What is a Wi-Fi booster? Wi-Fi range extenders and broadband boosters explained
Broadband boosters, also known as Wi-Fi boosters or Wi-Fi range extenders, are devices that increase the reach of your home Wi-Fi network to improve connectivity in areas where the signal is weak.
Just like mobile broadband the speed of a home wireless network is heavily dependent on a strong, stable signal. When accessing the internet with a poor Wi-Fi connection you may experience noticeably slower broadband speeds and instability. This can be particularly apparent for tasks such as streaming video and online gaming as the poor connectivity causes buffering or lag, but even just simple web browsing can be impacted.
A booster amplifies a weak signal to eliminate Wi-Fi blackspots and give fast connectivity all over the home.
Buying and using a broadband signal booster
Broadband boosters are made by the same companies that produce home broadband routers, such as Netgear, Belkin, D-Link and Asus. You can easily find them in stores and online and they’re not expensive - prices for entry level devices start at as little as £10-£15.
Boosters are also offered by some ISPs. BT sells a selection of branded Wi-Fi range extenders and powerline networking kits, and Sky has a Wireless Booster that’s designed to simply extend your Wi-Fi network with the minimum of hassle.
You do not need to use ISP branded boosters but keep an eye out for special offers from your provider as it could save some money. Sky has even given away its wireless booster for free in the past.
When selecting a booster consider the speed of your other Wi-Fi equipment to ensure you get the best possible performance: see our recent article ‘What is Wi-Fi?’ for more information about Wi-Fi networking speeds and standards.
Setting up a Wi-Fi extender
Setting up and using a broadband booster is usually very straightforward. Most will offer the choice of either Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) or manual setup, and if you have the option WPS is easiest. This simply involves pressing the WPS button on the booster and router, and after a minute or two the devices will be automatically connected with no further configuration required.
Manual setup varies between devices so you’ll need to consult the user guide for the exact steps, but generally it’s a matter of connecting to the booster and using a web interface to provide your Wi-Fi SSID (the network name) and password.
To access the newly extended Wi-Fi network you may need to manually select it from the wireless settings of any device you want to connect. Some, like the Sky Wireless Booster, broadcast the same SSID while others will change it, often appending the original name with ‘EXT’ to indicate which is the extension.
In some cases it’s possible to change this. For example the D-Link DAP-1520 will add ‘EXT’ to the SSID when configured via WPS but you can manually change it to use the same network name.
Using your broadband booster
Remember that Wi-Fi extenders which receive and amplify a wireless network need to be positioned in a location where some signal is available. If you want to extend your Wi-Fi network to an area where there’s currently no reception you can instead use a powerline Wi-Fi adapter (which BT sell as the Mini Home Hotspot kit) as that transfers data using electrical circuits rather than relying upon wireless connectivity.
All it takes is a powerline adapter plugged in next to your router and another Wi-Fi enabled adapter plugged into any other socket and you can deliver wireless access across your home.
One important thing to keep in mind when using any booster is that the extended network will be slightly slower than your main Wi-Fi network. It will continue to drop off if you add further extensions from the boosted signal too, so if you’re trying to cover a large home with Wi-Fi it may be better to use powerline Wi-Fi adapters for the most distant areas rather than trying to extend an already weak signal even further
My internet is slow - do I need a broadband booster?
Wi-Fi boosters like those offered by Sky and BT are designed to improve Wi-Fi in areas of your home where the signal is at its weakest. They cannot help if your actual broadband connection is sluggish.
If you’re currently connected using Wi-Fi and experiencing slow speeds a booster may be able to help, but you should test your broadband in the best possible conditions before purchasing any new equipment, as the issue could lie elsewhere.
First, check your broadband under normal circumstances in the same room you normally use the internet. Switch off all other devices in your home, pause any downloads or uploads, close all applications and run a speed test.
Next you want to test it with an ideal setup. Connect your computer to the router using a network cable or, if you’re unable to use a network cable, sit right next to the router for the best wireless reception.
If weak signal was the problem you should see a significantly better result the second time, and a broadband booster is likely to be a quick and easy way to improve your speed.