You are probably used to reliability and speed with your home wireless connection. At home, the connection is usually limited to yourself and your family, you can control its security, and the central access point is right in your living room or office. But most of us have experienced problems with getting a strong WiFi signal away from home – whether we are traveling, at a hotel or airport, or even sitting at a local coffee shop. What makes these signals so notoriously unstable? It is important to understand that the offer of free WiFi doesn’t necessarily mean you will get the same WiFi quality you get at home, and hear are some reasons why.
1. Too Many Users
If you’ve ever tried to lock onto a wifi signal in a crowded place, you know how easily a network can get overloaded. This is especially true if a number of people are trying to do things on the internet that use up a lot of bandwidth, like streaming or downloading video. The more people trying to connect to a certain network, the slower the signal is going to be. This problem could be lessened by a network that has many access points, but sometimes just moving to an emptier area, such as an empty gate at the airport, can help you compete with less people for the internet.
2. Distance from the Signal
We’ve all experienced staying in a hotel room and moving a laptop around the room looking for the strongest signal. Usually, this is by the door, because the access point for hotels may be in the lobby, with repeaters placed on each floor. If your signal is weak, you might be too far away from the source of it – even short distances can make a difference. If you want to know where the access point is, you can always ask workers or hotel staff to point you in the right direction.
3. Too Much Movement
Wifi networks, unlike cellular networks, expect you to sit still. If you’re in a car or on a bus or train, you will find it incredibly difficult to keep a signal, because laptops simply can’t jump from one network to another very quickly. Free wifi is useless when you’re mid-transit because your range is constantly changing. This is why, as airplanes develop the technology to offer customers online internet, they’re using a cell network – it still works, even at top speed.
4. You Need New Gadgets
You might not notice if you have a weak or older wireless card at home, but when you try to access the internet from a free wifi hot-spot, defects in your wireless card can mean your laptop has a much harder time locking onto it. You could also try an external USB adapter – these plug into a USB port and can often get a stronger signal than a laptop’s built-in adapter. You can even buy a travel router, to create your own network right in your hotel room.
5. Cell Phones are Getting Better
Many newer phones and devices come with the capability for 5Ghz wifi. One of the perks of 5Ghz in the past was that it limited interference from other devices like cell phones. A 5Ghz network offers up to 23 separate, non-overlapping channels, which meant it was the perfect solution to wireless overcrowding. But now iphones, ipads, and other devices are capable of crossing over to 5Ghz, too, crowding out the laptops and eliminating some of the benefits.
6. Bad Bandwidth Management
There are a number of techniques that network administrators can do to more evenly distribute bandwidth and make sure one person’s activity doesn’t ruin it for everyone else. Software can either share bandwidth equally or just optimize usage and performance. Bandwidth management can improve network performance significantly. Unfortunately, many of the workers you talk to at hotels or businesses don’t have the authority or the skills to make these changes.
Obviously, you know by now that when you see an advertisement for Free Wifi, it’s not going to be the quality of internet that you’re used to at home. But wifi is still a relatively new technology, and as we become increasingly dependent on it as a society, it’s nice to know that the businesses that serve us are making an effort to provide ways to check your email or stay connected on social media even when you’re traveling. Just don’t expect that video to stop buffering anytime soon.