Wi-Fi Routers at Work in the Home Office

By Jim Geier | Posted April 14, 2004

In my previous tutorial, Home Office WLAN Installation Tips, I discussed how to setup a home wireless local area network. Let's take a closer look at the range and performance that you can expect from a single access point in a home office or even a small office environment.

For this testing, I setup a typical home variety dual-band WLAN (define) router in the center of the first floor of a 2,700 square feet two story house with a finished basement. The router implements 802.11a and 802.11g, and channels were set to 6 and 52, respectively. Transmit power was set to maximum for both. Standard omni-directional antennas and default router configurations were in use. In order to measure signal strength, noise level, SNR (define), packet retries, data rate, and throughput, I made use of Airmagnet Trio.

In order to achieve best results, I made sure that radio frequency RF interference was kept to a minimum. There were no microwave ovens or cordless phones in use, and Airmagnet indicated no other access points in the area.

Wi-Fi Router Best Case ResultsBest Case Results
I first took measurements within a couple feet of the router. This of course is where the signals levels are highest, where you'll get optimum performance.

Even though both 802.11a and 802.11g were operating at 48Mbps at this point, the throughput of 802.11a was higher at 2478 packets-per-second (pps). The reason for this is that the noise level (-86dBm) in the 2.4GHz band (802.11g) was considerably higher, which resulted in lower signal to noise ratio (SNR) and corresponding higher packet retries. 3 percent of the 802.11g packets sent had to be retransmitted.

Wi-Fi Router Worst Case ResultsWorst Case Results
I took many other measurements from different places around the home, such as in the far reaches of the basement and within bedrooms upstairs. The following shows the poorest readings that were found, which was in the corner of the master bedroom on the second floor.

The signal strengths for both 802.11a and 802.11g are plenty high enough to maintain continuous associations. The data rate of 802.11a, however, shifted down to 36Mbps due to relatively low signal strength. The lower noise level in the 5GHz band, though, kept 802.11a packet retries very low (0 percent) as compared to the higher retry value (8 percent) found with 802.11g. This led to 802.11a having higher throughput at 1877pps, despite the fact that the 802.11a data rate had downshifted to a lower rate than 802.11g.

What Does All This Mean?
The most significant conclusion that I draw from this testing is that a single 802.11a or 802.11g router is enough to provide good performance throughout an entire home. This assumes, however, that you can install the router in a central location.

The router may need to be next to a wall on one side of the house, nevertheless, if that's where you connect to the broadband service. This could make signal levels on adjacent corners of the house too weak for some applications. The presence of RF interference from operating microwave ovens and cordless phones will also causes packet retries to increase, which lowers throughput.

Something else that these results indicate is that 802.11a offers higher throughput in all parts of the home. At best, throughput of 802.11a was 16 percent better, which slightly increases file transfer speed. Keep in mind, through, that 802.11a will not experience the dramatic drop in throughput that 802.11g does when RF interference is present.

Which one is best for Homes?
802.11g makes most sense for use in homes. This standard supports laptops with 802.11b radio cards, and 802.11g wireless clients will have good performance and be able to interoperate with the prevalent 802.11b/g wireless networks found in enterprises and public hotspots. If you're a heavy user of 2.4GHz cordless phones, though, strongly consider using 802.11a.

Jim Geier provides independent consulting services to companies developing and deploying wireless network solutions. He is the author of the book, WLANs and offers training focusing on wireless LANs.

Adapted from Wi-Fi Planet.com.

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