In my day job, I'm a computer network analyst/consultant. My firm provides tech support to small businesses.

One of the problems that I'm seeing is wireless network saturation. Lately, several customers have called because their network is soooooo slow. In almost all these cases, they are on a wireless network -- and it should be fast enough to support what they are doing. The signal strength is good, and the wifi utility reports a decent connection speed.

What I typically find is that the wireless airspace is saturated. Using a utility on my laptop, I scan for nearby access points. There is often a multitude of wireless networks, and they are concentrated on channels 1, 6, and 11, which are the default channels that most wireless access points use. Forcing the customer's access point to a less-crowded channel (like 3 or 8) often improves their network speed. In some cases, we will switch them to a 5-GHz network, which for now lies in uncrowded airspace.

One thing that would really help the situation is if everyone using wifi would reduce the power level of their routers to the minimum level needed.

This highlights the major problem with wifi: saturation. The FCC has only allocated so much bandwidth (frequency range) for unlicensed usage -- typically the "2.4 GHz" and "5 GHz" bands -- and these are used by all sorts of wireless devices like cordless phones, walkie-talkies, and wireless mice. This all adds to noise that degrades wifi signals.

To compound matters, a wireless network operates much like the old "hubs" in previous generations of wired networks. When one computer is talking on the network, everyone else has to listen. If your wireless network is capable of 54Mbps, that has to be shared among ALL the computers on the wireless network. This isn't a problem on a wired network connected with a switch.

One bit of advice floating around is that it doesn't make sense to install a wired network because "pretty soon everything will be wireless." If this indeed is the case, it will require an expansion by the FCC of the radio spectrum allocated for unlicensed use. Otherwise, we'll just end up with the saturation problem I mentioned earlier. Right now, it's bad advice.

I strongly recommend that wired networks be installed wherever a network is needed, unless cost or mobility demand a wireless network. Wired networks are considerably more reliable, and if you use CAT5e or CAT6 cabling, will support much faster speeds than wireless, ESPECIALLY if there are multiple devices actively sharing the network.

I have seen many new homes constructed in recent years that have cable TV and phone jacks in every room, but not a single CAT6 network line. This is inexcusable. Since just about everything in the future will be networkable, and it looks like the wireless saturation issue isn't going to be solved anytime soon, it just makes good sense to install a wired network.

When I built my house in 2003, I even put a network jack behind the fridge. Don't laugh -- there already ARE networkable refrigerators available.


(As I write this, I'm using my laptop in the recliner connected to my wireless network... but all my stationary network devices are hardwired. )