An Overview of Wireless Range Extenders and How They Work

by Aeyne Schriber on May 19, 2011 in Wireless Extension

Updated: 22 December, 2014

Improving a Wi-Fi signal often requires a series of troubleshooting steps. Using a wireless range extender is one of the strategies you can use to strengthen a wireless Internet connection.

Placing a wireless router in a carefully chosen location will provide you with wireless connectivity in the surrounding area that is within range of the router device. In most cases, this is enough to provide you with a high speed wireless connection. However, when distance and interference factors into the equation, how do you solve the problem of a weak or intermittent Internet connection?

Depending upon your situation, it may not be possible to setup a second wireless access point. Or, if you are renting a space or building, there may be a lot of hoops you must jump through in order to run additional wiring though the walls and ceilings. In the case of various scenarios like these, this is where a wireless range extender can be beneficial to improving a weak wireless signal.

Before you consider spending the money on a wireless range extender, make sure you go through the basic troubleshooting steps to test your Internet connection. The steps include:

  • Reset the router: Press the Reset button on your router or simply shut it down and then power it up again. Allow it to reconfigure itself and then open your web browser to test the connection.
  • Check the Cables: Check all of the cable and Ethernet connections to ensure there is no damage or loose connections.
  • Reset the Modem: Shut down the cable modem and then power it up again. Allow it to complete the reset process and then open your browser to test the connection.
  • Check for Obstructions: Make sure there are no metal objects around the router to obstruct the signal. Walls, appliances, and wireless devices such as a cordless phone, also play a major role in affecting the router signal.
  • Move the Router: Move the router to a central location that is free of any obstructions and where you have a direct line of sight to the device.
  • Replace the Router: If the router has quite a few miles on it, consider purchasing a new one that is designed to support newer technologies.

If common troubleshooting steps do not improve the wireless signal, you can extend the signal from the wireless router using a wireless range extender which is also commonly referred to as a wireless repeater or range expander. The wireless range extender should be the same brand as your router to ensure compatibility and to help you get the most out of the wireless signal. There are also other considerations which we will discuss in this article.

What is a Wireless Range Extender?

When you install a wireless router to establish a wireless access point, the signal that is transmitted to your PC or Wi-Fi enabled device is only capable of reaching a specific distance. If you are outside of that distance or there are obstructions such as walls, floors, and wireless devices, this makes the signal weak.

As a result, you will likely experience intermittent Internet access or an overall weak connection that performs slowly. When you add a wireless range extender or wireless repeater to the system, this device extends the range to areas of the building or your home which originally had no wireless signal. It also helps to improve the signal between the router and your device as well. The wireless range extender accomplishes this by acting as an intermediary between the router and your Wi-Fi enabled device.

How a Wireless Range Extender Works

All wireless devices utilize radio frequencies for data transmission, including your wireless router. When devices are configured to run on a wireless network, the router sends the signal to the device that is connected to the network. The device could be a PC, laptop, tablet, printer, or a mobile device.

The signal that is being transmitted has distance limitations. If your device is situated too far away from the router or vice versa, it will not pick up the wireless signal and you will be unable to connect to the Internet.

A wireless range extender is placed between your router or a public wireless access point and your PC or mobile device. The wireless range extender then picks up the signal from the router, magnifies it, and then transmits the signal to the wireless device. When the wireless range extender is placed between the router and the wireless device, it extends the distance of the signal without any need for additional wiring.

A wireless range extender establishes a wireless connection to the router, detects the signal, and then transmits it to your device. The extender works the best if you can at least detect a weak signal from the wireless access point instead of no signal at all.

How Effective is a Wireless Range Extender?

Most wireless routers are capable of transmitting a signals within a range of one hundred to 150 feet with some wireless router signals that can reach over 300 feet. The signal is weakened by walls, floors, appliances, other wireless devices, and the presence of wires around the router in general.

If you place the router in an optimal location that is free of obstructions, a wireless range extender can be quite effective in delivering a stronger Wi-Fi signal. In some cases, you may experience a longer response time with the device that is using the wireless range extender to connect to the network.

This may be an issue if you are using programs and applications that rely on a high speed Internet connection to function properly. In this case, the devices which use these applications may be required to connect to the network via an Ethernet cable, as opposed to a wireless connection.

In most instances, a wireless range extender is a very effective way to improve a Wi-Fi signal, as long as you are using the right equipment and it is setup and configured properly. Like other types of products and equipment, there are high quality wireless range extenders and others that are useless when it comes to solving the problem.

How to Choose a Wireless Range Extender

When you choose a wireless range extender, it must be the same brand as your wireless router and must match the 802.11 rating of the router. For example, if your router delivers 802.11n or 802.11g, the wireless range extender must coincide with this rating which determines the type of extender you must use.

