May 27, 2010 | by Ed Clark
Here’s a neat little tip for some of you that highlights a lesser known Android app, includes a really cool do-it-yourself project, and hopefully solves some wireless signal strength issues for many people out there. There is nothing “new” here–in fact, these solutions have been around for quite a while. However, the problem was driving me nuts, and the solution worked so well that I thought it might be helpful to share.
I needed a cheap and easy way to strengthen a very weak wireless access point signal in certain parts of my house. I live in a very tall, very old house with lead paint and thick walls, and the cable guys installed my wireless access point in the basement, very far away from the desired client locations (2nd and 3rd floors).
What this meant in practice is that my wireless signal in my 3rd floor bedroom was painfully slow, and my DirecTV receiver took 8+ hours to download an HD movie. I had to order movies one day before watching them because of the download times. As you can imagine, this grew old for the family pretty fast.
I started out by crawling around and planning for a very labor intensive cabling project. After almost getting stuck in a crawlspace between the first and second floor, I went on one last desperate search for an easier solution.
THE SOLUTION (PART 1):
First, install the G-MoN app from the Market and measure the signal strength of the AP in the location you want to improve. Look at the numbers listed under the “RXL” column. The values should be negative, and a lower number is worse (e.g., -77 is worse than -65). If yours is as bad as mine used to be, you might see a -89 or even lower. At -90+, the connection will often drop out.
Next, adjust the antennas on your access point to “aim the doughnut.” (I apologize if this is remedial for some of you, it was news to me.) If you have a standard setup, the signal sent by your antennas is shaped like a giant doughnut surrounding each antenna. So if you want to reach higher floors (or lower floors), it’s best to lay your antenna flat–parallel to the ground. This allows the “doughnut” to extend in the right direction. Note that half of the doughnut is going down and half of it is going up when you lay your antenna flat. If you add a slight tilt, you can aim the doughnut a bit to the north, south, east, or west and help maximize the signal in desired locations.
Now go back to your problem area(s) with G-MoN and verify that your adjustments have changed the signal strength. Keep adjusting the antennas until you’ve got it maxed out. You may find it helpful to use one antenna to get one area and the second one (if you have it) to get somewhere else.
THE SOLUTION (PART 2):
Remember how the doughnut works? In my case, with the router in the basement, half of the signal was being wasted–i.e., half of the doughnut was simply sending wireless signals into the ground. Now what if you could “catch” the signals going the wrong way and bounce them upward (or downward, or sideways) where you really need them? Turns out you can, with a short do-it-yourself project.
First, make some Windsurfer wireless extenders and attach them to your access point’s antennas. What the heck is a Windsurfer? Check this link for details and short video. Weird and wacky as it may seem, it really works. Note that the template found at the bottom of the link above is the wrong one. The one for the Windsurfer is here.
After you have wrapped your new parabola with some shiny aluminum foil and attached it to your antenna, repeat the steps involving adjusting your antenna and checking the signal in Part 1 above. If you’ve done it correctly, you should see a significant increase in the strength of your wireless signal–and a corresponding boost in download speeds. In my case, the signal jumped from -90 to -72, and HD movies on the DirecTV box went from taking 8+ hours to just 2 hours! (Meaning “On Demand” started living up to its name, and my kids were awed by the power of card stock and tin foil.) If you decide to give this a shot, good luck, and let us all know how it worked for you.