Working with Mac OS

How to use your Mac to improve your Wi-Fi coverage

If your house is like ours, you probably added Wi-Fi base stations in 2020. We went from four to six to improve coverage at home and cover areas that we did not know existed until children and adults tried to participate in a class or meeting Zoom or Teams. And we have a small house.

It may sometimes appear that you are dowsing when walking around with an iPhone or MacBook to find Wi-Fi. Luckily, there are better ways to do it, but they are not visible to the naked eye. A Mac laptop will give you the best information.

(You can install apps to measure the strength of the Wi-Fi signal on an iPhone, but they are usually not as useful as the ones hidden in macOS.)

Press the ‘Alt’ key and click on the ‘Wi-Fi’ menu in your menu bar. If you don’t see the Wi-Fi icon, in macOS 10.15 Catalina you will have to click on the ‘Control Center’ and then click on the ‘Wi-Fi’ section by pressing the ‘Alt’ key.

(If you want, you can configure this menu to appear in the ‘Network’ preferences panel with your Wi-Fi adapter selected in the list on the left. Check or uncheck the ‘Show Wi-Fi status in the bar menu on the Mac ‘.)

The results may seem like a lot to you, but we are only interested in some of the elements to understand the performance problems. Below I suggest how to improve your network.

You can move around the house in areas with potentially lower speeds or less coverage with the menu open (having pressed the ‘Alt’ key) and see if what is displayed changes to check that it is not an anomaly.

Tx rate and PHY mode

Almost at the end of that information, the Tx rate indicates the approximate data rate of the connection you have in the base station where your Mac is connected, as well as the protocol to which it is “negotiated”, listed as the PHY mode. .

(PHY is the physical layer where data is transferred from one side to the other, either via cable or wirelessly.)

Apple still does not use the new name for Wi-Fi, adopted a few years ago and which replaces the 802.11 standard system with a simpler name. The Wi-Fi Alliance certifies Wi-Fi devices and its simplified version is Wi-Fi 4 for 802.11n, Wi-Fi 5 for 802.11ac and Wi-Fi 6 for 802.11ax.

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You’ll find 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) on almost all Apple devices in recent years and the fastest and most efficient 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) on all the newer ones: iPhone 11 and 12, 4th generation iPad Pro and later and all Macs with M1.

Wi-Fi embraces the fastest rate at which both your Mac and the base station can match the most efficient version of Wi-Fi they are compatible with.

For example, in the MacBook Air with M1 specifications, Apple notes that it supports “802.11ax (6th gen.) Wi-Fi wireless connection”, but is actually “compatible with 802.11a / b / g / n standards. / ac of the IEEE “.

Your base stations may only support Wi-Fi 5 (as is my case), fast enough for home environments where you will need to use many video conferencing apps and video services. streaming like Netflix.

Above, we have included a screenshot showing my iMac connected at 1.3 Gbps to a nearby base station. With quite a few base stations at home, it should function as if you had an Ethernet between 100 Mbps and 1 Gbps, which means that you are probably more limited by your Internet connection than by the speeds of your local network.

However, if you see numbers like 54 Mbps to 433 Mbps or standards next to the PHY mode of 802.11a, 802.11g, or 802.11n, your place needs an upgrade. If the connection is null, you will need to install another base station.

Channel

You can also take a look in the ‘Channel’ section for more information. In wireless communications, the term “channel” refers to a range of radio frequencies with a start and end point that your base station uses to communicate with devices.

The “width” of a channel determines, in part, how much data can be sent. Performance is degraded by interference from other Wi-Fi devices as the base station and connected devices try to “make themselves heard” in the face of so much noise.

Wi-Fi can be transferred and received on both the 2.4 GHz band (which has 11 overlapping channels) and the 5 GHz band (which has dozens). Most of the products sold by Apple, other computer and mobile manufacturers, and base station manufacturers include both bands.

