Make WFH less bad with better Wi-Fi

Easy ways to make your Internet better

 

You’ve probably had enough advice telling you how to eat, sleep, and live better since the coronavirus outbreak. That’s all great but it’s mostly common sense and you probably won’t do most of it anyway. I’ve been at home for three weeks now and my garden is still a mess and my house isn’t much better! Instead of healthy living tips, here’s some advice on how to get the most from your home internet connection. This could genuinely help and you can do it yourself.

Firstly, if you have a truly terrible internet connection, this article probably isn’t for you. Nothing anybody tells you will make your awful internet go significantly faster without spending, quite likely, decent sums of money. This article is aimed at people who think they should have a vaguely decent internet connection already and who want to make their Wi-Fi faster, more reliable, and more secure without spending anything extra.

Before we begin, you’re going to need to know how to log in to your home Wi-Fi. For most people, this is the small box your internet service provider provided. Be aware that I’m going to suggest you change things you may never have heard of, and that you may not be comfortable with. Everybody’s home and equipment are different so I can only talk in general terms. I can’t accept responsibility for anything that gets worse or goes wrong.

If anything does go wrong, it could mean you get disconnected from the internet, or that things actually get less secure, so proceed with caution if you’re dependant on the internet. Make sure you can reverse any changes you make, have backups that you know how to use, and that you have an alternative way of staying connected. You should also be careful taking IT advice from strangers on the internet. Get your local IT savvy friends or work colleagues to double check things and to help out as well.

Scary stuff out of the way, we’re going to look at three things:

1. making your Wi-Fi more reliable,

2. making your Wi-Fi more secure,

3. how you can make the internet a generally safer place to be.

1. Wi-Fi Reliability

Wi-Fi needs a few things to work reliably:

  • good software
  • good coverage
  • a quiet environment
  • good hardware

Good software means ensuring that all your devices (laptops, smart phones, tablets, TVs, games consoles, echos etc) are up to date. Some devices will update themselves automagically, but others will need some help from you. If your device has an automated way of updating itself, let it. If your devices need you to download something from the internet, do so, but carefully.

A common way for hackers to attack people is by encouraging them to download nasty versions of software instead of the proper versions from the official manufacturer. Don’t click on any links you find in emails, text messages, or instant messages. Only download software directly from the approved manufacturer’s website. Equipment in most people’s homes will receive software updates for free, so if websites ask for money, be extremely cautious. If you’re not sure, ask.

Updating the software on your devices helps them make the most of improvements that happen over time, generally making things more secure, more reliable, and improving interoperability between devices.

Good coverage means ensuring that you have good, strong Wi-Fi where you need it. Try moving your Wi-Fi router to the middle of the areas you want to cover. Also try to have it as high-up as possible and avoid putting it in a cupboard, near speakers, behind a TV, near a microwave, or near a cordless phone. All of these things can impact how the W-Fi signals are distributed around your home. By ensuring your Wi-Fi router is well positioned, you will give your Wi-Fi the best chance. Try not to leave any cables laying around for people to trip over! People with larger homes may find they need several Wi-Fi access points to provide enough coverage. Doing this well is a little more technical, so I’ll add a note right at the end for you.

A quiet environment doesn’t mean turning down the TV, but rather we’re looking for a quiet Wi-Fi environment. A busy Wi-Fi environment is like trying to have a conversation in a nightclub: it doesn’t matter how loud you shout, it’s still hard to hear or be understood. If we can turn the volume down and remove three-quarters of the people though, it gets much easier to have a conversation.

In Wi-Fi, most devices support a range of different channels, so if we can make the most of the available channels, we can hold better conversations (or get more reliable Wi-Fi). Your Wi-Fi router will typically show two different sets of channels: 2.4GHz (which uses channel numbers between 1-13) and 5GHz (which uses channel numbers between 36-144). Most Wi-Fi routers can use both sets of channels at the same time, and many can also use multiple channels within a range at the same time. If you only have the option to use 2.4GHz channels or 5GHz channels (but not both at the same time), 2.4Ghz signals go further, but 5GHz signals generally provide better speeds. Using lots of channels at the same time means, in theory, you get a faster Wi-Fi connection.