Wireless range extenders are rated as 802.11 followed by a letter name next to the number which identifies the data transfer speed. For example, 802.11 that is followed by the letter “g” is typically slower than 802.11 with the letter “n.” The newest wireless standard is 802.11ac. Typically, routers that are enabled with 802.11ac are backwards compatible with other devices that run on the older standards of 802.11 b/g/n.

Many wireless range extenders are designed solely for extending the range of a Wi-Fi signal. For the most part, these devices are very useful. However, if you happen to move or purchase a new router, you may be stuck with a device that no longer serves your needs depending upon the device you chose to purchase.

Another option is to purchase a router that also has the capability to be configured as a wireless range extender. Most of the high quality routers on the market have this capability built-in. Other routers will accept third party firmware such as DD-WRT which is open source firmware that is compatible with a broad range of WLAN (Wireless Local Area Network) routers. This allows the router to act as a wireless range extender that helps to improve the quality of your wireless connection.

The following video explains how to install DD-WRT on a wireless router.

If you opt to purchase a wireless range extender, there are a variety of devices that range from around $25 to as high as $130. Some of the key brands include Netgear, Linksys, Hawking, Belkin, and others. Some of these devices are capable of extending the range of your wireless connection, in addition to acting as a standalone wireless access point.

If you are in the market for a wireless range extender, the Top Ten Reviews website is a great place to start. The website will provide you with an overview of the most widely used wireless range extenders on the market.

How to Setup a Wireless Range Extender

A wireless range extender is fairly easy to setup and use. Depending upon the type of device you choose, the setup and configuration may vary. If you are using a stationary wireless range extender as opposed to a mobile one, you can begin by plugging the extender into the wall socket with the other end of the cord plugged into the wireless range extender device. Then you will need two Ethernet cables to establish connectivity.

Connect one Ethernet cable to the Ethernet port on the wireless range extender and then use the other end to connect to the Ethernet port on the wireless router. Use the second Ethernet cable to plug one end into the port for the Local Area Network on the wireless range extender and then plug the other end into the device in which you wish to receive the extended signal.

Look up the IP address for the wireless range extender in the owner’s manual and then type the address into the URL address section of your browser window. Enter your login information that you obtained from the manual to open the configuration area and then follow the instructions on the screen and choose Save to save the changes. Disconnect both Ethernet cables and then place the wireless range extender between the device you want to use and the wireless router.

Combination Router/Wireless Range Extender

If you are setting up a router that is capable of functioning as a wireless range extender, the process for setup and configuration works similar to this:

When you first turn on the router, it typically asks you whether or not you would like to use the device as a conventional router or as a range extender. All you have to do is choose the option for the range extender and the device will display all networks that are within range of the router.

Select one of the networks from the list and then enter your password. Once your password is entered correctly, the router will create an additional wireless network with a new name such as Your SSID or other. The network will use the same password as the router and then you simply connect your device to the SSID for the range extender.

For those of you who are visual learners, here is a video that demonstrates how to set up a Netgear wireless range extender.

A Few Things to Consider

When you setup a wireless range extender, there are a few things you must take into consideration to ensure the connection is successful.

  • The wireless range extender must be positioned within range of both the wireless access point and your device.
  • The signal transmission must be the same between the extender and the source of the wireless signal.
  • If the wireless signal is encrypted, the range extender will require the encryption keys.
  • The signal is better if the wireless range extender uses the same software and chipsets as the main router.
  • The wireless range extender must have a static IP address to prevent the device from being identified as a client.

Also, it is important to mention that routers which use the 2.4GHz frequency band are subject to multiple interferences. This is because other electronic devices such as cordless phones, household appliances, and others use the same frequency band. For this reason, a 5GHz frequency band is used to reduce the interference.

In order to take advantage of the 5GHz frequency band, both the router and your device must be capable of supporting it. Most of the newer routers support both the 5GHz and 2.4GHz frequency bands. Additionally, some of the newer PCs and tablet devices have dual band Wi-Fi capability built into the device.

Conclusion

A wireless range extender that is well placed is a great way to extend the wireless signal to more rooms throughout your home or in the building where you work. This eliminates the expenses associated with running additional cables into your home or through the walls of a building.

Although a wireless range extender expands the total range of a wireless signal, it can be slightly inconvenient since the extender retransmits the wireless network under a new name. Once you are out of range, it is necessary to reconnect to the network with the new name.

The other option is to purchase a wireless range extender that functions as a wireless repeater which retransmits the wireless signal without changing the name of the network. This is often the pricier option but nevertheless, an option to be aware of when purchasing a wireless range extender.

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