Extending Home Wi-Fi

One of the most pressing issues for Wi-Fi these days is extending the signal. Early on, people had a device or two that they needed to connect, and they were not that far from their router. But over time, multiple client devices and IoT/smart home devices now need to be connected, pushing Wi-Fi to its limits.

Extending a Wi-Fi signal is not a straightforward task. There are basically two main ways to do it: cheaply or right. The former is easy, with plenty of inexpensive solutions, none of which work well. The latter is the preferred method but for many the challenge is paying more to extend a signal than they paid for their original Wi-Fi router.

There are many options for extending Wi-Fi signal, here are your primary choices.

Properly Configure Your Router

  • Cost: Free
  • Effectiveness: Varies
  • Who should use this: Everyone 

One of the first things that you need to do is check to ensure your router is properly configured. There are a variety of settings on your router that can be adjusted to improve performance. Before adding any new hardware to extend the signal, check on things like Wi-Fi strength, channel number, channel width, etc. to find the optimal setting that extends your signal the furthest. While this option is “free”, it will take a lot of time, a lot of patience, good record keeping, and a lot of trial and error. But ultimately if you can improve your Wi-Fi without spending a dime, that will pay benefits for years.

Add a Wi-Fi Extender

  • Cost: Low ($25-$50)
  • Effectiveness: Low at best, none at worst
  • Who should use this: Extenders are a last resort, only optimal if you have budget constraints 

Everyone asks me about extenders because they promise to give better Wi-Fi performance, but the promise is always oversold. Wi-Fi Extenders simply mask the problem, they generally don’t fix the problem. If a far room in your house has only 10% signal, putting an extender in that room might boost your signal to 90%, sounds great, right? Except that the 90% is only between your device and the extender. From the extender to the router, the signal is still only 10%. Putting an extender halfway between that device and the router as a relay in the middle could help in some cases, but in most cases the overall performance rarely changes. Worse yet, the extender will grab a portion of the router’s signal and keep it for itself, so the overall performance drops for everything else on the network in order to support the extender, regardless of how much or how little the extender is being utilized. Most of the people who rave about extenders don’t really understand the actual performance, they judge everything by the connection percentage and not much more.

Add a Wired Access Point

  • Cost: High ($200-300)
  • Effectiveness: High
  • Who should use this: Those that have a cluster of devices far away from the router 

This my preferred option when you are trying to add coverage to an important device on the other side of the house. In some homes, running an Ethernet cable is easy, in others it is difficult, much of this depends on your home’s configuration. Having someone come out and install a cable is typically ~$150-200, but once it is done, you’re good to go. If the cable is installed on the outside of the home, make sure that it is properly graded cable for outside use and make sure that they use drip loops (any installer will know this, you just need to make sure you ask.) In many homes the cable can be run through the attic from one end of the house to the other. Once installed, an access point (including an old router) can be added, giving you a solid Wi-Fi signal at the other end. Just note that a second access point is very different than a mesh system, clients will not automatically “hand off” as you move between them, you may need to start and stop Wi-Fi on your device in order to connect.

Add a MoCA Access Point

  • Cost: Medium ($150)
  • Effectiveness: Medium to high
  • Who should use this: Those with a complicated house layout and plenty of cable TV wiring 

MoCA is a transmission standard that extends standard Ethernet over the coax cable TV cabling in a home. Similar to powerline adapters, it takes an Ethernet signal, converts it, sends it over the coax cable, then decodes it on the other side. This is a convenient, yet more expensive way of extending your network. On the other end, you can add an access point, a switch or simply a wired client device. MoCA is a good choice when you do not have access to run an Ethernet cable and your home’s power grid is not optimal for a powerline adapter. MoCA is a bit more limited in actual placement because you can only use it in rooms where there are coax outlets. Luckily, they work fine with splitters so even if your outlet is being utilized by cable TV you can simply add a splitter for the MoCA adapter. MoCA has worked great in my house where a powerline adapter was never able to do the job. Some companies make a MoCA adapter with Wi-Fi already built in.

Add a Powerline Access Point

  • Cost: Low ($25-$50)
  • Effectiveness: Low to medium
  • Who should use this: Those with simple home wiring who need flexibility

Powerline networking has been around for years; early implementations were horrible and newer implementations are more reasonable. The devices plug into any electrical outlet. Because of some of the limitations in powerline, including interference and line noise, I generally recommend only as a last resort. If your home has been remodeled and you have multiple breaker boxes or have old wiring (hour house is 50 years plus) you will run into problems that make powerline unworkable. Powerline utilizes a pair of adapters, one at each end to encode and then decode the Ethernet signal. Generally speaking, you only want one pair of these per home. From the remote adapter you can attach a client device or a switch for multiple client devices. Some configurations even include a Wi-Fi access point on the remote adapter. Unlike MoCA, powerline switches can be flexible, as they plug into any open electrical outlet, allowing you to locate the adapter as close to your devices as possible. 

Switch to a Mesh Network

  • Cost: High ($350-400)
  • Effectiveness: High
  • Who should use this: People with a large number of devices spread throughout the home

Mesh networks are, generally speaking, the best solutions for homes with a large number of devices that are spread out across the house. From a practical perspective, any router, no matter how inexpensive, should do just fine handling even 40-50 client devices, provided they are all in close proximity to the router. But what makes a standard router less than optimal is when those devices are spread out all over the house, on multiple floors, or in the far-off corners. Additionally, mobile clients that move a lot throughout the house will often find issues, even with multiple routers/access points because a traditional router will try to hold onto a client device no matter how far away it goes. Mesh systems allow for “handoff”; when the client device gets too far from one access point and is now closer to another, the system will transfer the client to the new access point, automatically, without losing the connection. This seamless transition is practically magical, but you can only get it with a mesh system. Just adding several access points will give you coverage, but as you move around the house, you will not always get the best signal unless you have a mesh system that understands movement. Mesh systems can work wirelessly and do a much better job of making that connection than an extender, but they work even better when they can be wired.

Get a Better Router

  • Cost: Medium ($100-150)
  • Effectiveness: Medium, depending on your original router and your new router
  • Who should use this: People with very old routers, especially in smaller homes 

Technology gets better over time. Just upgrading your router can extend your signal, but don’t expect it to be a panacea for all of your problems. The marketing claims rarely match the actual performance. If your house is smaller, the router location is in the central part of the house and the existing router is more than 4-5 years old, buying into the latest technology could really help you. But here is a key to making this scenario work – don’t cheap out on the purchase. Replacing an older router with a new, cheap version won’t necessarily improve your signal. If your problem is coverage, spend the extra dollars and get something that will truly do the job.