Wireless routers are becoming commonplace in home networks. Many popular Internet service providers (ISPs) now include wireless routers as part of higher-tier Internet packages, and it’s possible to get a decent router for less than $100 at a big-box technology store. But wireless isn’t perfect; users often complain about slow download speeds or unreliable connections. One way to improve your home network is upgrading to a wireless N router — but will this really help you pick up speed?
Cracking the Wireless Code
To ensure wireless technology functions regardless of router make or model, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) developed the 802.11 standard. To differentiate between different versions of this standard, the IEEE uses letters; for example, the first two standards developed were 802.11a and 802.11b. These standards were developed at the same time but operate using different frequency bands. 802.11b uses the 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) band and offers speeds of up to 11 megabits per second (Mbps). Standard 802.11a, meanwhile, uses the 5 GHz band and provides speeds of up to 54 Mbps, but its range is much shorter. 802.11b gained popularity as the backbone of home networks, while 802.11a was adopted by many businesses. In 2003, 802.11g routers became available, combining the best of 802.11a and 802.11b by operating on the 2.4 GHz band and increasing the speeds from 11 to 54 GHz. In 2009, we saw the release of 802.11n devices, which can operate in both bands and use multiple signals and antennas to improve range and signal strength. They are backwards-compatible with 802.11a and 802.11b/g devices and can achieve speeds of up to 300 Mbps.
It seems simple: Upgrade to a wireless N router and your connection should be blazing fast. That isn’t always the case, however, so it’s worth doing some detective work before paying for a new router. First, make sure the wireless cards in your computers, smartphones, and tablets are able to handle wireless signals from 802.11n devices, since phones or desktops more than five years old may not be equipped with the right kind of wireless technology. Next, check your Internet speed using a free online test, and compare the results to what you should be getting from your ISP. If you’ve determined both the ideal location for your router to avoid signal degradation and that there are no problems on your provider’s end, and you’re still consistently well below the maximum bandwidth of your connection, your wireless router may be hampering your speed. It’s important to note, however, that a wireless router cannot make your connection any faster than your ISP allows. If you pay for 25 Mbps and are getting that with a wireless G router, upgrading to a wireless N alternative won’t give you increased speed. You also need to consider how many users access your network at the same time. Even if you have bandwidth to spare, having five or more users on the same wireless network can slow downloads to a crawl.
Wireless N technology offers much faster top-end speeds than the 802.11a, 11b, or 11g standards, but it isn’t a guaranteed fix for download troubles. Check your current and maximum speeds before you shell out the cash for a new router.
Photo credit: Flickr/tawalker