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How to boost the wireless ranges of laptops

Learn how to boost the wireless range of a laptop computer so that you can reach the access point of a service provider in this how-to by wireless networking expert Lisa Phifer.

I live and work in Iraq. There is a company who offers wireless service, but my laptop cannot pick up the access point. How can I boost the range of my laptop so I can use this service? Do I need a wireless router so I can connect a range booster antenna? My laptop uses 802.11 b/g and the company I want to use broadcasts their signal -- I'm just not in range.

To use an 802.11b/g wireless network, clients must be no more than about 300 feet from the nearest access point (AP). Maximum distance varies, depending on transmit power of the AP, receiver sensitivity of the client, and RF obstacles between those two devices (i.e., walls, windows and other radios). Furthermore, the greater the distance, the greater the packet loss. As distance increases, data rates drop until eventually the signal simply isn't strong enough to sustain useful communication.

You don't say how far you are from that company's wireless network. If you're on the outer fringe of the intended coverage area -- for example, you can almost always see that network's name in your list of Available Wireless Networks, but you can't sustain a connection -- consider using a more sensitive wireless card and/or attaching a higher-gain external antenna to your card. In these cases, you're hoping that just a little improvement in signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) will turn a marginally unusable connection into a slow-but-usable one. Not all PC cards can be connected to external antennas, and some 802.11 adapters are more sensitive than others. For example, see this RadioLabs High Power 300mw 802.11a/b/g Wireless Card and our Mobile 7 Magnetic Mount Antenna.

If you're more than a few hundred feet away, with multiple walls in between, then simply boosting your card's range may not be enough. Alternatively, consider installing a Wi-Fi range extender -- a wireless repeater designed to sit in between an AP and distant clients. A repeater essentially echoes whatever it hears -- this approach consumes twice as much "air time" but can be an inexpensive way to increase range when you don't have control over the AP and can't use a more sensitive wireless card. For examples, see the Linksys Wireless-G Range Expander or the Hawking Wireless 300N Range Extender.

Note that you don't want to buy a range booster antenna designed to replace the factory-installed rubber ducky antennas found on most APs. Because you don't own the AP, you cannot modify it. You need to find a client-side or mid-span solution that doesn't require any change to the AP.

This was last published in November 2008

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