Spectrum-analysis tools cure Wi-Fi headaches

Becky waring By Becky Waring

If you’re suffering from poor Wi-Fi performance, dropouts, or dead zones despite having the latest and greatest router, it’s time to check your airwaves.

Metageek’s inexpensive Wi-Spy spectrum analyzers will root out rogue access points, interfering neighbors, cordless phones, and more — giving you back control over your Wi-Fi net.

So many channels, but still no place to go

There are 11 channels in the 2.4GHz Wi-Fi spectrum (up to 14 outside the U.S.) and a whopping 23 in the 5GHz band. Moreover, most newer routers automatically choose by default the best available channel. So why do we still have so many Wi-Fi problems?

Ask Steve Jobs — his keynote iPhone 4 demonstration (reported in a June 7 InfoWorld story) failed epically due to interference from the hundreds of Novatel MiFis and similar portable wireless access points in the audience. The problem is simply too many devices fighting for too little bandwidth.

Of the 11 channels available in the most-commonly used spectrum — 2.4GHz — only three (1, 6, and 11) are non-overlapping; they don’t interfere with each other when used simultaneously. Fire up your laptop and look at the list of Wi-Fi networks within range. When was the last time you saw only three or fewer SSIDs (network names) listed?

In my Berkeley house, which has only one neighbor within 20 feet in any direction (most are 30 to 40 feet away), I typically see 11 to 15 SSIDs in my Wi-Fi network list. Most have very weak signals that I probably couldn’t connect to with any reliability — which means they probably don’t interfere much. But at least three have usable signal strength, sufficient to actively compete with my access point.

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Becky Waring

About Becky Waring

Becky Waring has worked as a writer and editor for CNET, ZDNET, Technology Review, Upside Magazine, and many other news sources. She alternates the Best Software column with Windows Secrets contributing editor Scott Spanbauer.