If you haven’t yet set up your home or small office wireless network, then you’re not using your equipment to its full potential. A home or office wireless – or WiFi – network allows mobile device like laptops, smartphones and tablets to access the internet through your broadband connection, rather than through more expensive 3G/4G services (these provides direct access from mobile device to the internet. If you want to access the internet from your home WiFi network you’ll still need a broadband service.)

WiFi also allows devices to sync and transfer files with their devices on the network, and it lets people join the network at will, without adding a new network port and cable for each user.

WiFi, known more prosaically by its engineering name 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, has gone through a number of iterations over the years, with speeds improving at each step (see image below). Megabits per second (mbps) is a measurement of the rate of data transfer, and the higher the number, the faster the network. For example, 8 megabits = one megabyte (MB), so a transfer rate of 8 mbps means a 1MB file will transfer in one second.

 

To set up a WiFi network, you’ll need a few things, including:

i)  A computer.
ii) A WiFi access point or wireless router.
iii) An Ethernet cable (for initial setup) – one will probably come with your router.
iv)  A  device capable of accessing a wireless network, such as a computer, smartphone, tablet or printer.

Get a wireless access point/wireless router

There’s actually a very good chance you may already have a wireless access point. For instance, if you have an ADSL, fibre, or cable broadband connection, you probably already have a modem router – that’s the device you use to connect to the internet. And because nearly every modem router sold today includes wireless capabilities, it is, in effect, a wireless access point in addition to being a modem router.

There are some situations where you may need to buy a new router, however:

a)  Your current modem router does not have WiFi.

b)  You don’t have a modem router (which might be the case if you have 3G/4G mobile broadband).

c)  The wireless capabilities of your current modem router are outdated. (Current state-of-the-art wireless routers can transfer data at 450mbps across the airwaves. If you have an older device, it might support only 150mbps or 54mbps.)

If you’re a bit confused about this whole router/modem/switch/access point thing, don’t worry – the whole nomenclature of networking devices can be confounding. Part of that is because there are discrete devices and integrated devices. If we look at discrete devices, we have:

• A modem, which connects you to a specific type of broadband network (ADSL, cable etc.).
• An Ethernet switch, which serves as the hub of wired networking devices.
• A router, which figures out how to get data across the internet.
• A wireless access point, which serves a similar function to the switch, but for wireless devices.

The thing is, most modem routers sold today are all of these things. A modern router is actually a modem router switch access point. If you’re looking to upgrade your network’s wireless, it’s usually just easiest and cheapest to buy a new modem router for whatever type of broadband service you have. You can get standalone access points and your can also use a router as just an access point if you want (ignoring its other functions), but most people just replace the whole thing.

A wireless router connects to your broadband modem to share a single internet connection among multiple remote devices. Image source: Netcomm Wireless

Plug in the wireless access point/router

Plug the wireless router into the mains power socket and switch it on (note: some routers just turn on immediately).

If you are setting up a new wireless router or access point in addition to your existing modem (rather than replacing it), you need to connect your new access point to your existing router using an Ethernet cable. Plug one end of the Ethernet cable into any LAN port on the new router/access point and the other end into any LAN port on the old modem. (If you have a USB modem without LAN ports, then plug the Ethernet cable into the PC that the modem is attached to).

Connect your computer to the router with the Ethernet cable

In order to configure the router or access point initially, you’ll likely have to connect to it using an Ethernet cable. The cable runs from the LAN port on your computer to any of the LAN ports on the wireless router you want to configure.

(Note that some routers have a default wireless network setup, and sometimes you can use that to perform the initial setup. If that’s the case, it will be noted in the router/access point’s user guide).

Configure the router

There is no universal way to do this – each router or access point has a slightly different method, which will be detailed in the user guide.

In some cases the device will come with a setup CD, which will walk through the setup process.

In other cases you’ll be asked to open your computer’s web browser, enter a specific number in the address bar (commonly 192.168.0.1 or 192.168.1.1) and log on using a specific username and password. Then you click through the links to the wireless settings.

The setup process will ask you a variety of questions. For wireless, the most important are the SSID (network name) and security settings.

The SSID, sometimes just called the network name, is the name that will be broadcast to people browsing for wireless networks. It can be anything, but something unique that you can remember will be best.

You should set the security to WPA/WPA2 with a password, sometimes called a pre-shared key (this setup is known as WPA-PSK or WPA Personal). This prevents unauthorised people from accessing the network; whenever somebody tries to connect they will be asked for the password. Remember to make a note of the password you use!

Depending on your router model, you may have other options as well; for example channel numbers, channel widths, network modes and so on. For the most part, you should leave them at the defaults or on Auto – these are options for advanced users only.

Connect to the wireless network

Once you’ve given the network an SSID and password and saved the settings on your router or access point, you can unplug the network cable connecting your PC and the wireless router.

Now go to a wireless device. It can be a laptop computer, a smartphone or tablet, even a TV or games console with WiFi. The device will see if there are wireless networks available.

On a Windows 7 PC, a little icon will appear on the bottom right of the screen, saying network connections are available. Click on the icon to bring up a list of all the wireless networks that are visible from the PC. The SSID you just set up should be there. Click on it, then click on ‘Connect’. You’ll be asked for a password; type it in, press enter, and you should be connected. You can also check the box to connect automatically in the future.

Other wireless devices will use a similar system. Head into the wireless settings, browse the list of wireless networks in range, select your wireless network, enter the password.

Getting bad reception?

If you’re finding that the performance of the wireless network is unacceptable – for example, if file transfers are slow or streaming video keeps stuttering and stopping, then the most valuable thing you can do is reposition the router.

Adding a wireless repeater can improve the strength of a WiFi signal.

The further a wireless signal has to travel, the weaker and slower it becomes. If it has to travel through walls, it also becomes weaker. Some types of barriers – walls with metal in them, thick concrete or double brick, fish tanks, some tiles – can stop signals altogether. In these cases you’ll have to move the wireless access point to somewhere else. Ideally it should be as central to the home or office as possible.

If all else fails you can try a wireless repeater, which boosts wireless signals to ensure wider coverage.