Tuesday 27 June, 2006, 08:13 - Radio RandomnessLooking back at the analysis of WiFi antenna performance I conducted recently, it struck me that to maximise the performance of a Wireless LAN there are two factors at play. One is the strength of the signal, clearly enhanced by the higher gain antenna. The other is the amount of background noise. It is not for nothing that the quality of the link from the wireless access point to the computers is measured in terms of 'signal to noise'.
Wireless LANs (at least variants 802.11b and 802.11g) operate in the frequency range 2400 - 2483.5 MHz (this extends to 2495 MHz in Japan only, and not all of the band is available in all countries, noteably France which does not have access to frequencies below 2450 MHz), known as the 2.4 GHz band. This band is not exclusively set aside for use by WiFi equipment, but is in fact shared with many different users. The transmitters of each of these users will increase the overall background noise in the band and if strong enough, will cause direct interference.
The 2.4 GHz band is classified as an 'Industrial, Scientific and Medical' or ISM band, meaning that it can be used by a range of non-communicating radio transmitters such as microwave ovens, industrial paint and biscuit drying machines and medical thermal heating devices. These ISM devices typically use very high powered transmitters (900 Watts plus even for a domestic microwave oven) and thus have the potential to cause enormous amounts of interference in their immediate proximity. However the band is also shared with a number of other users including the military, aeronautical radars, wireless video cameras (both professional and domestic), radio amateurs and a whole plethora of low-powered devices in particular Bluetooth. And, of course, other WiFi systems.
If we want to maximise the range of our Wireless LAN installation, it is therefore important to try and select a frequency (channel) which contains the lowest possible number of other users and thus is likely to have the lowest possible amount of interference or noise present.
Wireless LANs, based on the 802.11b/g standard offer us the option of 13 different channels depending on which country we're in (14 in Japan). However these channels are not independent of each other, they overlap very significantly. The 13 European channels have centre frequencies from 2412 to 2472 MHz inclusive, spaced at 5 MHz intervals. However the bandwidth occupied by a transmitter is 22 MHz. This means that transmissions on channel 1 actually extend from 2401 to 2423 MHz. This overlaps with transmissions on channels 2, 3, 4 and 5, meaning the next 'clear' channel is number 6. Thus if our neighbour is using channel 1, we should only use channels from 6 upwards if we are to avoid direct interference. Likewise channel 6 overlaps with all channels from 2 to 10! Thus if we are to avoid interference we can only really use 3 channels, either 1, 6 and 11, or if we have the option, 1, 7 and 13 which will give a bit more separation and hence lower interference. The diagram below attempts to illustrate the situation.
But is there any reason to select any of these channels over another? Which ones might have the lowest inherent level of interference and noise from the other sources in the band? Well of the other users, Bluetooth uses the whole band, so there's no particularly better place to go to be to be protected from this. The military and radio amateurs typically use frequencies from 2400 to 2450 MHz, affecting channels 1 to 10 inclusive, however activity is rare. Certain short-range applications (in particular equipment for the detection of movement as well as high power 'RFID' tags) use 2445 - 2455 MHz affecting channels 6 to 11 inclusive (though the effect is most profound on channels 7 to 10). Emissions from microwave ovens (and most other ISM equipment) centre around 2450 MHz, and as such would also affect channels 6 to 11. So from this simple analysis, it would seem like channels 12 and 13 are the most likely to be clearest of interference.
However, by far the most likely source of interference is... other Wireless LAN users. So which channels are most commonly used by other WiFi bods? On a recent train journey from Manchester to London, I let my laptop and trusty 'Netstumbler' software scan the band for LANs, to see which channel was most commonly in use. The results are shown below:
The most commonly used channel was 11 - given the earlier analysis about the channels least likely to be interfered with, it is perhaps not surprising that this is the default channel on which most equipment operates when initially purchased. Equally, it seems that most people give no further thought to the channel number and leave it on 11. Channels 1 and 6 were also relatively well used - again not surprising given that 1, 6 and 11 are the most common interference free line-up.
So, after all this, which channel is most likely to present the lowest overall noise and interference? If there are unlikely to be any other WiFi users in the neighbourhood, I'd choose channel 12 or 13. If there is likely to be lots of other WiFi use nearby, channel 1 is the best bet.