How to get a wireless network signal to go through a metal building with an antenna

Filed under:Wireless and printing    

If you need a wireless network signal to go through a metal building an antenna can help but is not the only option. Plastic is usually used to insulate against electricity but there is probably nothing worse than metal for stopping microwaves from going through. The metal takes the wireless microwaves quite perfectly like an antenna, and conducts it to whatever it touches; unfortunately it doesn’t do a very good job of letting the signal pass through to the other side. The one thing that is good about metal buildings is that they are usually used with spaces between the metal. It may help to move the gateway to the same floor as the users or to a more central location or use an antenna. If this is not sufficient you may need to either use antennas or install repeaters. If you don’t control the building (for example if it’s somebody else’s metal building) you are limited in terms of options. You can buy antennas. Also be aware that certain brands, especially D-link and LinkSys cards get worse reception than other brands and should be avoided. If you have one of these try buying a used 802.11-g card here that is any brand other than D-link or LinkSys. A repeater can help and doesn’t need any special cabling. You can also install more access points if you want to provide better hotspot service.

It helps to think line of sight, your computer’s network card looking at a flashing LED light which is the wireless receiver. If you have a hotspot visible at the end of the hallway and you laptop is at the other end, you have line of sight with nothing obscuring the line of sight. Say you step into the room right next to it. You have only the wall between your card and what it needs to “see”. Fortunately the 802.11 technologies we use are designed to see through walls. Even if it’s a metal building there is only some metal between the wireless card and the router so you should still get a clear link that isn’t dropped. However if you go to a room at the end of the hall and try to get a connection you have the hallway wall and the wall between each room in the hallway between you and the router. Depending on what makes up the walls, how thick it is, how many walls, and how far away you are, you may not even get a network connection. Remember that this is line of sight, a perfectly straight line between your card, or antenna if it has one, and the access point. If you have to connect to an access point on the floor above or bellow you it’s ever worse because you have to see through a floor and a ceiling as well. Depending on what it is made of, the floor can be much harder to get a signal through than the wall.

If you’re not satisfied with the wireless network signal, no matter what the building is made of, you have the same set of options. You can always move closer to the gateway. An antenna will almost always do better than without, with bigger ones out doing smaller antennas. Think of this as giving your laptop a pair of glasses to see everything better, or the router a bigger LED light to flash for the laptop. See our network antenna adaptor page to find what you need to know before you get one. If you control the building you can move the gateway, add gateways, or add wireless repeaters so the laptops don’t have as much to see through. To add gateways you add simply setup another one like the first one so that between the two (or however many you have) you can provide clear hotspot service to the entire building. Unfortunately you do have to make sure that both routers are managing IP addresses sanely meaning that both have a public IP address, one has a shared IP address from the other one, or some other reasonable IP address setup. If this is not the case you will provide excellent Wi-Fi coverage through out your metal building but anybody using the second one will never get to the internet. The last option is a repeater. A wireless repeater is a lot like a gateway. It provides a second signal for laptops. However unlike the router it gets network connectivity from the original router to extend the coverage to wherever it can see. As a result your laptop can pick either the gateway or the repeater, whichever it gets a better signal from.

There are several different ways to improve wireless network coverage through buildings made of metal or other dense materials other than just using better antennas. Whichever one is best for you is your decision to make. I hope that you can find one that’s inexpensive and works for you. You do also have to pay attention to which version of the 802.11 standard you are using. There current version is G, but several years back B and A were in use and could occasionally show up. Unless you are using your own access point at home you want the G variety. If you are reading this to improve your reception in a building where you cannot control the network make sure you’re not using a D-link or LinkSys card and try an antenna, on the next larger antenna. If you can do something about poor hotspot service please do something to save your users from poor connectivity.

Next topic: Printing on wireless networks.

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