How do WiFi extenders work?

One of the ways to improve internet speeds in your home is to invest in a WiFi extender to buff your struggling WiFi router.

Having reliable at-home internet has, arguably, never been more as important as these past 18 months. Those WiFi black spots where signal is shoddy or unusable now likely loom larger than they used to, and one of the ways to try to fix that is by investing in a WiFi extender. Here’s the essential info you need to know on how WiFi extenders operate.

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What does WiFi stand for?

Some would have us believe that WiFi is short for “wireless fidelity”, but that’s actually not the case. As neat as that explanation is, the reality is WiFi is short for… well, nothing. It’s just a catchy marketing term.

NBN plan vs WiFi extender

Before we demystify the tech wizardry of WiFi extenders, it’s important to note upfront that a WiFi extender won’t be much use if your base internet speed is slow. This may be down to the need to troubleshoot NBN issues, or it may be as simple as picking an NBN plan that better meets your ’net speed needs.

NBN 50 is the most popular speed tier in Australia right now and with good reason: it’s a great mix of reasonable monthly pricing and a good balance of upload and download speeds. If you have an NBN 25 or NBN 12 plan, consider investing in an NBN 50 plan. For comparison, below is a daily updating list of popular NBN 50 plans with unlimited data.

Alternatively, if the prospect of 50Mbps download speeds isn’t fast enough, double the speed without doubling the price by opting for an NBN 100 plan. The list below showcases popular NBN 100 plans with unlimited data.

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Internet speed test

If you’re concerned that your internet isn’t hitting the download speeds advertised by your provider, it’s worth doing a speed test. For the most accurate results, run this test close to your NBN router or modem-router, ideally at a time when other devices in your home aren’t hogging finite internet bandwidth and try to avoid the busy evening period. If you want to take the test up a notch, use an Ethernet connection between modem or modem-router and a computer (again, while other devices aren’t using the internet). After the test, if your download speeds are below what you expect, reach out to your provider for assistance.

How WiFi extenders work

As the name implies, a WiFi extender is a bit of networking gear that’s designed to extend an existing wireless network. This means a WiFi extender is a fancy paperweight without a WiFi router or WiFi modem-router to connect to. Assuming you have an existing WiFi network—ideally, with the router or modem-router in a central position—the first key step with a WiFi extender is placement.

If you’re in a larger home or an abode with signal-dampening hurdles (thick walls, cordless phones, microwaves, other wireless devices, mirrors and your neighbours’ WiFi networks), you may be tempted to place a WiFi extender at the edge of your WiFi network’s reach. Resist this urge. WiFi extenders are only capable of boosting the signal at the strength they receive it. Translation: if you place a WiFi extender at the very edge of your WiFi network, where one-bar speeds are slowest, all your extender can do is repeat those slow speeds.

Your best bet is to find a happy medium between distance from the router and an acceptable speed that you’d like to be more accessible in slower parts of the home. In general, work in or out from halfway between your router and where you want the signal boosted.

Remember, WiFi networks aren’t flat areas of signal, meaning WiFi extenders can also be used to boost a signal above or below where your router or modem-router is placed. Just bear in mind that thick floors, walls or ceilings (and other forms of interference) can neuter a WiFi extender that’s placed on the other side of these interfering things.

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WiFi extender vs booster vs repeater

While potentially frustrating, the good news is you don’t need to know the ins and outs of three bits of tech here. A WiFi extender is the same as a WiFi booster is identical to a WiFi repeater; they’re just different terms for the same thing.

Potential downsides for WiFi extenders

We’ve mentioned two of the biggest issues with WiFi extenders above—placement and interference—but there are other traps to avoid if you want to get the most out of a WiFi extender. These networking devices are designed to be plug-and-play for the most part, which is great, but certain models also create multiple WiFi networks. The more extenders you add, the more WiFi networks you may have to wrangle.

This means you may have to configure all of your wireless devices to connect to both main WiFi network and WiFi extender network. You’re at the mercy of the device automatically switching between the two networks, which may be at a weak-signal point of one network. Compared to a farther-reaching WiFi router, a WiFi extender is also another device that needs to be powered on; the more devices you add, the more devices need to be powered on for consistent and seamless internet signal throughout your home.

Ultimately, a WiFi network is only as strong as its weakest link, which applies to the router or modem-router as much as it does to an extender or an ageing wireless device. If any one of these points in your network aren’t up to snuff, expect WiFi to feel slower.

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WiFi vs WiFi: 2.4GHz and 5GHz

It’s worth checking to see whether your existing WiFi router or modem-router supports older 2.4GHz and newer 5GHz transmission band technologies. Most newer models should support both bands, but you may need to configure separate network names and passwords to use them. A 2.4GHz WiFi signal may be slower than 5GHz but it’s farther-reaching. When buying a WiFi extender, it’s not essential to have both bands covered but if you want faster wireless speeds, you’ll want a WiFi extender that supports the 5GHz band.

WiFi extender alternatives

If you’ve got an ageing WiFi router or modem-router, or perhaps a basic one sent out by your provider, it’s worth considering an upgrade. Recent WiFi routers and modem-routers support multiple bands, while pricier gamer-centric options like the Netgear Nighthawk XR1000 offer a range boost over the basic dual-antenna WiFi router.

The other main alternative is to consider a mesh WiFi system. These are effectively the speedier, farther-reaching younger siblings to the WiFi extender and they’re better in every way except they tend to cost more. For pros, mesh WiFi systems prioritise both form and function, so they tend to have more discrete designs than WiFi extenders. They also use a single WiFi network throughout the home, no matter how many extender satellites you add, and some models have future-focused perks like WiFi 6. Best of all, mesh WiFi systems are usually incredibly easy to configure.

Check out our recommendations for the best mesh WiFi systems here.

Fancy a WiFi extender?

If you don’t want to upgrade your WiFi router or modem-router and switching to a mesh WiFi system isn’t your jam, you can take a look at our pick of the best WiFi extenders. At the time of writing, we recommend the TP-Link RE200 V3 AC750 as the best pick for most. Alternatively, you can go all out on the Nighthawk X4 AC2200 or spend a whole lot less on the budget-friendly TP-Link TL-WA850RE.