Get started with home Wi-Fi
The days of trailing long wires from your phone outlet to you PC are long gone. Every broadband provider now offers you wireless networking as standard, enabling you to get your Wi-Fi enabled laptop, phone and tablet online from anywhere in your house. In this guide we’ll take a look at what you need to know about home Wi-Fi networks. What do the technical terms mean, how secure is it, and how do you identify the features you need? Read on to find out.
What is wireless broadband?
Wireless broadband - or Wi-Fi, as it is more commonly known - is a fast internet connection that you can use without network cables.
It works in a very straightforward way. You attach a small box called a wireless router to your phone line; the router receives internet data via the phone (or fibre) cables, and converts them into radio signals; and any gadget with Wi-Fi capabilities can then pick up these signals to access the internet.
The main advantage of Wi-Fi is convenience. It doesn’t require you to install extra cabling throughout your home, and also doesn’t limit you to using it in a specific spot. So long as you stay within range of the router - typically up to around 50 metres - then you can connect, whether you’re in the living room, bedroom or even the garden.
All your Wi-Fi devices can connect simultaneously, as well. It’s the easiest way to get your laptop or tablet, console, or smart speaker online.
Is it secure?
Home Wi-Fi is very secure. All routers have security features installed, and they should already be set up and ready to use.
There are several security standards used by different brands of router, but they work in broadly similar ways. Each one encrypts the data transmitted between your devices and the router, preventing anyone from intercepting it. They also password-protect access to the network. Nobody can connect their devices to your router, and use your internet connection, without knowing the password.
Wireless router jargon buster
You don’t have to understand router tech to use it. But if you want to know exactly what you’re getting there are a few important terms you should know.
- Wi-Fi 6 or 802.11ac: The router specification, which dictates how well a wireless network performs and how fast it can be, is officially classified as the 802.11 spec, although has now been given a simpler, more marketable name. This leads to a little bit of confusion, where Wi-Fi 6 is the latest version and is based on the 802.11ax spec, while the previous version is more often referred to as 802.11ac (but has been rebranded as Wi-Fi 5). 802.11n is the version before that. Newer routers remain compatible with older standards. If your devices use different standards, the speed will be set to the slowest one.
- Frequency: The wireless frequencies used by routers are 2.4GHz and 5GHz. 2.4GHz has longer range but is shared with household devices like microwaves and cordless phones, so is crowded and highly susceptible to interference. 5GHz has a shorter range, but is a much cleaner frequency with vastly superior performance. 5GHz is preferable for bandwidth-heavy tasks such as video streaming. Many routers are dual band, i.e. they support both frequencies, but not all can use both concurrently.
- Channel: Routers are able to broadcast on several different channels. Channels can easily become congested when there are many nearby routers using the same one, and this adversely affects performance. Switching to a different channel can improve the strength and speed of your network connection. Some routers will automatically select a channel, picking the one that is least congested.
Is wireless better than wired?
The main benefit to wireless is its convenience. There’s no clutter from wires and it’s easier to connect multiple devices at the same time. You can connect different types of device too, including phones, smart speakers, TV set-top boxes and the ever expanding range of smart home gadgetry.
The main downside to Wi-Fi is that speeds decrease the further you are from the router. Physical obstructions such as thick walls also reduce the signal strength. You’ll often achieve markedly slower speeds in the farthest rooms in your house than you would sat right next to the router. If the distance and/or the effect of physical obstacles becomes too great you might even encounter dead spots, where there’s no Wi-Fi signal at all.
A wired internet connection delivers more consistent speeds over the full length of the network. For general use the difference may be minimal, but for things that benefit from consistent speeds and performance - like online gaming - wired may be a better choice.
Fortunately, you needn’t choose between one or the other. Most wireless routers have at least a couple of Ethernet ports on the back that you can use to create a cabled connection to your laptop or games console.
Do I need to provide my own router?
Most internet service providers supply you with a wireless router, or hub as they often call them, as standard. It is pre-configured to work right out of the box.
Always check the terms when you sign up, because sometimes the router will be yours to keep, and sometimes it will be a loan only and you'll have to return it when you switch to a new provider in future.
Can you still use your own router if you want to? In most cases, yes, although there may be the occasional exception, like with some full fibre or niche service providers that require specialist gear. However, you will have to set it up yourself, and most providers will not be able to offer you support if you're using third party hardware.
What should I look for in a hub or router?
The hubs and routers supplied by internet service providers are not all the same, and can have very different levels of performance.
Each provider should give you a router that can handle the maximum speed of your connection with a range that will reach all the rooms of a typical home. However, many will also keep their best routers for their fastest fibre products. Sign up for a cheaper deal from a smaller provider and you might be supplied with an older generation router.
