Improving Network Coverage in the Home

Most of us have WiFi in the home. Often times, coverage is spotty and frustrating. This is especially true in larger homes.

In 2006, I wrote about creating a better home network using the HomePlug class of devices, to provide you with ethernet over home electrical wiring. Those devices have continued to improve.

I do prefer a solid wired connection to a wireless connection, any day. However, with tablets and smartphones, only wireless is practical (or even possible). So having a good wireless solution makes sense. That said, there is some controversy about the health effects of being around WiFi.

Beyond good wifi, there’s also the issue of not getting good cell phone reception within one’s home. Solving that is also not without health controversies.

As I’m often asked similar questions by friends and family, I thought I’d provide an update and cover two related topics.

  1. Boosting WiFi (and broadband) within the home
  2. Boosting cell phone signal strength in your home

Boosting WiFi

Most of us have WiFi provided by the cable modem / router device that our Internet provider gives us. If you use WiFi in a nearby room, you’re generally fine. If not, one solution is to move your cable modem to a room that is closer to where you intend to use WiFi. If this isn’t a good option, you can get WiFi network extenders, so that WiFi is generated at multiple points in your home.

To do that however, it’s best to have a wired network running throughout your home. Some modern homes do have Ethernet jacks in every room. If you’ve got that, you’re fortunate. If you don’t, running a system in your house can take a contractor a few days and typically costs about $5K-$7K US to do right.

A passable next best alternative, is to use devices that extend your wired ethernet capabilities, using the electrical wiring in your home. Such devices conform to a standard known as HomePlug. You plug a device into a power socket in your wall. Into the device, you plug in the Ethernet cable from your router. You then take another HomePlug device, and plug it into the wall in a different room. You can continue to do this wherever you want wired Ethernet access. The data travels over your home’s electrical circuit, as if it were a computer network.

At satellite locations in your home, you can plug a laptop into the wired Ethernet HomePlug device, and generally enjoy good speeds, comparable to really good WiFi, if not better. You can also plug in a wireless router into one of these satellite HomePlug adapters, and configure it to extended your existing wireless network. This is what can give you much better WiFi coverage throughout your home.

Note however, that if you’re extending WiFi in this way, it’s often very difficult to do using the cable company’s own WiFi router. It’s best to have that configured in what’s called bridged mode, and connect your own WiFi router to the cable company’s cable modem/router. You’ll then add a second WiFi router at a satellite location, configured to extend your wireless network.

Most of the time, you’ll have to call the cable company and ask them to remotely set their cable modem into bridged mode and to turn off their built-in WiFi.

While your setup will still work without these steps, your network will run better if you tie up these loose ends.

Suggested Products

It’s been a while since I’ve shopped for products in these categories, but here are my best suggestions based on specs, reviews and purported ease of use:

HomePlug Devices

You’ll need at least two devices to make this work. Often, starter packs as a set of 2 are available. This set looks promising:

WiFi Routers

  1. Apple Base Station Extreme 2013. This is for the main router, that will plug into your cable modem.
  2. Apple Airport Express. This is what we’ll use to provide some satellite location with a boost of WiFi.

You’ll also need some Ethernet cables with the HomePlug devices, but these are quite inexpensive if you order from Amazon.com. Get one cable for each of the the devices above.

Boosting Cell Phone Signal

The major cell phone companies in the US have mini cell towers that you can purchase and install in your home. They plug into your home network, and when you’re in range of these microcells, your cell phone will connect to them for sending and receiving voice calls.

It’s best to purchase these directly from your cell phone company to get a new unit properly configured for your account. That said, most users indicate that there’s some setup involved beyond just plugging in the device into your network, such as using a web page to configure what phone numbers are authorized to connect to your microcell.

Verizon Wireless

For Verizon Wireless, you can order their Samsung Network Extender (SCS-2U01) microcell online.

AT&T

Similarly, for AT&T, you can order their Cisco 3G microcell via an authorized AT&T store.

Ethernet over home power lines to extend your LAN

Sometimes, laying ethernet cable everywhere you need to in the home isn’t very practical or easy. Sure, you’ll get the 100 Mbps or even 1 Gbps (depending on the equipment you have), but some physical structures and distances make it prohibitive.

Enter WiFi, right? Well, sort of. Sometimes. The signal can be choppy in homes and it’s hit and miss. Some computers, after losing a WiFi (802.11 a/b/g) signal never gracefully reconnect themselves. This is a pain.

Enter Ethernet networking over powerlines. Yes, that’s right. Over your electrical wiring in the home. While hydro (power) companies are finalizing technology to be your broadband provider the way cable companies already are, devices are already on the market that allow you to use your home or apartment’s own electrical wiring to extend your home network.

Have an electrical socket in a room? Then you have Ethernet.

I just bought the Netgear XE104 device (you need at least two). Mine cost me just over $100 CDN. See http://www.netgear.com/products/details/XE104.php.

While advertised at up to 85 Mbps, depending on the quality of your internal wiring, distance etc., many people have commented that they don’t get even 25% of that speed. However, I’ve tested in a 20 year old condo, and am getting a steady 58 Mbps. I am impressed. I am pleased.

I would highly recommend this product to anyone who needs a moderately fast local network extension in their home that won’t flake on and off like 802.11x.