If you have a modern router, you probably have the option of using both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands – but what are they and what should you do with them? The short answer is that these are just two WiFi bands that have been around for a long time and you have two choices: separate 2.4GHz and 5GHz or unite them into one SSID.
If you only have one network on your router, it is likely that it broadcasts on both the 2.4 GHz (good for long range) and 5 GHz (best for short range) bands and in using a protocol called ‘tape driving’ to let your device switch automatically. If you see two networks, the bands have been separated and you will need to manually choose when to change. There are pros and cons to both. Spoiler alert, however, the tape management is not as transparent in practice as it is in theory.
What is the difference?
2.4 GHz was the original band used by most routers, and some older devices still don’t support it. In theory it’s not much slower than 5 GHz, but in practice it experiences a lot more interference. Everything from Bluetooth to microwaves emits signals on the 2.4 GHz frequency because the FCC has designated it as the industrial-use band. On the other hand, it travels much further and is better at penetrating solid objects.
5 GHz has several advantages: it is mainly reserved for Wi-Fi, has more channels and more bandwidth available on each channel. (See the images above to get an idea of how much less congestion it is compared to 2.4GHz in an average building.) This means your microwave and your neighbor’s router likely won’t jam your WiFi and that you can get higher speeds. If you are using an 802.11ac router (one of the fastest WiFi standards available), you may have a 2.4 GHz option, but only the 5 GHz can use “ac” technology.
So why not give up 2.4 GHz altogether? First, if you have older devices (think iPhone 4 or earlier), they won’t run on 5 GHz. Second, if you need to cover more than a few rooms, you might want to keep the 2.4GHz network for those hard-to-reach corners.
The problem of band management
If the technology was perfect, it would be an easy choice: enable 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz; give them exactly the same SSID, password and encryption settings; and your device will automatically choose 5GHz network when you are near the router and change to 2.4 when 5 gets low. In practice, band steering is a bit unreliable.
Different routers and devices respond to changes in signal strength and quality in different ways, and it’s almost impossible to predict if they will make good band choices. Your device may stick with a weak 5 GHz network until it disappears instead of switching to the stronger 2.4 GHz, or your router may provide 2.4 GHz to your device because it does not. did not receive the “5 GHz preferred” message – many little things can go wrong.
Option 1: separate 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz networks
Since band control can be uncertain, you will often get better speeds by manually switching between networks. You can tune in to 5 GHz when you are in your primary work / leisure space, then switch to 2.4 GHz when you move away from a few rooms. If your devices seem to connect to the 2.4 GHz network by default, or if you really care about maximizing your speed, separate SSIDs are the way to go.
Option 2: Combine 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz into a single SSID
A decent rule of thumb is that newer, better quality devices tend to have better tape drive protocols. If this describes your setup, combining it into a single SSID will likely give you good performance without needing to change manually. Even with cheaper equipment, a single SSID can still function perfectly – tape driving is not a broken technology, just a flawed technology. You can still experience it.
Either way, if you frequently move your devices within range of the router, a single SSID with uneven band direction will likely make your life easier.
Option 3: extend your 5 GHz range
The ideal WiFi scenario is to have multiple access points that cover your entire home / office with 5 GHz, in which case you won’t even need 2.4 GHz 90% of the time. However, there’s no harm in keeping both networks around, as they don’t really take up space until you start transmitting data over them, and the occasional legacy device still needs 2.4GHz. .
So I should …
For general home use, segregating your SSIDs by band is probably the way to go. Relying on imperfect band direction can often block you on slower networks, although your mileage may vary from device to device. A single SSID is most useful in situations where you roam around your WiFi range often enough that manual switching is boring.
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