Rich Warren: Wi-Fi all about channeling some creativity

Rich Warren: Wi-Fi all about channeling some creativity

Radio. Read it and think of your favorite station, such as WDWS or WILL. We're all familiar with the concept of a radio and its attendant reception issues. Radio actually encompasses a chunk of the electro-magnetic spectrum. We humans use it for a multitude of purposes, sharing the spectrum with radio waves generated by stars, including the sun, and Earth's natural phenomena.

At the dawn of commercial radio broadcasting almost 100 years ago, the tiny segment of the radio spectrum used by humans resembled the Wild West. Stations fought it out on the same frequencies with a wide range of broadcast power and sometimes faulty transmitters caused them to drift from one frequency to another. Most national governments started playing sheriff.

In the early 1930s, the Federal Communications Commission brought the law and order to the airwaves in the U.S. It also allocated bands for broadcasting beyond commercial radio, such as public safety, aircraft, military and the like while monitoring broadcasters to ensure they broadcast using their precisely assigned frequencies.

Improving technology and new demands for airwaves, such as television, expanded the area of the radio spectrum used by earthlings. The FCC could barely keep up with advancing technology. Until about 1980 it required licenses for all broadcasting.

It made an exception in the 1960s for citizens band radio, which turned into something of a fiasco. From the 1990s forward, the FCC allocated more and more unlicensed bands for various uses, such as baby monitors, walkie-talkies, and low-power data transmission. This evolved into the technology that most of us can't live without: Wi-Fi (which originally stood for wireless fidelity).

Fortunately, digital technology uses the airwaves much more efficiently than conventional analog broadcasting. Thus, a lot of uses fit into a small sliver of radio spectrum. However, that doesn't mean signals won't interfere with each other. Radio remains radio. Consider the Wi-Fi in your tablet, iPod, laptop and any other device basically a radio.

A very small number of companies make the complex radio integrated circuit chips. They strive for tiny size and energy efficiency. How a manufacturer installs the Wi-Fi radio chip and the kind of antenna connected to it determines how well it works.

As Wi-Fi grows in popularity and runs short of capacity, the FCC allocates new bands for expanding it. Unlike in the old days, the FCC only specifies a range of frequencies and tells the industry to create the standards within that band.

That explains the alphabet soup of letters associated with Wi-Fi these days. Specifically, Wi-Fi standard is labeled 802.11, followed by a letter a/b/g/n/y and the newest, ac. Unfortunately, not all devices incorporate all or even most of these flavors. So even if your router transmits using g and n, your laptop or tablet might lack that capacity. Generally, but not always, the newer the standard, the better the range and speed.

This explains the overcrowding and interference, especially on the original and most popular 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi band. Wi-Fi shares that band with cordless phones and microwave ovens, not to mention the millions of Wi-Fi users who use it. The newer 5 GHz Wi-Fi band is less congested.

Here's the tip of the day: If you experience difficulties with your home Wi-Fi, go into the configuration menu of your router (or beg a teenager or pay a professional) to change it to a different channel.

The 2.4 band uses channels 1-11 (12-14 exist, but are not used in this country). Unlike with TV or radio, most Wi-Fi channels overlap, causing even more interference problems.

However, channels 1, 6 and 11 don't overlap other channels and should be your first choice. Most routers come set for channel 6, so to escape your neighbors, reset to channel 1 or 11. Your remote devices will find the new channel.

To borrow local songwriter Kevin Elliott's most recent album title: "It's a Circus Here, Dolores."

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. He can be emailed at hifiguy@mchsi.com.

Sections (1):Living
Topics (2):Internet, Technology

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