A device, such as a Mac or an iPhone, chooses the strongest signal from one band or the other automatically. A base station has two or more systems and transmits both bands simultaneously. Some routers very powerful have been designed to have one 2.4 GHz band and two 5 GHz bands.

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The 2.4 GHz band is cluttered for other purposes and many older Wi-Fi devices and has its limitations such as signal transmission power. The overlapping channels also mean that the base stations can “talk” overhead, reducing their power.

The 5 GHz band is mainly used for Wi-Fi and its channels have been cleaned up so they don’t overlap. As a result, Wi-Fi networks can use more frequencies, which means faster speeds.

Wi-Fi standards 4, 5 and 6 allow for dynamic channel widths: if there is enough “silence” around a channel, the base station will open and use a wider channel, improving its performance.

In the ‘Channel’ section of the Wi-Fi menu, macOS displays a channel number (such as 36 or 155) that you can ignore. This number used to be useful because you could adjust your base station by selecting specific channels.

However, for years, base stations automatically select the best channels in each band for clearer transmission, and can even switch to another without having to intervene.

In parentheses, you will also see something like “(5 GHz, 80 MHz)”. The “5 GHz” is good because it means that your Mac is connected to the faster band. The “80 MHz” means that it uses four times the minimum bandwidth of the channel, which is 20 MHz. That is why the connection shows a speed of 1,300 Mbps.

The downside of 5 GHz is that, being a high frequency band, the signal travels shorter distances at the same power as 2.4 GHz. So your Mac may not be able to connect to the 5 GHz band your base station but 2.4 GHz.

A 2.4 GHz connection means lower performance. If you consistently see 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz accompanied by 20 MHz or 40 MHz, rest assured it could be much better.

BSSID

Wi-Fi networks are automatically organized by name. Each base station with the same network name, encryption method, and password is displayed as a single entity on macOS, iOS, iPadOS, Android, and Windows, as well as on game consoles and other devices.

By doing so, that allows the devices to roam around them. Your Mac or iPhone switches the connection from one base station to another when it thinks it can find a stronger signal there.

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The only way to distinguish base stations with the same name is with the BSSID (Basic Service Set Identifier) ​​code. This number looks like an Ethernet or Wi-Fi MAC (Media Access Layer) address: a unique number assigned to an adapter or interface during manufacture that allows it to be identified.

(Without a unique address, the devices would not be able to redirect data to or from them over a network.)

Improve Wi-Fi coverage with macOS

It’s worth knowing your BSSID address in this case because it lets you know which base station your Mac is connected to. As I said before, I now have six base stations at home.

One of them is a necessary device from our Internet provider, but we do not use their Wi-Fi; the other five make up a network. We had two Ethernet-connected inputs in our home prior to the pandemic, and we added two wireless amplifiers in 2020.

When trying to troubleshoot a problem, this BSSID comes in handy. In 2020, we changed the entire TP-LINK team, which has an app called Tether to manage everything. In your device list, I can see the BSSIDs of the five base stations that I use.

Because it is important? Sometimes while in the kitchen I have experienced extremely poor Wi-Fi performance. (Sometimes I like to read the newspaper from my mobile on the counter!)

When checking the BSSID, I see that my iPhone is connected to a relatively distant base station, and not the one that is closer. The reason is that sometimes the wireless amplifier loses its connection with the plugged-in base station, and sometimes it is that Apple operating systems do not always stop using a poor connection to find a better one.

Turning Wi-Fi off and back on often fixes the problem.

Improve weak points

Options to improve your Wi-Fi network:

  • Add a wireless amplifier: These devices are open, connect to any base station plugged into your network, and often offer excellent performance.
  • Add a wired base station: If you have a well-formed corded structure, it will cost less money to add a corded base station to improve coverage and performance.
  • Go to the Mesh network: Mesh network systems are designed to connect wirelessly with each other and give you feedback when you place the different base stations. You will get excellent performance and coverage, but they are a bit more expensive than traditional Wi-Fi.

Original article published in Macworld US.

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