When dial-up internet was the only online connectivity on offer, it seemed revolutionary.
Then came broadband, with the promise of whole-home coverage from a discreet black box situated beside your master phone socket. And it too promised a revolution in connectivity.
However, expectations don’t always match up to reality.
For years, broadband routers have struggled to provide access to every corner of our homes.
They are thwarted by solid walls, metal pipes and reflective surfaces, while having to battle interference from other devices using the congested 2.4GHz frequency.
Sheer distance can be another obstacle, with attic rooms and gardens often beyond the limited scope of a router.
It doesn’t help that the broadband routers supplied by ISPs tend to be cheaply made with limited specifications, even lacking external aerials.
The results include sluggish connection speeds, frequent dropouts, and mobile devices falling back onto 4G connections before stealthily munching through monthly data allowances.
You may even see error messages being reported by software interfaces if available connection speeds are insufficient.
Fortunately, there is a solution. And it comes in the form of broadband boosters.
In need of a boost
As their name suggests, broadband boosters help to extend the range and strength of WiFi signals around the home.
Some ISPs offer them for customers in large or awkwardly-shaped homes, or those properties where the master phone socket is inconveniently situated in a corner of the building.
Third-party router manufacturers including Asus, Belkin and Netgear also produce boosters.
(Unless you’re a Virgin Media customer, you don’t have to use your ISP’s hardware. Any router will distribute data around the home, even if it doesn’t have your provider’s logo on it.)
There are two main types of booster. Simple WiFi repeaters echo signals around the home, though they experience a gradual drop-off in performance every time the signal is amplified.
More sophisticated mesh setups establish a dedicated network. As well as being more powerful, it’s usually possible to turn individual elements of a mesh network on and off.
This can be useful if you want to restrict internet access at particular times, with some networks controllable via a smartphone app.
Game, setup and match
You don’t need an IT degree or a lifetime’s gaming experience to navigate the process of pairing broadband boosters with your home hub.
While the exact setup varies by manufacturer, the general principles are the same.
If your wireless router has a WPS button, this enables it to advertise its presence to other wireless devices, rather like pairing two Bluetooth-enabled pieces of hardware.
If your router and boosters both offer WPS (which most modern systems will), simply press the relevant buttons and wait a couple of minutes for the connection to complete.
Manual connection tends to involve pairing each booster with a computer or smartphone, before entering your WiFi username and password to connect it with the network.
Some boosters are part of a complete package, with a primary router bundled in.
It’s important to recognise that boosters only work if they can talk to the main router. They can’t augment your network if they themselves are out of range.
It’s possible to rectify this by using a Powerline adaptor to distribute the main router’s connectivity via every plug socket in the house.
Boosters plugged into a plug socket on the same circuit (which normally extends throughout the home, unless you live in a traditional house) can tap into the network.