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Troubleshooting Q&A - September 21, 2004

Give Your Wireless Signal a Boost

The range of wireless networks can fluctuate dramatically depending on the environment you're in, but there is a simple way to add some power and consistency to your WLAN. Plus, what the heck is NAT?

By Ron Pacchiano

Q. Not too long ago my kids subscribed to Xbox Live. This meant that their Xbox needed access to our DSL modem; which was inconveniently located in my home office. In the early evenings while I was trying to get work done, I had to contend with my kids screaming in the background because they just out raced one of their friends. I needed a better solution.

So I purchased a wireless router and two wireless adapters; one for the kid's Xbox and the other for my notebook. With the wireless network in place, I was able move my kids out of my office and into the family. Now they had privacy and a big screen TV to play on and I have some peace and quiet. The addition of the wireless adapter in my notebook also gave me the benefit of being able to still work without having to be trapped in my office. The wireless network covers most of the house, but some rooms have worst reception than others. Certain areas of the house make it very difficult for my notebook to maintain a connection. The patio is particularly bad. The funny thing is that from a distance point of view, my patio is a lot closer to the wireless router than my bedroom, which gets a very strong signal.

So I was wondering what variables could be limiting the range of my wireless network to only certain areas of the house and if there was anything I could do that could compensate for it?

A. There are a number of variables that could be causing your wireless network's signal quality to fluctuate so dramatically. One of the biggest and simplest factors affecting range is the sheer number of walls, ceilings or other objects that the wireless signals must pass through. Typical ranges vary depending on the types of materials and background RF noise in your home or business. Most homes of wood and sheet rock aren't too restricting, but a building made of steel and concrete can cause considerable interference.

The key to maximizing range is to follow these basic principles:

  • Keep the number of walls and ceilings the signal must pass through to a minimum: Each wall or ceiling can rob your wireless products of range. By limiting the number of obstacles between your PCs and routers, you can greatly increase your signal strength. Placing them in a higher location can also be helpful.

  • Building Materials make a difference: A solid metal door or aluminum studs may have a negative effect on range. Try to positioning your wireless devices so that the signal passes through drywall or open doorways and not other materials.

  • Make sure that the antenna is positioned for best reception: Some products like D-Link for example come with diagnostic software that can measure the unit's transmission strength. Moving the antenna to different positions might help increase the signal strength a bit. In most cases you can monitor the signal strength by using the software included with your product.

  • Keep your wireless devices at least 3-6 feet away from electrical devices that generate RF noise, like microwave ovens, monitors, electric motors, UPS units, etc.

  • If you are using 2.4GHz cordless phones or X-10 (wireless products such as ceiling fans, lights, and home security systems), your wireless connection will degrade dramatically or drop completely. Anything device operating on the 2.4Ghz frequency will interfere with your wireless network.

Also you might want to consider relocating the router to another part of the house — maybe even another floor altogether. One benefit of cable modems and DSL lines are that they give you a good deal of flexibility on were they can be located. In general, once the router has been configured, any room with a phone line or cable connection is useable.

Another way for you to compensate for the weaken signal would be to purchase a repeater. The repeater picks up the routers weakened wireless signal, regenerates it and then rebroadcast it. The regeneration makes the weak signal strong again increasing your notebooks signal strength and thus extending the range of your wireless network. After the repeater has been configured to work with your network, simply plug it in somewhere between the router and the wireless PC. This should be enough to increase the signal strength of your wireless network and hopefully relieve you problem.

My personal recommendation for a wireless repeater is the D-Link AirPlus DWL-800AP+. The D-Link AirPlus DWL-800AP+ is an enhanced 802.11b Wireless Range Extender that can operate as a Wireless Access Point or Wireless Repeater. The unit has a street price of about $65, so it's very affordable. Best of luck!

Q. I don't have a very extensive computer background, but I would like to add a wireless router to my home office network. While researching for a router I keep coming across the term NAT. It seems to be important because all of the routers I've looked at list it as a feature, but I don't know what it is or what it does. Could you explain it to me? Thanks!

A. NAT is an abbreviation for Network Address Translation. On a local-area network that uses NAT, each machine is assigned an IP address from one of the reserved ranges that are private and non-routable. (Examples of these ranges include 10.0.0.0 and 192.168.0.0 — these addresses are called local addresses.) On their own, devices on these private networks cannot communicate with the Internet.

The NAT device, which is typically a router or firewall, connects to the private network but also maintains a connection to the Internet using one or more global IP addresses which are "real" and routable. When Internet-bound traffic comes in from a device on the private network, it's forwarded to the Internet by the NAT device via one of these global addresses. The NAT device also tracks the traffic traveling to and from each system on the private network so that responses are routed to the system that generated the request.

There are two main benefits to using NAT on a LAN: One is that it allows you to have many more devices on the network than would be possible if each one needed its own unique global IP address. With NAT, hundreds, thousands or conceivably millions of computers can sit behind just a few global IP addresses. And because they don't directly connect to the Internet, there is no danger of address conflicts with system on other networks. (In fact, if NAT didn't exist, it's likely that the finite number of IP addresses would already be exhausted.)

The second benefit is that NAT provides a rudimentary level of firewall protection. Networks using NAT are effectively "hidden" behind the relatively small number of global IP addresses they use to communicate, and this helps to obscure the size and topology of the LAN from potential hackers.

NAT capability can be found in every router on the market today.


Use our feedback form to submit your questions on home or SOHO networking issues. We cannot guarantee to answer every question we get, but we’ll consider them all.



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