In reality though, and especially if you live in a ‘busy’ Wi-Fi environment like a city, an apartment block, terraced housing, or even in university halls, it can mean you get a slower experience. I’ll spare you the detail about why, but if your Wi-Fi router has the ability to set a ‘channel width’, consider using a lower value. For example, if it currently says it is using 160MHz, 80MHz, or 40MHz channels (that is, 8, 4, or 2 channels all at the same time) consider setting it to use just 20MHz (1 channel) instead. Doing this will likely make your devices think the Wi-Fi has become slower (it may now say “connected at 300Mbps” instead of “connected at 900Mbps”) but the odds of you getting anywhere near the rate it is quoting have just increased massively. If you can now achieve 50% of your 300Mbps rate, things will definitely be faster and more reliable than if you could only achieve 10% of a 900Mbps rate. If you’re a lucky person with an extremely fast internet connection, you can try to balance the speed of the Wi-Fi with the speed of your internet. If 160MHz channels produce poor Wi-Fi, but 20MHz channels means you can’t use all of your internet capacity, try 40MHz instead. Experiment to see where the best balance is for you.

Good hardware essentially means modern hardware. I didn’t really want to include this as an option as it generally costs money, but as far as Wi-Fi is concerned, newer is better. If you can upgrade your Wi-Fi router and your devices so they all support Wi-Fi 6 (also known as 802.11ax), this will give you the best possible Wi-Fi experience.

2. Wi-Fi Security

Now you’re working from home, you might have several new devices connected to your home Wi-Fi. To help ensure these devices are connected securely, your Wi-Fi security settings need to be as secure as possible. For most people, this means ensuring your settings use WPA2.  The specific wording may vary by device, but look for phrases like ‘WPA2-PSK’ or ‘WPA2-Personal’. Ensure that your Wi-Fi router and various Wi-Fi devices all support WPA2-PSK or WPA2-Personal.  You’ll also need a password to go with this. Competent attackers can break these passwords without your knowledge, so the longer and more complex the password is, the safer your network will be. Try to use a pass ‘phrase’ rather than a pass ‘word’, and use a range of uppercase, lowercase, numerical, and special characters to make the password as secure as possible.

If you have security based on ‘None’ or ‘WEP’, be aware that these are both extremely insecure and trivial for people with even modest IT skills to break in to. I really encourage you to look at WPA2, or if you’re lucky enough to have particularly new equipment, WPA3.

If you’re an IT admin reading this, you might also want to consider always-on VPN from your laptops, using software like Cisco AnyConnect and an appropriate centralised firewall.

3. Internet safety

Now you’re at home, your work devices aren’t protected by all of the security that you had in the office.  You might also be interested in making your home internet safer in general: to keep your device safer, your kids safer, to help prevent access to ‘dodgy’ websites, and so on.  A free solution which is also by far the easiest and most effective, is Cisco OpenDNS

DNS is one of the parts of the internet that turns website addresses you type (like www.itgl.com) into IP addresses that the internet can understand (like 178.62.23.105).  Cisco OpenDNS enhances this internet feature by associating security information with websites and allowing you to create rules to stop people accessing websites that fall into certain categories like porn, malware, spam, illegal sites, and so on. There are two types of free account you can create with Cisco OpenDNS: Family Protect, and Home. The former is pre-configured to block access to porn and adult content, while ‘Home’ allows you to create your own policies.  Both are free.

Congratulations

You’ve stuck with me until the end, and hopefully you’ve now made your home Wi-Fi just that little bit faster, more reliable, and more secure. That’s one less thing to worry about! We do love a bit of feedback, so please get in touch via @ukricha or @itglservices if this has helped you, or if you’ve got any ideas of your own to suggest.

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Richard Atkin

Published by Richard Atkin
April 7, 2020

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