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How to set up Wi-Fi in 10 steps

Setting up your Wi-Fi should feel less confusing with our easy step-by-step guide.

If you’ve got internet connection, the chances are high that your internet provider has included a wireless modem-router as part of your package. You can always use modem-routers with fixed cabling, and if you’re using an older-style desktop or laptop with Ethernet connectivity, that might be all you need.

However, if you’re using a smartphone, tablet or laptop that lacks direct Ethernet connectivity, these options aren’t easily available to you. Even if you do have a laptop with inbuilt Ethernet ports, you lose a lot of flexibility when tethered to a cable.

Setting up a Wi-Fi network: Step by step

  1. Note down your router’s default network name (SSID) and password, typically printed either on the base/back of the router itself or in the documentation that came with it.
  2. Plug your network cable into your modem router.
  3. Plug in the supplied power to your router, and switch your router on.
  4. It’s a little easier to configure a router (if needed) via a direct ethernet connection, so if you can, plug an ethernet cable from your laptop/desktop direct to the router ports located at the rear. It doesn’t matter which of the (typically four) you use. You can then skip to step 9.
  5. If you are configuring wirelessly, you’ll need to connect to the network first. Wait a couple of minutes to allow the router to fully power up and enable its wireless network.
  6. Search for wireless networks on your device:
    • For Windows 10 devices, click on the network icon in the system tray. That should list all available networks. Click on the network name that matches the name you noted back in step 1.
    • For Mac devices, click on the wireless icon in the top menu bar. That should list all available networks. Click on the network name that matches the name you noted back in step 1.
    • For iOS or Android devices, head to settings>Wi-Fi (or networks; this varies a little by iOS version or Android version/manufacturer) and select the network name that matches the name you noted in step 1. Tap on it to start the connection process.
  7. You should see a password prompt field where you enter the password you noted in step 1.
  8. After a short pause for the device and router to connect (whether you’re connecting via an ethernet cable or wirelessly), you should be on your router’s network.
  9. If your modem-router was supplied by your Internet provider, you should also find that your Internet connection works from here, as most providers pre-configure their routers with the necessary settings already in place. You can check this by opening a browser and heading to a website (we recommend, but then we would.)
  10. If you find you’re not online, or an internet connection is not available, you’ll need to access your router’s configuration page to enter the necessary details, which should have been supplied by your Internet provider. In many cases, it’s a good idea to at least slightly personalize your network for easy discovery and better security. See below for more details on how to manage this.

Where to position your Wi-Fi modem/router

The most important step in setting up your wireless network is deciding where to place your wireless router. This will typically coincide with where your internet connection comes into your home or business premise, although in some cases it may make more sense to run additional connection cables to enable you to place your router more centrally within your dwelling.

The reason for this is that most routers send out wireless signals omni-directionally, which means that

The signal gets weaker the further away from the router you get.

Other interference factors, including metal studs in walls and certain types of electronic devices, can further degrade wireless signal quality, as can the presence of other wireless networks in your area.

Unless you live in a remote location, it’s quite unusual to have the only wireless network in your area, which means you’re all typically fighting for network clarity across what actually amounts to only a few different transmission bands. Unless they’re unsecured you’re unlikely to end up on your neighbour’s Wi-Fi network, but the presence of their network can affect the reception you get from yours.

Default settings

If you’re using a router provided by your ISP (internet service provider), the good news is that for the most part, configuration should be done for you out of the box by your ISP. In some cases, they may provide a printed or emailed setup guide but it shouldn’t be much more complex than plugging in the power adaptor and whatever internet connection type you’re currently using.

In many (but not all) cases, you’ll be provided with the login details for the Wi-Fi network created by default by your ISP, either on a card or in some cases printed directly onto the modem-router itself. Take note of these details carefully because even if you do change the name of the network or password, if you ever have to perform a factory reset on your modem-router, these are the details you’ll need to have to hand in order to access your device.

Using the ISP’s defaults is the quickest way to get set up, but it’s not the most elegant way to handle your internet connection. It rather obviously signals that you’re simply using the default network name and password, and if these are too generic, others could impinge on your network, which you don’t want.

To change the network name – formally speaking, the SSID (Service Set Identifier) – you’ll need to connect to the network and opt to change the network name and, optionally, the password as well. Remember to note these down in a secure place, just in case you lose them.


Advanced modem-router configuration

If you’re using your own modem-router, or if you need to change settings for any reason, you’ll need to get your elbows a little dirty with networking terminology, although only a little.

There’s a huge variance across modem-routers depending on make and brand, so we can only advise generally here. Your modem-router should come with a manual, either printed, on-disc or possibly online, and if you’re lost, a quick Internet search for the make and model of your device (typically printed on the underside or back of the modem-router) should lead you to the product manual for help.

