Subject de Jour: Greater Demands on Radio Waves in Wi-Fi Networks

Subject de Jour: Greater Demands on Radio Waves in Wi-Fi Networks

The Computer Corner

Regular readers of this column may have already gleaned that sometimes my subject du jour is a recounting of a conversation that happened earlier. This is the case tonight as I compose this week’s column.

Earlier, I tried to explain to a client that the reason her Wi-Fi was not performing up to her expectations was that there were so many other wireless users in her immediate vicinity and that the conflicting radio signals were slowing her wireless connection to disappointingly slow speeds. She retorted that I did not know what I was talking about. “The Internet runs on electricity,” she said, “so if I turn on all the lights in the house, it doesn’t slow down the electricity. I could plug in a thousand lights, and it doesn’t make any difference in the electricity.” She finished with, “So it doesn’t make any difference if a lot of people are using Wi-Fi because it’s electricity, and it never slows down!”

I suppose she was thinking about the velocity of electrons moving at the speed of light: a physical constant. The speed of electromagnetic waves in a vacuum is the speed of light, and the speed is also almost that fast in the air. That part of what she was thinking is correct, but the rest of her thinking is wrong, especially about electricity never slowing down.

The electric current we all use is generated in power plants, where the common method of generation is high-pressure steam that drives turbines connected to electric generators. Most of these generators spin at 3,600 revolutions per minute (RPM). Whenever someone switches on a light, that generator’s RPMs slow down ever so slightly. The power plant then loads a little more steam pressure on the turbines to keep the generators turning at a constant 3,600 RPM.

That slowing of the electric grid is unperceivable, like dipping a bucket of water out of a swimming pool lowers the water level. But taking a bucket of water out of a swimming pool does in fact lower the water level ever so slightly, and turning on one electric light bulb does assuredly slow down the generators at the power plant. When too many people do this, such as during a summer heatwave when millions of people turn on their air conditioners, this can cause an electrical brownout, or in simplistic terms, this is slowing down the electricity.

It is infrequent to experience a brownout caused by too many people making demands on the electric grid, but it is now commonplace with the radio frequencies used by Wi-Fi. Computers, smartphones, cameras, and other Internet of Things (IoT) devices all compete for a limited amount of radio spectrum in the Wi-Fi bands. Almost anywhere you go today, you will find many more devices using Wi-Fi than were using it only a few years ago. This could also explain why your Wi-Fi network does not work as well as it used to.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel de Allende since 1981, and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email