Friday, July 10, 2020

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) about Networks and WiFi

In my experience helping people with networks, I get asked some common questions. In this blog, I'd like to give you my perspective and ideas.

  • My network seems slow. How fast is enough? 
  • Am I receiving the speed that I am paying for? 
  • My WiFi doesn't reach parts of my house. Can't I just buy an extender? 
  • All my friends say to just buy a mesh system. Won't that work? 
  • I bought an expensive router with lots of antennas.
    But the WiFi is still slow. Why? 
  • Aren't wireless networks the future and wires are just old technology? 
  • What's the difference between a modem, router, wifi router and gateway? 
  • What is a managed network?
  • What does a managed network cost? 
  • What's the cheapest fix?

My network seems slow. How fast is enough? 

This question varies by location. You need to understand how much activity is on your network. Are you a single user, with just a laptop to browse the internet and do email? Or are you a family streaming multiple shows and have many devices connecting to the network? 
Today, the first case is rare. Today the needs are a minimum of 100Mbps download speed and over 1TB of data allowed per month. This is the main data pipe that connects your home/business to the world outside and needs to be as large as you are comfortable paying for. Depending on your location, you may be able to receive 1Gbps download speeds.

Am I receiving the speed that I am paying for?

This is where many people get confused. In order to know this answer for sure, you need to connect an ethernet cable from a computer directly into the back of the modem and then boot up. 
Once logged in, go to a speed test site (like and let it run. Do it several times. 
If you are getting at least 85% of the speed you are paying for then most ISP consider that good enough and won't help you go faster. This speed varies depending on time of day and the load on the network outside. During these COVID stay-at-home times, the infrastructure is struggling to keep up. The outside networks were never designed to keep up with so many people at home all at once. During this time, it is not uncommon for 30-50% speeds during the day to be common regardless of ISP provider. 

My WiFi doesn't reach parts of my house. Can't I just buy an extender? 

The short answer is probably not. These devices have been around a while and seem like a good idea especially since they are pretty cheap. Problem is, these low cost devices tend to use very old WiFi protocols and are very slow. When you couple that to a weak signal that is trying to be "extended", the speed is terrible. In many cases, simple browsing is difficult and media steaming is impossible. 
These continue to fill the market because they promise a very easy setup with a quick fix. 

All my friends say to just buy a mesh system. Won't that work? 

The short answer is maybe. Mesh systems are an evolution of the older extender concept. The idea is that there is a base unit and one or more distributed units. These devices will chatter among themselves and find the best path of signal back to the base unit. In theory this sounds reasonable. And many people have had good luck with these products. But let me point out some flaws of these products. First, the whole system depends on where the base unit is located and how strong the signals are to the distributed units. If this is not ideal, the system will be slower than advertised. Next, all wireless devices use radios, channels, and bandwidth speeds. These items are not equal in all devices so performance will depend on the specific devices. But regardless of device, if the WiFi channels are being used to connect a mesh system to itself, that is lost traffic availability for the devices you are trying to connect. Think of a highway at night versus rush hour. In an ideal situation, if devices are located well and have good signal strength then you can expect good results. But under heavy loads you will likely see slow speeds. 

I bought an expensive router with lots of antennas. But the WiFi is still slow. Why? 

There are two issues going on here. First, the many antennas relate to how many radios the device has to communicate to multiple devices. They look impressive and are designed to make you think they are fast. But this is more marketing than performance. These units will again be affected by where they are located. If they happen to be in the middle of the house, then you may have a decent experience. If they are in some other room or closet then you will have weak signal. 

Aren't wireless networks the future and wires are just old technology? 

Not exactly. There is an old saying that anything done wirelessly can be done faster in wire. Every year the industry finds new ways to go faster and push more data. The ideal balance is to have a wired backbone network that allows well placed WiFi access points to send data back to a central location over wires. 

What's the difference between a modem, router, wifi router and gateway? 

The device left behind by your ISP is a combination unit. A modem is the device that connects your home/business to the internet. A router is a device that provides security to separate your network from the destructive outside world. A WiFi router is kind of a misused term. The device itself acts as a WiFi base station and funnels data back thru the router and ultimately the modem. 
I use the term "gateway" to describe a device that functions as a router (typically with better software) without the other functions of the combo device. 
In practice, I recommend adding a gateway device and disabling all the functions on the ISP device except the modem. Additionally, some people prefer to buy their own modem and give back the ISP provided unit. 

What is a managed network?

This is where things get interesting. 
The networks people have at home are beginning to evolve. Data loads and security are becoming real desires for homes and small businesses. Managed networks give more control, more integration, and greater security to start with. You can create guest networks, divide your network into VLAN's, isolate your cash registers from customer traffic, and create a VPN that let's you securely connect to your network from anywhere. 

What does a managed network cost? 

This answer will depend on the hardware you choose to use and how you plan to manage it. The big companies have powerful and expensive hardware that also requires service agreements. These are good for them, but are not an option for homes and small businesses. I like to offer people an ecosystem of products that are designed to work together and compliment each other. At present, I like offering products made by Ubiquiti. ( They offer solid products and their software is free. Based on their Unifi line of products I will present two scenarios...

1. Smaller home install
    This will need a modem, gateway, a controller, a POE switch and 2 access points. 
    Below is a picture with this basic schematic.
    At the time of this writing those items cost: 
  • Modem (provided by ISP)
  • Gateway $130
  • Controller $170
  • POE switch $195 
  • Each access point is $180

2. Average small business or larger home. 
    For this I will recommend a rack mounted solution with a stronger gateway with integrated controller, larger POE switch, more access points
  • Modem (provided by ISP)
  • Gateway $380
  • POE switch $300
  • Each access point is $180
In both these cases, specific needs will require additional hardware plus miscellaneous parts like wires, connectors, racks, patch panels and screws plus my labor to install.
Every location is unique and every install has some level of custom needs for the customer. 
As part of my service, I provide a detailed proposal with a schematic and parts list to make costs very transparent. I supply a shopping list to the customer so there are no mark-ups on hardware.
Also, the Unifi product line also includes other products like cameras and NVR's. These integrate seamlessly and have no subscription costs. 

What's the cheapest fix?

I get asked this often. 
In my opinion I would avoid extenders and mesh systems and begin to budget for scenario 1 above. 
I am happy to come out and review your specific needs and discuss how to meet your expectations. 
In the end, people just want to have networks that work. I cannot control the main pipe from the ISP's, but I can maximize your network to utilize every bit of speed you are receiving.

Contact me or text me  at 732-673-4265

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