Samantha Albano

WiFi channels explained

You're trying to stream that new episode of your favorite show from your smart device, and it's taking what feels like years to load— Don't worry, we've all been there. WiFi connection and performance issues aren't an unfamiliar occurrence, especially in today's world where the U.S. adult spends an average of 72 minutes per day streaming video from their connected devices. So what's causing your slow WiFi connection, and, more importantly, making you miss seeing your favorite show? It could be the WiFi channel your router is using.


Frequency bands, WiFi channels, and your WiFi performance

Our routers use one of the two WiFi frequency bands for signal: 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz. Some routers are dual-band routers, so you can choose which frequency band to use for your wireless network (Check out this article by LifeWire on the pros and cons of each). The main difference between these two frequency bands are the range and bandwidth that they provide. If you're looking for more WiFi coverage, you want to be using the 2.4 GHz band; if you're looking for faster speeds, you want to be using the 5 GHz band.

Within these WiFi frequency bands, we have smaller bands which are referred to as WiFi channels. A WiFi channel is the medium through which our wireless networks can send and receive data. For routers made in the U.S., the 2.4 GHz band has 11 channels and the 5 GHz band has 45 channels.

Why should I care what WiFi channel I'm on?

MetaGeek has a great explanation as to why we should avoid using certain channels, which I'll summarize below:

The reason that certain channels aren't the best choice to use is because they have interference. There are a couple different ways this interference is caused: Co-Channel interference results when there are numerous devices all competing for time to talk on the same channel. Adjacent-Channel interference occurs when devices from overlapping channels are trying to talk over each other.

Channels that have interference from other devices are considered to be 'crowded'. The time it takes to transmit data is increased and you are left waiting for your Internet request to be made. The channels with the most interference are those that overlap with each other. 

To further explain channel overlapping, let's look at the 2.4 GHz band, where each channel is allotted 20 MHz and separated by 5 MHz. Considering the 2.4 GHz band is only 100 MHz wide, the 11 channels of 20 MHz overlap with one another. This is what causes the interference on your network and and a lag in your WiFi's performance.

Certain channels yield better WiFi performance than others because they are non-overlapping. Yes, there are some channels in the 2.4 GHz spectrum that don't overlap with the other channels. These are the channels you ought to look for, especially if experiencing WiFi problems: Channels 1, 6, and 11.

(There are also 24 non-overlapping channels in the 5 GHz band spectrum.)

How are WiFi channels typically chosen?

Many routers are set up to automatically choose what WiFi channel to use; and they may not choose 1, 6, or 11. The WiFi channel your router chooses actually depends on  the hardware itself.  For example, at Minim, we've observed that the TP-Link Archer C2 router is more likely to pick an overlapping channel than the TP-Link Archer C7 router:

Auto-Selected WiFi Channels

This doesn't mean a router that continually chooses crowded WiFi channels is a bad router; it just means that if you're using such a router and experiencing WiFi problems, the WiFi channel is likely to be the culprit. Another interesting fact: Whenever your router reboots, the WiFi channel it is using changes. This means you could easily go from having a great WiFi experience to a not-so-great WiFi experience in a matter of minutes.

Therefore, we think it's so important to have an automated process that monitors the WiFi channel with the state of the router's wireless environment; and we're actively working on a way to make this happen.

How do I change the WiFi channel I'm using?

To change what WiFi channel you are currently using, log in to your router's settings by typing its IP address (can be found on your router) into the address bar on your browser. Use the username and password you designated when creating your WiFi network. (If you are still using the router's factory set username and password, we suggest changing to something more unique and secure!) From here, you can go to your router's wireless settings to change the WiFi channel it is using.

Finally, we should note that  Minim users can see their connected devices' signal strength and bandwidth usage over time, and change their assigned WiFi frequencies with ease.  Our platform automates channel setting improvements, but we also expose these channel settings to ISP customers for efficient remote support.

More WiFi 101 topics you may like:

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