found in places you might overlook, like planters, fish tanks, and human bodies.

Modern office walls usually have metal studs, which can block WiFi. Metal plumbing fixtures do, too, as do ceramic tile, concrete in poured floors, and, remarkably, mirrors. Bathrooms are to WiFi signals what brick walls are to bicycles, because they combine water, piping, steam, mirrors and ceramic tile. Kitchens come in a close second.

All these factors conspire to make WiFi wobble between a trickle and a surge throughout the typical office. Computers only a few feet apart can see quite different signal strength. If you face this kind of WiFi fussiness, there are some simple things you can try. Eliminate or move away as many interfering radiation sources as you can. Reposition the router, and try pointing its antennas in different directions to maximize coverage. Buy directional antennas for the router that “push” the signal in specific directions, rather than everywhere. Remove obstacles, especially those that contain water, metal or ceramic. Check your neighbor’s office for a router, too, as routers can interfere with one another.

If none of the adjustments work, then you may need to make some more drastic changes. If the router is old, update or replace it. Buy routers that are dual-band, as WiFi can now use two distinct frequencies and the higher one might not get as much interference. You might need to buy new computers with better WiFi receivers and invest in a range extender, which is a device that picks up a feeble WiFi signal and rebroadcasts it.

In the end, if your WiFi requires a lot of adjustment and extending, it may not be as productive as old-school Ethernet. Is untrustworthy convenience better than stodgy reliability? It’s interesting how often that question comes up in business.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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