What level of wireless security should I use?

When you’re setting up your wireless network, you’ll be confronted with the choice of which wireless security you want to apply to your network. It’s generally not a good idea to leave wireless security off because it means anyone can join your network, slurping up your bandwidth and potentially accessing files on connected systems depending on their sharing privileges.

The lowest level of wireless security is called WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) and it only provides a very basic level of security. The one tiny advantage that WEP has is that some older wireless-capable devices only support WEP, but typically you should avoid it because it’s very easily broken into.

WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) is a step up from WEP. It can be configured either as WPA-Personal with a pre-shared key, or WPA-Enterprise where a central server handles key configuration. For most home users, WPA-Personal is what you should opt for.

WPA2 (Wi-Fi Protected Access 2) uses the AES (Advanced Encryption Standard) for the highest current level of home user security over wireless. Ideally you should opt for WPA2 as long as your connected devices support it in order to enable the maximum level of security for your home Wi-Fi connection.

I’ve set up my network but my wireless signal sucks. What can I do?

It’s not uncommon for home or small business Wi-Fi networks to suffer from blind spots here and there, whether it’s a simple matter of distance from the router or other interference factors. There’s little worse than sitting down to work or play from your tablet or smartphone only to find that you can’t access your critical data or video stream.

Everyone’s location differs in terms of interference factors, but it’s usually pretty easy to sort out which areas in your building suffer simply by moving a wireless device there and either running a direct speed test or even just streaming video. You can save yourself some headaches by doing this when you set up your wireless network because if you have significant dead spots it’s worthwhile fixing them. Consider the following factors to improve your Wi-Fi dead spots:

  • Can you move your router? Sometimes, moving the router to a higher position or one that’s more centrally located will assist in propagating those Wi-Fi signals further. If (for example) your router sits on the west wall of your house, shifting it to the centre of your dwelling should help its signals reach the east side, and vice versa.
  • Do you need a router upgrade? If you’ve had the same router for some years, check if there are any firmware upgrades that might improve throughput, and also for its underlying technology.
  • Will a simple channel switch help? Wi-Fi routers can operate on different channels and if you’re in an area saturated with Wi-Fi signals already, switching the broadcast channel can give you a transmission edge. The majority of Wi-Fi channels do actually overlap with each other, so try switching between channels 1, 6 or 11 for 2.4GHz routers, as they’re the channels with no overlap between them. If you’re using a router (and devices) that support 5GHz the benefits you’ll gain from channel switching are likely to be lessened, but it’s still worth a try.
  • Use hardware to extend your network. It’s also feasible to extend your wireless network with the use of additional network hardware. A repeater or extender will hook wireless into your existing network and rebroadcast its signal. The idea is to place them roughly halfway between your existing router and your blind spots in order to get a decent signal from your router so it can then push into those blank spots. Repeaters may fill blank spots but there will be an inevitable loss in speed as they retransmit back to your router. The other option here is to more directly push to a fresh router on the same network, either with powerline equipment that uses your existing power wiring as a network conduit to a hotspot or router, or via a direct ethernet connection, either installed into the walls of your building or if you don’t mind a trip hazard, via direct connection. This should skip the issues of lost connection speed, although it does mean configuring two distinct networks to play nicely with each other.

Modem, router, modem-router: What’s the difference?

Depending on your internet provider, you may end up with one of two different connection devices. The most basic connections will be handled by a modem. That’s the box that “talks” to the network for you, typically providing ethernet ports for connection to devices. A standalone modem provides a 1:1 connection to a single device.

It’s pretty rare for a internet provider these days to only supply a modem, with most opting instead for a modem-router that handles not only wired connections but also the routing necessary to handle communications requests from multiple devices. Most ISPs will bundle a modem-router that includes wireless connectivity as part of a basic internet bundle, or you can purchase one yourself if that suits.

Depending on the wireless technologies used, it can also make sense to use the modem-router provided by your ISP only as a modem, and instead hook up a more powerful Wi-Fi router to improve your overall Wi-Fi performance.

If your provider only offers you a modem, you can always opt to pick up a router (or potentially a modem-router, and ignore the inbuilt modem ports on the rear) to handle your Wi-Fi routing needs.

Wired or wireless: Which is better?

Data transmission rates for wireless networks have improved markedly in recent years with advancements in transmission technology, but anything that relies on radio frequencies is, by its very nature, prone to losing some quality between devices. If speed is paramount, a fixed ethernet connection should typically be much faster than wireless.

However, this presumes that in every single case you’re happy to be tethered to one location because that’s the very nature of a wired connection. Going wireless enables you to move around with your wireless device, ideally throughout your home or office.

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