Some providers, including Virgin Media, use the same, fast premium router for all their products.
While it’s useful to know the specs of the router you’re getting, they only take you so far. There are numerous other factors that affect a router’s performance, including the quality and layout of components such as the internal antennas.
You can find detailed tests of all the routers bundled by the major broadband providers on many hardware review sites. These will give you a better indication of real world performance over a range of distances, so you can determine how that relates to your home, where you’ll position the router and where you’ll be able to use the internet.
And it isn't just about the hardware. Some modern routers offer support for mobile apps, which make it far easier to control the router settings. They have additional - and useful - software features too. These can include support for parental controls, the ability to limit screen time for your kids, and enable you to set up a Guest Mode so that you don't have to give your Wi-Fi password to everyone who visits your house.
What speed can I get from my router?
When looking at your internet speed there are two factors to consider. One is the speed of your broadband connection, the other is the speed of your router.
It's safe to say that unless you're using a very old model, your router will always be capable of delivering faster speeds that your broadband package itself. A router based on the 802.11n spec from 2009, can deliver real world speeds in excess of 100Mb, so will be able to handle most fibre deals without a problem. The last-gen spec 802.11ac can potentially deliver gigabit speeds, while the latest Wi-Fi 6 routers are faster than any broadband package you can buy right now.
So does that mean router speed doesn't matter? Well, a faster router can enable more devices to connect at the same, which is becoming more important with each passing year. Router speed also matters if you use a home network, like if you share files between different computers, or stream movies from a laptop to a TV box. But in general terms it won't limit your broadband speed.
What could be causing my slow Wi-Fi?
Slow Wi-Fi is something we all experience from time to time. There are many causes and plenty of fixes.
First of all, you need to check whether it is your Wi-Fi or your broadband that is slow. To do this, grab your phone or laptop, go and stand right next to your router, then use our Speed Test tool to check your broadband speed. If it's slower that you expect then it's likely to be a broadband problem, so give your provider a call. If not, then it's a Wi-Fi problem.
One of the main things to check now is that your router is set up and positioned properly. A wireless signal can be easily blocked by large physical objects. Ideally, your router should have a central position in your house, be raised off the floor, and not enclosed by walls. In practice you might not be able to do all this, but you should at least try to minimise the number of obstructions. Experiment with different locations if you can.
Rebooting the router can often help. And also check that you're getting slow Wi-Fi on all your devices - sometimes only one of your devices might be affected. If so, take the usual precautions, like rebooting that device, running a virus scan, and so on.
How far can a router's signal reach and how can I improve it?
Lots of things affect the range of a wireless router, some you have control over, and some you don't.
They include the internal design of the router and how many antennas it has, whether there are any physical objects obstructing its signal, how old the router is, and what frequency it runs on.
Modern routers offer a choice between the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies, and many will automatically switch between the two depending on what your connected devices support. In general terms, 2.4GHz has a longer range - up to around 50 metres - but slower speeds; 5GHz a shorter range - around 15 metres - but is faster.
If you have persistent problems getting your wireless to reach all parts of your home, and even have a few dead spots, you can buy some extra hardware to improve the coverage. There are a few options available to you.
A Wi-Fi extender (also known as a booster, repeater or access point) is a small box that picks up the signal from your router and re-broadcasts it to effectively extend the range of your network. So, if your router is set up on the ground floor, you could install an extender by the stairs or on the upstairs landing to ensure that the bedrooms are fully covered.
The downside to a Wi-Fi extender is that it appears on your network as a separate router. It has its own login details, and your devices will switch between the extender and your main router depending on where you are in the house.
A better and more modern alternative to an extender is a mesh network. With this system you typically get a main router and a few extra "nodes" that you can position around your home which receive and re-broadcast the wireless signal.
Mesh networks have two big benefits over Wi-Fi extenders. First, they're plug and play. They need pretty much no setup and you can add more nodes as and when you need them. Second, they show up on your network as a single device, so once you've entered your main router password you will connect and switch between the other nodes seamlessly and without the need for any more login details.
Your other option is a Powerline adapter, also called a HomePlug. These transmit data using the standard electrical wiring in your home. You connect one adapter to your router and plug it into a power outlet nearby, and a second adapter into a power outlet in the room where your Wi-Fi’s signal is subpar. The second adapter becomes an entry point to the network, to which you connect your laptop, console or any other gadget. Adapters can provide either a wired or wireless connection, depending on the type you choose.
Powerline adapters are an easy way of extending your network, and are literally plug and play. For best results you need to ensure you plug them directly into the wall, and should use power sockets that are connected to the same circuit (they share the same fuse box switch).