What affects a wireless signal's strength?

Written by erik devaney
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What affects a wireless signal's strength?
A Bluetooth device uses wireless signals to create a personal area network, or PAN. (Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images)

Wireless signal strength refers to the intensity of the radio frequency that a wireless receiver is able to pick up. A weak wireless signal can cause connectivity and performance problems with wireless devices. For example, weak signals can cause cell phones to cut in and out during conversations, or laptop computers to lose wireless Internet connections. Several factors influence the strength of wireless signals; unfortunately, many of these factors are out of a user's control.


All wireless networks, such as cellular telephone networks and wireless local area networks, or WLANs, rely on broadcasting stations that transmit signals. These stations, which include large cellular antenna towers as well as small wireless Internet routers, transmit signals at particular radio frequencies. Unfortunately for users of wireless devices, several other machines can output signals at the same frequencies as wireless broadcasting stations, making it difficult for wireless signals to flow smoothly. When such disruptions occur, the phenomenon is known as interference. Examples of interference-causing machines include microwave ovens, baby monitors and garage door openers.


Wireless signals travel fastest through open spaces. So if there are large or numerous obstructions between wireless transmitters and wireless receivers, signal strength suffers. For WLANs, common obstructions that come between wireless routers and wireless devices, weakening signal strength, include walls, floors, furniture and appliances. For cellular networks, obstructions can include buildings and trees. In all instances, metal obstructions tend to have the biggest impact on wireless signal strength.


Even when there are few obstructions between a wireless transmitter and receiver, the overall distance between them affects wireless signal strength. Wireless signals cannot travel indefinitely, as they eventually disperse and become absorbed by the surrounding environment. With a WLAN, a wireless router positioned at one end of a building may not be able to communicate with a device at the opposite end. While cellular networks provide signals that can travel farther, cellular devices can still lose reception when they stray too far from transmission towers. Anyone who has been in a remote area and lost cell phone reception has experienced this phenomenon.


In some instances poor wireless signal strength is the result of inadequate or dysfunctional hardware. For example, if a laptop computer has an outdated or damaged wireless network adaptor card, it may struggle to receive a signal from a wireless router. Alternatively, if a wireless router has a damaged or poorly designed antenna, it may not be able to provide as strong a signal.

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