Wireless networking is one of the most popular types of technology in the world. It’s in places such as homes, coffee shops, hotels, and airports. It’s one of those technologies that should be great; it should be reliable, secure, easy to use, and fast. But in a lot of cases, it isn’t any of those things. Why is that?

There are a few fundamental principles for understanding how wireless frequencies work. The lower the frequency, the further the signal will travel. Therefore, a 900 MHz cordless phone will have a greater range than a 2.4 GHz phone.

Wireless signals travel further when there are no obstructions. Every wall the signals have to pass through can decrease the range by three to 90 feet. The angle of the device from the wireless access point is also important. The lower the angle, the thicker the wall will appear to be. For example, at a 45 degree angle, a 1.5 foot thick wall will appear to be three feet thick, but from a 2 degree angle that same wall will appear to be 42 feet thick.

The type of material the signal has to pass through is another factor. For instance, wireless access points placed behind fish tanks will have a very limited range, as the water will absorb most of the signal. Metal inside walls can act as a primitive Faraday cage, and will scatter the wireless signals in all directions.

The wireless B and G standards operate by broadcasting over the unlicensed 2.4 GHz wireless spectrum. There are fourteen channels that can be used; however, only eleven are legal to use in North America. The band starts at 2401 MHz and ends at 2495 MHz, with each channel being 22 MHz in size. This causes channels to overlap each other by eleven MHz. For instance, the signal from channel six overlaps channels four and five.

The popularity of wireless makes it its own worst enemy. With only eleven channels to choose from, multiple wireless access points in an area constantly overlap and interfere with one another, causing performance loss and connection issues.

Another big problem is interference from other devices on the 2.4 GHz spectrum. Cordless phones can cause interference; however, the largest source of interference comes from an unlikely source—microwave ovens.

When a microwave oven is running, it pumps all kinds of wireless “noise” onto the 2.4 GHz spectrum. This actively interferes with wireless devices, usually causing disconnects and reconnects.

The current standard, Wireless N, offers faster speed and has less interference as it can run over the five GHz frequency band. But, since it uses a higher frequency, it has a shorter range so coverage may be an issue.

Unfortunately, there is only so much you can do to improve wireless performance if you own the wireless access points. For the most part though, wireless is really awesome when it works, and incredibly frustrating when it doesn’t.

This article first appeared in Memorial University’s student newspaper: The Muse http://themuse.ca/2013/02/28/why-does-wireless-suck/

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