Before the advent of Wi-Fi, going online used to involve being tethered to a wall socket. More often than not, this also meant being stuck in a gloomy study or computer room located in the darkest and coldest corner of the house.
Thanks to both the wonders of wireless networking and affordable notebook PCs, computing on the go from nearly anywhere comfy in the house has become so commonplace that many (myself included) take it for granted.
This fact was neatly driven home the other day when a colleague asked me how he could get wireless reception working for his daughter who had gone flatting in a sleep-out with electricity but no landline, and hence no broadband. The house adjoining the sleep-out had Wi-Fi, but both were constructed out of brick so there was precious little wireless coverage to be had beyond the house, and zero wireless reception in the sleep-out.
Wireless dead-spots are a common problem, and most homes with Wi-Fi will typically have a spot where reception is either marginal or near non-existent. This is because each time a Wi-Fi signal has to penetrate a wall it loses some of its strength. Timber walls are less of an obstacle, but brick, masonry or worse still, steel, can kill reception altogether. The more walls a signal has to pass through, the weaker the signal becomes, until it simply ceases to exist.
Perhaps the most cost effective means of minimising the number of Wi-Fi dead spots around the home involves repositioning your wireless router.
Ideally, it should be positioned as high as possible, and in the centre of the house. If your home is multi-storied, putting the router on the top floor can sometimes make a big difference to reception. That said, results can vary, and in most cases your router relocation options are likely to be limited to places where there is a spare phone socket.
If relocating your Wi-Fi router hasn't made a huge difference, you may want to investigate swapping out the router's antenna for a high gain version (available from most electronics shops such as Dick Smiths). Not all routers have an external antenna, and many external antenna are simply not swappable, but should your router be capable of taking a high-gain antenna, doing so can improve coverage dramatically.
Equally important is working around interference. Annoyingly most cordless phones use the same 2.4 GHz radio spectrum as Wi-Fi and as such can play havoc with Wi-Fi reception. Other household appliances such as microwave ovens can also cause interference, so keeping wireless routers/access points and PCs away from these makes a big difference.
Many wireless routers also support dual band 2.4 GHz and 5.0 GHz networking. Making use of the 5 GHz radio spectrum can be a pretty effective way of side-stepping interference, however doing so can also result in diminished coverage. Alternatively, download and install Netstumbler, a free wireless network analyser for PCs that'll clue you into which wireless networks are operating on which channels. There are 13 available Wi-Fi channels and most wireless routers default to channel 6 so if you live in a densely populated area you may find that moving to another channel (which is usually done via the router's set up menu) will greatly improve both coverage and performance.
Slightly higher on the cost scale are wireless extenders. These gadgets will pick up a weak Wi-Fi signal and re-broadcast it, effectively doubling the reach of your wireless network. Because wireless extenders are designed to rebroadcast an existing wireless signal, they also have the added advantage of only needing a power supply and minimal set-up to do their thing.
If your home has brick or masonry walls, or a sleep-out that is beyond the range of your router, your best bet may be, counter-intuitively, to go with a wired option. Adding network wiring to an existing home is at best a fiddly and messy proposition, but there is another, far easier option in the form of mains networking. Using specialised adaptors that resemble plug adaptors, you can send data over the mains wiring already installed your house. These tend to be slightly slower than traditional wireless, but provided all the locations on your property are connected to the same electricity meter box, you'll be able to set up networks anywhere there is a power socket so mains networking will usually work where Wi-Fi won't.