Up for discussion in the Guardian tech newsletter: People spend thousands on TVs and laptops – but not £200 to supercharge their internet speed
When was the last time you thought about your wifi network? If you’re like most people, the answer is probably “the last time it broke”. Internet access, like electricity or clean water, is one of those modern conveniences that is so fundamental to daily life that, when it’s working as it should, it blends into the background of our lives.
Sign up to our weekly technology newsletter, TechScape.
But where our houses are wired up by a qualified electrician, and plumbed by a professional plumber, our approach to internet access is rather more scattershot. For the vast majority of Britons, we move into a new house, sign up for broadband with a big-name provider, typically one that sells a relabelled version of BT Openreach’s fibre packages, and then plug in the router they post us. Occasionally, someone signs up with Virgin Media instead. That’s about it.
What we call wifi is actually a bundle of standards, dating back to the late 1990s. Properly called 802.11, it’s perhaps one of the worst branding failures in the history of computing: a genuinely transformative piece of technology that allowed users to connect to other computers and the internet in a secure(ish), fast(ish) and easy(ish) way for the first time, burdened with a name that was not just opaque but actively hostile to comprehension.
The awful name was a warning that the early versions of 802.11 weren’t up to scratch. Plagued with interoperability issues, it was a standard only in the loosest sense: two people using 802.11 connections probably couldn’t speak to each other, but at least their two computers wouldn’t interfere with one another and stop both their connections from working entirely.
The wifi name arrived in 1999, alongside the first major revision of 802.11, called, helpfully, 802.11b. (Technically, 802.11a came first, but it shipped second, because this stuff is hard.) It is actually a trademark of a consortium called the Wi-Fi Alliance, a group made up of all your favourite gigantic technology companies, which ensures that products can only have the “wifi” label if they have been tested to work with all the other products with the same branding.
With that background, it’s easy to see why the main priority of the wifi brand has always been ensuring that people can trust that everything works. If you have a computer with wifi, and there is a wifi network, rule No 1 is that the two must be able to connect.
But the problem is that, in the 20 years since, wifi has changed a little bit. Successive improvements to the standard have rolled out, increasing the maximum speed, working out how to minimise the congestion in built-up areas, and improving connections when a bunch of devices are using the same network.
In their infinite wisdom, these new versions were dubbed 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n, 802.11ac and 802.11ax. “A mouthful” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
The end result is that many people, even technologically savvy folk, are kept in the dark about how their home networks actually work. Without looking it up, do you know which of these standards your home network supports? What about your phone, or your computer?
Even worse, backwards compatibility isn’t costless. A device running the 20-year-old 802.11b standard obviously cannot go faster than that, even if it connects to a network running 2019’s 802.11ax – but it can slow down the entire rest of the network in order to make the connections work. (In practice, a lot of networks end up with default settings that do simply kick off older devices, in order to ensure that one 20-year-old laptop cannot bring the whole system to its knees).
A couple of years ago, the Wi-Fi Alliance realised the problem it had got itself into, and finally did the obvious thing, rebranding 802.11ax as “Wi-Fi 6”, and in the process retroactively rebranding 802.11ac as Wi-Fi 5. The numbering is clear and obvious, finally communicating what should have been said from day one: your home wireless network will be better if you use devices that support the latest standard.
And this year, the latest version of wifi arrived on the scene. For the first time since wifi was created, it uses a new section of the radio spectrum, the 6GHz band, which lets it minimise interference with other networks and achieve unheard of speeds. And it is called … Wi-Fi 6E.
Sometimes, I despair.
The steady march of wifi standards is one reason to take a look at your home network. If you upgrade your hardware even moderately frequently, but haven’t touched your router since you moved into your house or signed up with your current internet service provider, there’s a good chance that the little box that sits under the stairs/in the hallway/next to the boiler is the bottleneck in your system.
But equally important is the fact that a wireless router is a miniature computer in its own right, processing millions of wireless packets a day, shuffling, sorting and prioritising the right ones while working hard to make sure that the overall network operates at speeds that are amenable for all use cases.
When you think about it, it is somewhat weird to spend a thousand pounds on a mobile phone, two thousand pounds on a laptop, and a grand and change on a smart TV, and then connect all those things to the internet through a computer you got free when you moved house six years ago. But that is what an awful lot of us do.
Myself included. And so, this autumn, I decided to rectify the situation. I picked up a pair of Wi-Fi 6 “mesh routers” from ASUS, which use some of the extra bandwidth provided by the latest version to extend the range of their connection between a base station and a node that sits on the edge. The pair costs less than £200 – the amount of money I saved by switching my planned phone upgrade down to the iPhone mini last year – and with them, I was able to retire the router BT had sent me when I arrived in this flat, as well as patch a signal blackspot in my garden that had frustrated attempts to work in the sun throughout this summer.
I don’t want to sell this as a panacea. No amount of router upgrades can fix a dodgy connection coming into your home, and if you have a fairly simple set of needs, then it’s likely that a fairly simple network will cover what you have.
But I was surprised by the improvement that change wrought. After months of friends and colleagues mocking me for being the technology editor of the Guardian yet somehow having a connection flaky enough to be the cause of all the problems on video calls, I’ve not experienced a single drop-out in the months since I made the switch.
My partner thinks it might be psychosomatic, but I can swear simple web browsing has got snappier too, with pages being less likely to hang for half a second before loading in.
Even better – and look, I know this doesn’t matter to everyone – sorting out the network meant I could finally use the various “remote play” features offered by platforms like PlayStation and Steam. Paired with a Backbone One controller, my phone now works like a mini Nintendo Switch, able to stream and play games on my PS5 and computer all around the house. With a small daughter whose care I am solely in charge of, but who also has a predilection for refusing to fall asleep unless she is being physically carried around the room, it has been a nice change of pace from simply scrolling through social media for hours of the day.
I don’t want you to read this as a plea for spending more money on shiny new technology. The tech press has quite enough of that already, and for the sake of the climate, of your wallet, and just of not pumping more cash into the pockets of the richest people in the world, we could all do with slowing down our drive to render perfectly decent technology obsolete.
Instead, next time you’re eyeing up a shiny new phone because your current one feels sluggish while you browse the web, or wondering if you need to double your monthly bill to BT to let your kids play games while you’re on a work call, remember that there really is One Weird Trick that you can do to give everything a new lease of life.
All Rights Reserved for Alex Hern