Best Wi-Fi solutions for houses with thick walls

I often think that Wi-Fi is like a living thing, it behaves strangely and sometimes unpredictably. One of the most common questions I’m asked is ‘how do I get WiFi through stone walls’?

Published 4/21/2020
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Stone walls can be a particular nuisance for WiFi but it might not be the only answer to your poor connection. It’s a safe bet that, at some point, there will be walls between you and your router: to identify if a wall is your issue, just take your laptop to the other side of it and see if the problem disappears. 

Why are walls such an issue?

WiFi is an electromagnetic wave, like a radio or TV signal, and those waves are either reflected or absorbed by different materials before they get to your devices or back to the router. The amount that’s reflected or absorbed depends on the frequency and the material – it’s a bit like looking through tinted glass, the darker the tint the harder it is to see through. 

Everyone’s property is constructed differently – the type of material or insulation used can affect your WiFi connectivity. For example, you could have thick stone walls or brick, breeze blocks or concrete. Stud walls or wood frames covered in plasterboard can have different levels of effect. And don’t forget that foil insulation or underfloor heating in the floors will affect WiFi as well.

Can the problem be solved…?

Yes, it really can. Although the law of physics will stop you getting the actual WiFi signal through the wall, there are other ways to deal with the issue. 

Option 1 – Move the router

The basic principle is to go around the wall, so if you can move the router you are effectively removing the problem. The problem is you can’t just pick it up and plug it in anywhere else. With ADSL or VDSL modem-based routers they plug directly into what’s known as the ‘Master Socket’.

Although you’re not allowed to modify the internals of the Master Socket, it is designed to allow you to add extensions to both voice and data. The data extension allows you some freedom to relocate the modem.

The good news

  • It doesn’t take a lot to set up and can be very effective.
  • Easy to try and see if it is a viable option.

The bad news 

  • This can negatively impact your broadband so may not be an option – the only way to know is to test it.
  • Should only be used for short distances of a few metres.

Option 2 – Knock the walls down

It’s a bit tongue in cheek, but it’s a real possibility! Open-plan living is a lifestyle that many people choose and it’s amazing for WiFi, if a bit severe.

Of course, if it’s a structural wall, removing it will be expensive and probably involve steelwork so I would not suggest you get the sledgehammer out without speaking to a professional! But, if you’re considering a re-model, think about how it could impact your WiFi and design accordingly.

Option 3 – Range Extender or Repeater

Range extenders or repeaters are cheap and easy ways of making your WiFi go further. You need to position them so that they can ‘hear’ your router. As the name suggests, they work by listening and repeating, usually for distance, but they work around obstacles as well.

The good news

  • These can work as a solution and are cost-effective.
  • There are many types available.

The bad news

  • They must be able to hear your router and receive a good signal.
  • Performance suffers greatly: you will lose at least 50% of your bandwidth with each repetition or ‘hop’.

Option 4 – Powerline Adaptor

These are great devices. Like an extender, you plug them into the mains in your property but the difference is that they add the data to your mains power. This means other devices can then read that data, allowing you to easily run your network wherever the mains runs.

The good news:

  • Decent units on modern wiring do work well.
  • Often faster than using WiFi.
  • Cheaper alternative to running cables.
  • Some units combine with WiFi and can clone WiFi Settings.

The bad news:

  • Depending on your consumer unit (where the main electric fuses are), they may not work at all.
  • Anything plugged in that puts noise on the mains will affect them.
  • They never live up to the speed on the box, and sometimes can be unstable.

Option 5 – Mesh System

A mesh system uses a separate radio so that it can communicate to other devices in the ‘mesh’ while communicating with your devices. In some ways they are a lot like repeaters but are more advanced in how they operate, which gives better performance.

This also means that some mesh devices can communicate faster between themselves than they do to your devices, which, overall, provides better performance.

The good news:

  • Mesh devices are simple and effective.
  • There are lots of options available.
  • You can deploy lots of devices and they will work out the most efficient route back for your data.

The bad news:

  • Talking to each other is normally on the 5Ghz band – which will suffer more getting through the walls.
  • You will lose performance per hop.

Option 6 – Multiple Access Points and Roaming

If you go into an office or large building, you can access the WiFi and move around. That’s achieved by using the specification 802.11r that allows a device to roam between access points, much like mobile phones roam between communication towers as you drive down the road.

Instead of communicating over WiFi, these access points communicate over ethernet cable and are a physical network connection. They are also capable of meshing, so you can create hybrid networks if required.

The good news:

  • By not meshing the access points you don’t lose performance.
  • They are often higher performing than mesh networks because of the high-performance radio used.
  • You can use cheaper, lower specification access points – there are access points designed to be discreetly placed in each room.

The bad news:

  • Typically needs extra equipment to create the whole network and control the roaming.
  • Often complex to get right.

What can you do now?

  • Update your router’s firmware. Not only will you get security fixes and new features, there are often performance enhancements as well.
  • Prove to yourself that your router’s location is the problem by running speed tests at various locations: WiFi apps for your phone will give you a guide to how strong your signal is.
  • Extension or replacement cables are readily available, making it easy for you to reposition your router.
  • Extenders and powerline adaptors are affordable, and only need to be plugged in with a simple push button configuration to work.
  • Ultimately these options are worth considering and trying. How much benefit you will see depends on your situation – if things aren’t too bad, you might find that a simple mesh system will improve your coverage no end.

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