Wireless networks came quite a distance previously handful of decades. And yet, sustained Wi-Fi speeds are still a vexing condition in a lot of situations. Numerous things may come into play, such as the way your router is set up, whether there’s nearby interference, whether you live within an apartment building or perhaps a separate house, where your microwave sits in relation to your network (yes, really), and just how far apart your devices are from the router. Fortunately, there’s always a method to fix slow transfer speeds.

If you’ve ever messed around with your Wi-Fi router’s settings, you’ve probably seen the term “channel.” Most routers have the channel set to Auto. Quite a few us have looked using that list of twelve or so channels and wondered what they're, and most importantly, which from the channels are faster than the others. Well, some channels truly are much faster — but that doesn’t mean you should go ahead and change them at this time. Continue reading to find out more about 802.11 channels, interference, and the distinction between 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi.

The fastest form of Wi-Fi currently available is branded as “Wi-Fi 6,” aka 802.11ax. If you’re wondering why we moved to branded naming instead of the standard number + a signifying letter combination, it’s since there are a lot more low-level updates and specification changes to 802.11 than their used to be. After 802.11ac in 2021, we’ve had .ad, .af, 802.11-2021, .ah, .ai, .aj, and .aq. Instead of asking people to continue playing “Guess the relevant Wi-Fi standard,” somebody decided to be simpler to just call the present major consumer version “Wi-Fi 6.” There’s an even newer standard, Wi-Fi 6E, which supports signals in the 5-6GHz band, but there’s no Wi-Fi 6E hardware to talk of in-market yet.

Channels 1, 6, and 11

First of, let’s discuss 2.4GHz, because even just in 2021, the majority of Wi-Fi installations still use the 2.4GHz band in some way. 802.11ac, which debuted in 2021, is driving adoption of 5GHz, helped along by adoption of 2021’s 802.11ax / Wi-Fi 6 — but because of backwards compatibility, dual-radio routers and devices, and lower-cost peripherals with more affordable chipsets, 2.4GHz continues to reign for a while.

All versions of Wi-Fi up to 802.11n (a, b, g, n) operate between your frequencies of 2400 and 2500MHz. These 100MHz are separated into 14 channels of 20MHz each. As you’ve probably exercised, 14 plenty of 20MHz is much more than 100MHz — and for that reason, every 2.4GHz channel overlaps with a minimum of two, if not four, other channels (see diagram above). So that as you are able to probably imagine, using overlapping channels is bad — actually, it’s the main reason for poor throughput in your wireless network.

Fortunately, channels 1, 6, and 11 are spaced far enough apart that they don’t overlap. On the non-MIMO setup (i.e. 802.11 a, b, or g) it is best to use channel 1, 6, or 11. If you are using 802.11n with 20MHz channels, stick to channels 1, 6, and 11 — if you want to use 40MHz channels, be aware that the airwaves might be congested, unless you reside in a detached house in the center of nowhere.

What channel should you use inside a crowded area?

If you would like maximum throughput and minimal interference, channels 1, 6, and 11 are the best choices. But based on other wireless networks in your vicinity, among those channels might be a better option than the others.

For example, if you’re using channel 1, but someone next door is annoyingly using channel 2, then your throughput will plummet. For the reason that situation, you would need to change to channel 11 to totally avoid the interference (though 6 could be very good as well). It might be tempting to utilize a channel apart from 1, 6, or 11 — but don't forget that you will then be the cause of interference (and everyone on 1, 6, and 11 will stomp on your throughput, anyway).

In a perfect world, you'd talk to your neighbors and obtain every router to make use of channels 1, 6, or 11. Bear in mind that interior walls do a very good job of attenuating (weakening) an indication. If there’s a brick wall between you and a neighbor, you could probably both use channel 1 without disturbing one another. But if it’s a thin wall (or there’s lots of windows), you should use different channels.

There are tools to help you discover the clearest channel, for example Vistumbler. But it’s probably faster to simply switch between channels 1, 6, and 11 until you locate one that works well. (For those who have two laptops, you can copy personal files together to check the throughput of every channel.)

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But how about 5GHz?

Get ready for lots of antennas.

The big plus with 5GHz (802.11n, 802.11ac, and Wi-Fi 6) is that because there’s much more free space in the higher frequencies, it provides 23 non-overlapping 20MHz channels. 6GHz should continue this trend, with even more frequency space (however with slightly worse propagation characteristics).

Starting with 802.11n and recurring with 802.11ac, wireless technology generally became much more advanced than the prehistoric times of 802.11b and g. Should you own a minimum of a good 802.11n or 802.11ac router (i.e. if you purchased a router within the last many years), it likely has some hardware inside that chooses the best channel automatically and modifies the output capacity to maximize throughput and reduce interference.

If you’re while using 5GHz band, as well as your walls aren’t paper-thin, then attenuation and also the general insufficient 5GHz devices should mean there’s little interference inside your apartment — potentially enabling you to use the fatter 40, 80, and 160MHz channels if you feel like it.

Eventually, as everyone upgrades to newer hardware and moves towards 5GHz, choosing the right channel will mostly become a thing of the past. There may still be certain cases where it makes sense to fine-tune your router’s channel selection. But when you’re dealing with MIMO setups (as much as eight in 802.11ac), it’s generally a much better idea to allow your router do its very own thing. Eventually, obviously, 5GHz will fill as well — but hopefully by then, we’ll have worked out how to use even higher frequencies (60GHz WiGig) or entirely new antenna designs (pCells, infinite capacity vortex beams) to deal with our wireless networking demands.