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Solve Your Media Server Or Wireless Router Interference Problem

Learn what can you do to avoid or minimize interference with your wireless router or media server.

Radio frequency air waves are pretty much a free for all. Nobody can physically control who can be using the frequencies at any one time. To help avoid wireless network interference, electronic gear sharing those radio frequencies (RF) have to cooperate with each other so they can actually communicate. Thats where the 802.11 wireless standard comes in.

In a nutshell, an 802.11 wireless device (like a wireless router, media server, or other wireless network devices) has to "listen" to see if anyone else is sending information over the airwaves. If someone else is already "talking", then the wireless router will have to wait until the other guy is done. Once the line is clear, the router can start sending out what it wants to send.

Interference happens when other sources of RF are using the same frequencies as the wireless router. If those RF emissions are strong enough, they may look like bogus 802.11 traffic. This will cause the media server to wait indefinitely while the other guy is done. If a wireless device was already sending data on the network, and the RF signal of another device started interfering, the sending device may continue to resend its message until it gets an acknowledgement ("Yep, I got the message. Thanks") from the destination (like a media server). This adds more unnecessary wireless network traffic and makes the situation worse.

So what can cause RF interference?

The frequencies used by 802.11 are open to the public for use in many different devices. The common consumer wireless LAN frequencies fall around 2.4 GHz. Unfortunately, these are also the same frequencies used by newer cordless phones, Bluetooth devices, microwave ovens, and other wireless gear. The big culprits these days are 2.4GHz cordless phones everybody seems to be buying.

Now some people have better luck than others (I never see any problem at my place) but talking on the phone while downloading a file over from your wireless router can cause a severe performance drop in your transfer rate. Cooking up some microwave popcorn within several feet of a wireless gadget will absolutely kill the network performance of that particular device.

How can I avoid it?

  • Try using a different 802.11 channel. The 802.11b and g specifications define 11 channels for North America. Other countries have defined slightly more channels for public use. The 802.11b frequency ranges only about 30 MHz and each channel covers 5 MHz of that range, so there's a lot of overlap between adjacent channels that many people weren't aware of. This leaves you with only channels 1, 6, and 11 that are completely isolated from each other. If you have multiple routers or access points, set each of them to one of these channels.
  • Reconfigure your network layout. You probably can't move the microwave from the kitchen, so try and move your wireless router to a different spot in the house. Lower bandwidth while the microwave is operating is better than no bandwidth at all, even for the short duration it takes to heat up some gravy. Consider adding 2nd wireless access point or router to spread the LAN coverage around a bit.
  • Use gear that supports 802.11a. The 802.11a specification has an advantage over standard 802.11b/g because it uses a new trick to handle whats called "multi-path propogation" or MPP. MPP is what happens when radio frequencies bounce off things like metal furniture or other structural elements in your house. This looks a lot like an echo and can confuse standard 802.11b/g network devices. The 802.11a spec is better able to handle this type of problem and also features 8 non-overlapping channels allowing more devices to interact on the network without degrading overall performance.

What else?

In terms of home theater, the most likely wireless device you'll be using is a media server. And you likely won't be able to move it around too much because its physically tethered to your TV or A/V receiver. This limits your wireless bandwidth options if you're encountering interference. In this case, you'll have to try removing the cause of the interference itself. Your media server may also feature an external antenna that would let you movie it instead of the server itself.

If you just can't get enough wireless bandwidth to stream your music and video, then your only other alternative is to use the media server's Ethernet jack to connect to the rest of your network. You'll get a dedicated and reliable network connection up to 100 Mbs that'll be more than enough for your needs.

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