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A Blonde and Her Wi-Fi Extender

I wanted an extender for my network. Especially during summer, the space covered by your home WiFi system expands to outdoor decks and yards, and we were annoyed by dead spots.

I picked one without giving it a lot of thought, and (shame on me) without doing my homework. My assumption was that I would simply add the extender to my existing WiFi network, and that would be that.

My suspicions were aroused when it arrived, a neat little thing that merely plugged into a wall outlet in the vicinity of a dead spot, and the instructions required me to create an account and log in. Why, I wondered?

Well, now I had to back up and find out what I was doing!

From CNET comes an explanation of what a WiFi extender is: “WiFi extenders are commonly used in homes where the router’s range can’t cover the whole house. They boost signals so that people can use their devices or connect internet-of-things (IoT) gadgets like security cameras and doorbells from far away. But like routers, they’re open to vulnerabilities and require maintenance and patching if you want to keep your network secure.”

By connecting to an app, there’s now an account, a password, and we all know what that can mean: hackers can get control of this account, and in that way, get control of the extender, which could then be used to direct traffic to malware. So, at least my Spidey Sense, blonde though it may be, had alerted me to a possible problem if I went ahead and plugged the device in and set up an account until I understood a little more about what I was doing!

Moreover, an extender itself can create a drop in throughput signal throughout your entire system.

It is true that many (most) extenders offer a simple “push-button” link to your existing router, and when hooking up, this is a much safer option.

Consumer Reports tells us: “…an extender relies on the same frequency band as the router itself. So now the data that originally would have come directly from the access point to your connected device is going through an intermediate step.

“That extra step (however) can reduce the speed of your WiFi signal by about half. So, for example, if you’re standing right next to your WiFi router (where the signal is strongest) and get 50 megabits per second (fast enough to stream two 4K Netflix videos at once), the speed in your extended network will be about 25 megabits per second. And that’s in an ideal world, where the WiFi signal from the router hasn’t been degraded by obstacles such as thick walls and large appliances.”

Another source explained that if your throughput is simply not sufficient, a “repeater” is doing the proverbial “more of the same: not enough.” Whatever signal you’re operating with, if your problem is that it’s insufficient (you have frequent outages, especially when a lot of devices are connected), a repeater isn’t going to solve the problem. If you have a dead spot, the repeater/extender may offer you coverage in a place that – if placed just right – can “fill in the blank.”

If your problem is a very large property needing a lot more coverage than usual, Eyenetworks says: “a mesh network with client steering (like an Eero), band steering and common SSID is a much better option, because the network then automatically makes sure that each device connects to the access point and frequency band that gives the best performance. The user should not need to think about which access point each connection goes to.”

This same source offers a three-step plan it suggests using before you choose an extender/repeater system:

  1. Use a “heatmapper” to identify your problem areas. How many do you have, and where are they?
  2. Make sure you have already taken any steps that might solve your problem with your existing equipment.
  3. Consider a mesh WiFi – and these systems can often be extended and upgraded without having to add a new brand/style of device into the mix. Mesh systems usually consist of a number of devices as it is, each within a certain range of one another. If you find you have “blank” spots, adding another device to your mesh system can solve your problem quickly and easily.

Well, now you (and I) know a little more about solving our home WiFi issues without risking our security, or our pocketbooks!

Nancy Roberts