Wi-Fi vs. Your Walls
Photo: Tim Bradley
It's the challenge that comes with every great step forward in home technology: How to retrofit the old house with pipes for those newfangled gaslights. What to do with the steam lines that replaced the coal stove long after the walls were plastered over. Where to put wires for electricity and telephone and cable television and computers and surround-sound home theater.

Well, as for the gas pipes — people just drilled through the basement beams supporting the upper stories and ran them right up through the floor. And no hiding the steam pipes, which poked through a corner of the room and snaked along the surface of the wall from floor to ceiling. Ditto for TV cables, which got tacked to every piece of visible trim in the living room.

But computers are another story. With today's Wi-Fi technology, you can beam a high-speed Internet connection anywhere in the house without a single unsightly wire. But getting a Wi-Fi network to perform its best is more complicated than just unpacking the hardware and plugging it in. You have to deal with the quirks of your house — room layouts, what the walls and floors are made of, where that Mexican mirror is hanging — which can get in the way of a clean Internet signal the same way 2-inch-thick horsehair plaster blocks those stereo wires.

Placing The Router

The first step is figuring out the best spot for the router, the heart of any Wi-Fi system. Plugged into your cable or DSL modem, the router sends signals to any device equipped with the requisite Wi-Fi hardware, including computers, PDAs, and even video-game consoles.

Since a modem can be hooked up to any cable or phone jack in the house, you've got lots of options for placement. (The only limiting factor is if you've got a desktop computer plugged into the router with a conventional networking cable — though with a special adapter, your PC can be equipped to function wirelessly.) It helps if you think of the router as a cordless phone's base station. When you're on the phone and wander too far, your calls might drop out or get staticky. When you get out of range with Wi-Fi, your laptop's connection speed will slow to a crawl, or you might lose your link to the Internet altogether.

Wi-Fi routers generally work about 100 feet in every direction, so you need to think about where family members are most likely to be logging on. "Instead of placing your router at the center of your home, place it at the center of your livable property," advises David Henry, a product manager for Netgear, which manufacturers home routers. For instance, pool and patio lovers should position the router so they can work outdoors. Similarly, in a two- or three-story home, it's best to set up the router on the second floor to maximize its reach. Basements are generally a bad idea — not only because the signals would have a hard time reaching all the way to the top floor, but also because they could be blocked by the concrete foundation and the solid earth beyond.

That's the second big challenge when setting up a Wi-Fi network: making sure the radio waves don't run into any obstacles. Everything blocks Wi-Fi signals a little. Wood, plaster, cinder blocks, and glass don't interfere much, but brick, stone, and water (think of that 30-gallon fish tank) can be more problematic. Worse still are ceramic, concrete, metal, and mirrors, which reflect visible light and radio waves alike.
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