It is very likely that you already use a network router to handle your home network. A network router gives you the ability to manage and configure both the wired and the wireless network on a local scale, usually for work or home. A wireless local area network (called WLAN) allows to link multiple devices and to a wider area network such as the internet.
Wireless network operate usually in two different bands or frequencies: 2.4GHz and 5 GHz. Most modern routers are able to use both bands and is commonly referred to as dualband network routers. These bands are divided further more into different channels, each denoted by a number.
You can view channels as a sub-division of the band. For example, the 2.4GHz spans a 100MHz space: from 2400MHz to 2500GHz. This is further divided into 14 different channels (each denoted by a number between 1 to 13) each spanning about 22 MHz in width. The distance between each of these channel frequencies is only about 5 MHz, meaning there is a lot of overlapping between the channels.
The 5GHz band attempts to solve some these issues of overlapping channels. It has a wider bandwidth and more number of channels. It also has the ability to bond together multiple channels to create a larger channel. There are about 23 or so non-overlapping channels in this spectrum. All in all, the 5GHz spectrum has about 25 channels again named by a number.
Why Choosing the Best Channel is Important
The best channel is very much dependent on your own network and the networks around you. The primary reason to choose the appropriate channel is to reduce interference from other routers, networks and devices around you. The Wi-Fi being nothing but radio waves, the more interference you have the weaker and unreliable the network or channel tends to be.
So, ideally you want to select a channel on your router that has the minimum amount of traffic and also the least interference. This tends to increase the overall speed and efficiency of the network signal.
The importance of channels 1, 6, 11 in 2.4Ghz spectrum
As we saw earlier, the 2.4GHz spectrum is pretty crowded and there is way too much interference in the channel space. In addition to the Wi-Fi network, other devices such as your telephone, bluetooth devices and other household appliances use the same spectrum.
The only set of channels that do not overlap and are thus mutually exclusive are the channels 1, 6 and 11. So, something on channel 1 will not interfere with another device on channel 6. It means that these are the ones that overlap with the minimum number of other channels.
This has caused many users to stick to one of these channels. Also, most people leave their routers at the default settings, which also tend to be one of these 3 channels. So, usually if you look at the signals in your neighborhood you tend to see a lot of networks using one of these three channels.
How to Find the Best Channel
The first strategy is trial and error. Try channel 1, 6 or 11 on your router each for a period of time to see which one performs the best for you. Once you have found one that you perceive works best you can then use that for a longer time period.
Also, keep in mind that network topography can change quite a lot. There might be new routers installed in the neighborhood or just people changing their channels …just as you are. So, a particular channel that worked well for a while might not perform just as well down the road. This will force you to change the channel again.
The other technique is to use a network analyzer to see what the interference is on different channels. There are several applications for desktop that you can install to analyze the networks that your device can “see”. There are also many apps for your smart phone as well. Almost any analyzer with a good reputation will do the job.
The simple rule of thumb is to see which channel has the least interference and pick that as your dedicated channel. You will just need to eye-ball it from the graph or the table that your analyzer displays. Some app will actually suggest the best channel for you.
Technically, both spectrum (2.4 and 5 GHz) need to be optimized for the best channel. But as 5 GHz is new and as not many people use it the congestion is almost non-existent on this spectrum. Moreover, there is much more free space and optimization in this spectrum.
How to Change Channels in the Router
Every router comes with its own web based interface that allows you to configure the settings. It is here that you will select the channel that you want to use. As you can imagine every router has a different interface, which makes it quite hard to provide a standard step by step instruction to do this.
I will give the steps for an Asus router (because that is what I use), but it should not be hard to “translate” the steps to your interface. Most of terms used by the interface should be similar.
- Log into your Router web interface
- Click on Advanced Settings -> Wireless
- Click on the drop down menu for Control Channel
- Select the channel that you want
- Click Apply or Save
How the Channel Auto Setting Work
Many (but not all) routers come with an auto settings for channel selection. The idea behind the auto settings is that the router will auto-magically choose a channel that works the best and use it. It is probably best settings if and when it is implemented correctly. Unfortunately there is no standard for this feature, so it is very much dependent on the logic that your router vendor has implemented.
The way these implementations work is almost all over the map, and your mileage will vary. It is always prudent to test out the auto settings of the router and see if it performs any better than choosing a specific channel. Depending on the router vendor, it might actually work out better in your case especially if your software allows for a truly dynamic allocation depending on the channel noise (or some variation of that algorithm).
It is quite possible that as more and more people upgrade their routers and other networking hardware, the congestion will reduce and will be a thing of the past. More people will be using the 5GHz spectrum which has a lot more more bandwidth and channels.