Does Distance From The Wi-Fi Router Impact Download Speeds?

Yes, it does. Download speeds depend on the received signal power, which drops off as the inverse square of the distance in free space.

Sometimes, your Wi-Fi speed becomes abysmally slow, with downloads not anywhere near the speeds promised in your subscription package. You move from your bedroom to the drawing room, where the router sits, hoping for an improvement in download speed. Fortunately, you observe an increase in download speed as soon as you enter the room, which naturally makes you wonder how distance from the router affects your internet speed.

To answer this question, it’s important to understand how Wi-Fi works.

Wi-Fi Basics

Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi) is a set of wireless networking protocols (a set of rules that enable electronic devices to communicate hassle-free with each other wirelessly) that connect devices in a local area through radio waves to the internet. Radio waves are electromagnetic waves, lying in the frequency band of 3 kHz – 300 GHz. Wi-Fi only uses 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands. This means that Wi-Fi radio waves oscillate (change the direction of polarization) 2.4 x 109 – 5 x 109 times a second while moving at the speed of light, which is 3 x 106 km/s.

Electromagnetic spectrum diagram(VectorMine)s

Radio waves lie at the longer wavelength (lower frequency) end of the electromagnetic spectrum. (Photo Credit : VectorMine/Shutterstock)

Basics of Radio Waves

Radio waves, like all EM waves, experience a loss in signal strength with distance travelled. This is called attenuation. Attenuation is the most important factor for determining the range of a Wi-Fi router. Indoor and outdoor environments cause signal attenuation due to a combination of scattering, reflection, interference, and path loss.

Scattering of Signals

The wavelength of 2.4 GHz is 12.5 cm, while that of 5 GHz is 6 cm. Objects of similar size with irregular surfaces, like doors, cabinets, walls, etc. scatter Wi-Fi signals, resulting in a weaker signal arriving at the receiver. It also results in a reduction of energy of the wave, as some energy is lost to the obstructing particles during collisions, and then converted to heat.

Reflection of Signals

The reflection of radio waves by metal surfaces causes a change of direction of propagation, as well as a phase shift (a “phase” roughly describes the time taken by a wave to travel one wavelength). When two waves with different phases superimpose, a redistribution of energy occurs, such that there are areas of very low energy density and areas of very high energy density. This is called interference. Interference changes the original signal, meaning that the receiver antenna cannot pick it up.

constructive and destructive interference of waves(magnetix)s

Interference destroys the original waveform and redistributes energy that is dissimilar to the original distribution. (Photo Credit : magnetix/Shutterstock)

Path Loss of Signal

Path loss refers to the attenuation of a radio signal due to the distance between the source and the receiver. There are multiple path loss models that simulate the general environment of the operation of Wi-Fi. The simplest model is the one where there’s only one transmitter and one receiver placed some distance apart in free space (generally air). There are no physical obstructions to cause any reflection or scattering.

The Friis Transmission Formula gives the power at the receiving antenna (Pr),

, Does Distance From The Wi-Fi Router Impact Download Speeds?, Science ABC

where,

Pt = Power at the transmitting antenna

Gt : Gain of the transmitter antenna (takes into account the direction of emission and conversion of the electrical input to EM wave)

Gr : Gain of the receiver antenna (takes into account the direction of signal retrieval and conversion of the EM wave back to electrical output)

, Does Distance From The Wi-Fi Router Impact Download Speeds?, Science ABC = wavelength

D = Distance between transmitter and receiver

According to the above equation, power at the receiver drops off as the inverse square of the distance, i.e. doubling the distance quadruples the power loss. This makes it clear that being farther away from the Wi-Fi router is quite disadvantageous for downloading files, as the signal strength (measured by power) drops quite a lot.

Moving on from Friis Transmission, let’s take a look at some real-world models.

Indoor Path Loss of Signal

The indoor model simulates environments like a bedroom, where path loss depends only on the distance between the source and the receiver, and general obstructions like doors, corners, windows, etc. The obstruction of signals due to small obstructions is called log-normal shadowing. It is estimated using the following statistical model:

, Does Distance From The Wi-Fi Router Impact Download Speeds?, Science ABC

where,

Pr(d) = Power Received at the receiver at a distance d from the source

, Does Distance From The Wi-Fi Router Impact Download Speeds?, Science ABC Statistical Mean of the signal strength at a distance d from the source measured from multiple experiments

Pro = Signal strength at d = 1 m (measured using a decibel meter)

X, Does Distance From The Wi-Fi Router Impact Download Speeds?, Science ABC =  Gaussian Random Variable

, Does Distance From The Wi-Fi Router Impact Download Speeds?, Science ABC = Standard deviation of Gaussian Distribution

log-distance path loss

Note that the x-axis is logarithmic. Thus, the curve for signal strength as a function of distance is a straight line.

Outdoor Path Loss of Signal

Path loss of waves in outdoor environments is approximated by the same equation as is used for indoor environments by introducing the attenuation due to walls. This simulates environments like public Wi-Fi spots in parks, public squares, etc.

, Does Distance From The Wi-Fi Router Impact Download Speeds?, Science ABC

Here,

W = Wall Attenuation Factor

The other relevant terms are the same as for the indoor model.

log-distance outdoor

Log-distance path loss model for outdoor Wi-Fi accessibility. Walls absorb radio waves and significantly decrease signal power.

The Verdict

Thus, it is evident that the strength of a Wi-Fi signal drops off exponentially (exponent 2) with distance. Generally, routers transmit at a power of 100mW at 2.4 GHz. A good signal is indicated by filled bars at the top of the screen. Moving further away results in the reduction of power received at the device, denoted by blank bars, which also indicate poor signal quality. In conclusion, distance does affect download speeds and upload speeds, so cozy up by the router if you can’t afford any lag!

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About the Author

Argha has a Bachelors in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics from University of Delhi, India. He enjoys discussing STEM topics and football. With a belief that studying science should be enjoyable and not scary, he wants to play his part in a changing world.

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