September 16, 2014 Jessica Sims
Wireless Network Troubleshooting 103: Cheating When Things Go Wrong

Wireless Network Troubleshooting 103: Cheating When Things Go Wrong

In the third portion of our wireless network troubleshooting guide, we will discuss topics that are a little bit beyond the scope of wireless network troubleshooting.  Why?  Because sometimes there is only so much you can do with existing situations, and investing additional money in new MIMO routers, high gain antennae, network cards, and all of the rest of the components in the world simply will not make a wireless network reliable.  Why?

There are many possible reasons.  There could be interference from outside the property that is simply too strong to block, strong power sources from inside that create havoc with wireless signals, or physical properties inherent in the materials that one’s property is made of that simply limit transmission range and quality.  None of these possibilities are necessarily mutually exclusive, so one could try to remove obstacles, and change hardware when possible, but the fact is that anyone doing a little wireless network troubleshooting may reach a point where they approach a breaking point.

Calm Down, There May be Alternatives

If that time is now then it would be a great idea to sit down, count to ten, and remember why wireless networking was so important in the first place.  In most cases the idea was to connect multiple devices in multiple rooms, such as the computer in the kid’s room, the NAS and laptop in the office, and all the connected devices of the media center such as the: PS3, Xbox 360, DVR/STB (set top box), TiVo Premiere, Boxee Box, HTPC, and so on.  So, the question becomes: how can these devices be connected without running wires all over the property and/or tearing up carpet to lay hidden wires?

One Possible Answer: Powerline Networking

One possible idea is to look into powerline networking kits.  Do not confuse powerline networking with powerline broadband, which uses a somewhat similar theory but completely different technology.  Powerline networking allows users to plug specialized devices into the electrical sockets of any room of their property, and these devices will automatically form their own network.  Since most people look into WiFi to connect different devices in different rooms, it stands to reason that they will have plenty of electric sockets at least reasonably close to the devices that they wish to network.

Many powerline networking kits are nothing more than a small box with an Ethernet port that can be used to connect a single device.  It is possible to use a router or a switch with most powerline networking kits, but there might be another unique alternative for those that are simply determined to stick with wireless in some form: mixing wireless and powerline networking technologies.

WiFi Plus Powerline Networking

Some people like WiFi because they like to be on the go.  A new wave of portable devices is upon us, and products that can swap intelligently between wireless broadband and local WiFi, such as the iPad, are bound to become very popular and common.   Many of the latest powerline networking kits come not only with Ethernet ports, but also with local WiFi antenna.  This may allow for better transmission quality in situations where very localized interference was a problem and/or physical obstacles caused a problem, but it would be very nice to see vendors come up with high-gain MIMO powerline networking products.  While these are certainly on the horizon, at least at the time of this writing, the existing products still manage to provide reasonably strong signals in smaller zones.

The Ups and Downs of Powerline

The best thing about powerline networking is that it enables an additional layer of connectivity when wireless networks prove unstable.  The single biggest downside to powerline broadband would be that the speeds of even the fastest powerline networking products is still fairly slow.  Advertised speeds in the 200-350 kbps range are not very impressive, though they are competitive with some of the non-enthusiast grade wireless products on the market.

A Few Alternatives

A pair of alternatives might exist in houses with coaxial television cabling and old analog phone lines, but these technologies may be used by high speed broadband services such as the ridiculously fast Verizon FiOS or AT&T’s U-verse.  If these wiring systems are not in use, there are products that can make use of these wires to create a network.  In some cases, such as D-Link’s coaxial products, the frequencies used by broadcasting, broadband, and LAN are very different, and thus can coexist without creating interference.  These products may be a last resort, but if that is what it takes to create a bridge from every device in the house or business to a broadband connection then it is probably worth it.

As with powerline networking, it is always possible to add a wireless router as a client at any point in these networking systems, which be great for extending the range of an existing network or simply moving the wireless network away from the wired portion of the network, which probably does not need or use wireless features.  For instance, if the broadband connection is in the den/office, but the wireless network is really needed upstairs in the bedrooms and on the back porch, then a pair of wireless routers should be used and neither of them should be near the broadband device.  One network should be established upstairs and another on the porch if it is feasible, failing that, the wireless connection upstairs should be given a directional extender to allow bi-directional communication with the porch.

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