For most technically-minded individuals, a trip to a local computer shop is a fairly routine exercise. For others, it may be a less frequent but still necessary journey to pick up those various technical devices we have come to depend on.
Personally, I always drop by the networking section of my local PC shop, just to see what’s on offer at the moment and what new devices have hit the shelves.
And then you see a box on the shelf, boasting “Extend your WiFi signal to those hard to reach spots!”.
So what is it? In short; it’s a WiFi Extender.
Extenders, also called ‘Range Repeaters’, are wireless devices which do exactly that. They connect to your existing Wi-Fi network (after some configuration), and then pump out a new Wi-Fi signal from their own on-board Wi-Fi radio to give a new fresh signal which will hopefully be broadcast somewhere that the previous signal would not reach.
It is the modern technological equivalent of asking a friend to keep an eye on the football results on the TV, and shout them through to you in another room. You can’t see the TV from where you are, but they can see both the TV and you to be that relay point.
Whilst repeaters do indeed give you a boost to an existing network, you need to consider if this type of boost is what you are actually after. In a previous blog, I covered the notion of concurrent users on a Wi-Fi network. As you may recall, the more users associated wirelessly to a router, the smaller portion of bandwidth ‘pie’ each user gets.
A repeater, connecting via WiFi, becomes one of those concurrent users (or ‘clients’). So, if you have 20Mb of actual bandwidth ‘pie’ on the main router, and have 10 connected WiFi clients, they’ll have approx. 2Mb each. If one of these is your new High Speed 150Mbps repeater, it will have a starting bandwidth of 2Mb to share with anybody that subsequently connects to that repeater.
Starting bandwidth, or backhaul, is your starting number on a repeater. If it starts low, it is only going to go in one direction – even lower!
It’s a solution fit for certain purposes. Home users with fewer WiFi client devices would find such performance acceptable. Likewise, if you are connecting your main wireless router to this repeater with no other devices connected directly to the main wireless router, you get better performance. Essentially, you create a larger bandwidth backhaul connection between the repeater and the router, and then can provide main access to wireless clients via the repeater positioned somewhere more central than the main router.
So you’ve read above, and now you have decided that perhaps a Repeater isn’t the best solution for you. What other option is there?
Repeaters Vs Access Points
In the same way that Repeaters are an auxiliary wireless base station for a given network, Access Points also provide this wireless connectivity that you want in that particular part of your network. However, instead of repeating signal, these take a direct feed (usually via 10/100mb Cat5e cabling) from the router straight into the back of the access point itself.
With the reliance on wireless backhaul removed from the equation, all data needing to go back and forth between the access point and the router will be via a network cable. Considering nowadays network cabling can push between 100mb and 1gb down the cable, this is a vast improvement on our suggestion of 2mb via repeater.
So, now you see where access points really make their own business case for getting results.
To provide this type of network, however, you need to provide a physical layer (the cabling).
In buildings with existing network ports and a comms cabinet, this isn’t as much of a problem – you simply connect the access point in a given area and then rewire the patch panel in your comms cabinet to terminate where you need it on whatever physical device is required.
However, in other instances, cabling like this is either not appropriate or simply not feasible.
All is not lost! You can utilise wireless bridges or powerline adaptors. Both of these I will cover in further detail in a later blog; just remember for now that irrespective of type, they are providing the physical layer for connectivity.
So there you have it. Wireless repeaters are useful where you want low-bandwidth solutions without the faff of wiring, and Access Points are useful where you don’t mind putting in some cabling to safeguard a better transfer rate on your network.