4 Wi-Fi Tips from Former Apple Wi-Fi Engineer

| MGG Answers

Alf Watt, former Apple Wi-Fi engineer and creator of the fantastic Wi-Fi utility, iStumbler, joined us on this week's Mac Geek Gab 509 to talk all things Wi-Fi. The episode contains a bunch of juicy Wi-Fi tips and I highly recommend you give it a listen, but for now our four favorite tips are listed below. Think of this as the MGG 509 Cliff's Notes... and make sure you read, erm, listen to the whole thing, too. On to the tips:

1. Use same SSID for all radios on the same network (be they 2.4GHz or 5GHz). If you have one network in your home but have either multiple routers/access points for better coverage or multiple radios in one access point, the advice is the same: use the same SSID (wireless network name) for all of them and let the client devices each decide which is best to use.

Apple devices choose networks by your preferred order. Period. If you have multiple networks of different names your Mac or iPhone will always choose the first in your iCloud-synced "Preferred Networks" list even if this one isn't going to give you the best bandwidth. If you have the network name/SSID the same then it will chose the radio that it predicts will give the best throughput (which isn't always the one with the best signal, but that's an even geekier discussion you can hear in the show). Make all the Wi-Fi networks in your home the same. Your life will be better for it.

2. Deal with congestion with more access points using less power. In response to a listener's query about how best to deal with having lots of access points in a small location, say an apartment building, the best thing to do is to actually increase the number of access points but lower the transmit power on each so as to keep them from interfering with each other. It's good if your neighbors do this, too, of course, but it will help even if it's just you. We recommend using Powerline adapters to connect all of your access points together to avoid the headaches of just extending Wi-Fi.

Another helpful option is to use 5Ghz channels where possible. The higher frequency band doesn't go through walls as well and may be exactly what the Wi-Fi doctor ordered in highly-congested areas (and when we get 60Ghz Wi-Fi, that'll be even more helpful!)

Next: When to use Wide channels and Antenna Orientation.

This question was originally answered on MGG 509: WiFi Answers with Wi-Fi Guru Alf Watt of iStumbler

About MGG Answers:

Each week Dave Hamilton and John F. Braun provide some great troubleshooting advice to listeners of the Mac Geek Gab podcast. Here with MGG Answers we share some of those tips with the rest of the world!

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Bosco (Brad Hutchings)

“Apple devices choose networks by your preferred order. Period”

How about other branded devices? I know literally nobody, even the staunchest Apple fans, who doesn’t have some other branded device on their home network. Unfortunately, network setup often comes down to supporting some device that doesn’t quite work right. Maybe it’s old, maybe it’s quirky. But it’s still essential. And ultimately, it’s what you have to set up your network for, or set up an additional network for.


MoCA (Ethernet over coax cable) is way better than powerline. I found powerline to be rather slow and unreliable. My Apple TV and a second Airport Base Station are connection to my main ABS router over MoCA and I couldn’t be happier. However, powerline is probably better than trying to extend wi-fi wirelessly.

Steven Fisher

These are great tips, but I don’t know about naming your SSIDs the same thing for 2.4GHz vs. 5GHz. For my house I found that I could make that choice better than OS X could. Yes, the signal strength is lower for the 5GHz. But it’s strong enough, and it’s much faster overall. And my 2.4GHz router doesn’t have controls for lowering broadcast strength.

So I have two SSIDs. Devices that support 5GHz use that SSID, devices that support 2.4GHz only use the other SSID.


I wasn’t able to listen to the podcast live, it was 5:30am here….

Regarding tip 1, how does it work for the iPhone 5 ?

I have 3 different generations of AirPort base stations:
a AirPort Extreme Base Station (with Modem) (2003 era)
a AirPort Express (2004 era) (I’ve got 2 of these)
a AirPort Express 802.11n (2nd Generation) (2009 era)

Should I set the SSID the same for all these ?
At the moment the 2003 & 2004 ones are on the same SSID as a WDS, but the 2009 one is on a different SSID because Apple in it’s infinite wisdom doesn’t let me config all of them as a WDS…..



Dave Hamilton

@furbies - Well… if WDS is working for you, then keep it. But typically all I’ve seen it do is rebroadcast a bad signal, making things worse. It’s why I don’t use anything of the sort anymore and go strictly with Powerline (or, if possible, straight Ethernet) to link my access points. At that stage I then do recommend naming all the SSIDs the same.

@Steve Fisher - I used to do exactly what you’re doing until I met with Alf last year and he advised me differently. Life has been much better and simpler since naming all my SSIDs the same, and I find my devices are always choosing the best throughput when I move about the house and office. But if your setup works for you, then the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rule definitely applies. No problem there.

Dean Lewis

I have a friend in an older house (lots of brick/stone and heavy walls) who has connectivity problems. I’ve set up the router with separate SSIDs for the 2.4 and 5.0Ghz bands. If I’m reading this correctly, I should make them the same SSID. So, would that alleviate some of the connectivity issues, perhaps allowing devices that wander like her iPad to switch as necessary, until I can get out to her place and install something like the Powerlines? (or maybe I’ll just go with Ubiquiti APs on the basement and 2nd floors to cover the 1st and 4th/attic levels…)


My experience has pushed me to have separate names for 2.4 and 5 GHz networks. I might revisit this now, with an altered layout, but that was the only thing that kept my music working. My two Airport Express (music players) would stutter and stall and drop out on 2.4, starting in the late afternoon and extending through the evening.

Then I created a new name for the 5 GHz network and switched them to that - and things have been very much better.

And the 2.4 interference wasn’t “close” as in condos or townhouses.

Jules Hobbes

“routers use “cognitive radio” technology. This means they listen before they talk”.

I wish humans were like that ...


@vpndev late afternoon to evening signal loss could be humidity, depending on where you live. 2.4 GHz is sensitive to humidity levels (it’s literally the same frequency as microwave ovens) which would explain the regular diurnal changes.


@bosco and @steve

Yes you have to deal with a mix of devices, all Wi-Fi devices *should* be able to handle an ESS across bands, but some will do better than others. If you do have really mis-behaved devices, they can typically be updated. Alertly, you can always run a dedicated single band network for them, if your gear supports setting up several networks.

Honestly, I think the SSID IE along with the WEP > WPA > WPA2 security model are the two biggest mistakes made in Wi-Fi.

Max Strzelecki

How would you position a router with 3 antennas?


interesting on #1: i tried setting up my wireless network so both my older Apple Airport Express and my crapular AT&T U-Verse hardware had the same SSID. that configuration totally lost our wired connections. had to go back to two separate SSIDs which can be rather inconvenient at times.


That’s intriguing that you set your antennas that way. I didn’t think that would boost the signal, but I guess it does. I could get a new router though. That’s about half of where most my problems are coming from. Its about 8 years old so I think it’s time for a change.

Bill Schlossberg

Thanks for the good information.  Can you recommend an iOS app like “NirSoft Wi-Fi Info View that I can walk my house to read signal strength from various devices and networks., including those I may not at moment be connected?  http://www.nirsoft.net/utils/wifi_information_view.html

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