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Ask Gadget Grant: how do I solve my Wi-Fi woes?

Q: My home broadband Wi-Fi signal doesn’t reach every room in the house.  Is there anything I can do?

A: When it works, Wi-Fi is brilliant, providing hassle-free networking for laptops, phones, games consoles and other gadgets around the home.

But when it doesn’t work – or works intermittently – Wi-Fi can be incredibly frustrating, with lost connections, slow downloads and endless video buffering.

There are typically two reasons for unreliable Wi-Fi: range and congestion.  Measured outdoors, most wireless routers have a range of around 90 metres, but indoors that range falls sharply. Under optimal conditions the signal might reach 20 metres, but introduce a stone wall or some modern metallic insulation and all bets are off.

In urban areas, the sheer number of Wi-Fi access points can cause congestion problems – with only a limited number of channels available there simply isn’t enough airspace to give everyone fast access.

The solution

A few years ago, some clever boffins worked out how to transmit broadband signals over standard electrical wiring.  Their system, known as HomePlug, turns any mains socket into a potential internet outlet.

A HomePlug starter kit (around £35) typically includes two standard HomePlug units.  Simply plug one in next to your network router, connect the included cable to a free socket on the back, then plug the other HomePlug into the wall wherever you need an internet connection.  

Basic units are hard-wired which provides the best possible connection for any gadget with an Ethernet socket (like PlayStations, Smart TVs or desktop PCs).  HomePlug units with Wi-Fi (around £60) can be added to give wireless connections in any room, and units can be mixed and matched freely to provide wired and wireless options throughout the home.

There are two speeds of HomePlug currently on the market – 200Mbps and 500Mbps.  I’d recommend the cheaper, 200Mbps systems since your broadband connection to the telephone exchange will always be the limiting factor.

Most brands of HomePlug kit work well together, but I’d recommend the TP-Link range.  It’s cheap, works well and is widely available should you need more plugs in future.

Other options

For the sake of completeness, it’s worth mentioning the other options that are out there.

Ethernet cabling – This approach gives you office-like network ports in each room, providing the best possible networking around the home.   It’s the fastest, most reliable solution, but also the most disruptive, requiring new cable runs throughout the house.  It could be worth considering on a new-build or during a complete electrical re-wiring, but is not worth the trouble otherwise.

A better router – If you have an ageing router it probably works on the 802.11 ‘b’ or ‘g’ standards.  The latest high-end routers use the ‘n’ standard which promises double the range and significantly faster speeds.   The problem is that your other kit on the receiving end needs to support the faster standard too; otherwise it defaults back to the ‘g’ standard.

Wireless repeaters – Wireless repeaters or range extenders are a nice option in theory – place them towards the limits of your Wi-Fi network range and they’ll automatically amplify and repeat the signal, giving you up to twice the range in any given direction. In practice, repeaters can be fiddly to set up and they’re only as reliable as the weakest link.  Also, their need to listen and repeat each signal cuts the network speed by 50%.

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