Anatomy of a hot spot
Optimum wi-fi locations web site

John's earlier article about iSSIDer

Wikipedia's article on received signal strength indication (RSSI)

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Thomas Computer Services Web Site
Optimum wi-fi
Cablevision's Optimum Internet service is expensive but reliable and it's fast. Some folks try to save money by switching back and forth between it and Verizon's because both companies offer deals to get users to switch. But Optimum wi-fi is a good reason to stick with Cablevision because they've installed hundreds of thousands of access points in their coverage area here in parts of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. These access points, also known as 'hot spots,' are available for use by any Cablevision customer who uses Optimum Internet service and who owns up to five devices that can access wi-fi. These include laptops, tablet computers and smart-phones, and even desktop computers that include wireless adapters. Each device must be logged into any Optimum wi-fi hot spot only once, and thereafter will conveniently and automatically log in to any  available ones.

These hot spots seem to have a stronger signal, and thus a wider range of accessibility than the typical wireless home network. In order to compare a particular Optimum hot spot with my own home network router, I decided to take some measurements. For Optimum, I chose the hot spot in Pancheros Mexican Grill at 691 U.S. Route 130, across from the big Trenton Post Office in Hamilton Township because I like the friendly service and the food there. The burritos and quesadillas are freshly made and filled with very fresh marinated and grilled meat and veggies.

Slightly technical part
The router there is somewhere in the rafters at about second floor level, a few feet in front of the serving counter, near the cash register. My own home network is powered by a Linksys router in the office of my second floor condo, also in Hamilton. I used my Gateway NV57H laptop running Windows 8 and a free wi-fi utility called iSSIDer, which lets a user compare a home network router to those of the neighbors, and suggests ways to optimize a network's relative signal strength. Such utilities that measure relative signal strength do not express it with a graphic display of the familiar set of bars and instead use the more precise, but somewhat confusing system of received signal strength indication (RSSI) as measured in decibels. These decibels are expressed as negative numbers for some technical reason, so for example, a signal of -25 decibels is stronger than one of -30.

I judged the distance outward from each router using two Google Maps satellite images approximately centered on mine and on the one in Pancheros, and that were zoomed in to show a distance scale of 10 meters. Using a mechanical drawing compass, I traced concentric circles with the reckoned location of each router at center, and with each radius representing an increase of 10m. Next, I took a 0m measurement with my laptop as close to each router as I could get. In the case of my router, I placed the laptop right on top of it, but in Pancheros I could only stand under the spot where the signal seemed strongest. After that I moved outward by 10m hops measuring the signal strength repeatedly and out to a distance of 70m. For the most part, I picked interval spots where my circles conveniently intersected parking space lines painted on the respective parking lots outside Pancheros and in front of my place.

The results
At zero horizontal meters distance from my router, and literally touching my laptop, the highest reading I could get was -25 decibels. There's no spot inside my tiny place that's 10m or more away from the router, so my subsequent readings were all taken downstairs, outside at ground level, and through the floor, and through at least one interior wall and one exterior wall. As you can see from the table, the results are quite linear-- the further away from the router, the lower the reading. Not so with the router in Pancheros. Results from there are only sort of linear. For example, at 30m and at 50m, the subsequent readings were higher in each case instead of lower. But once outside, the Pancheros readings all show higher signal strength than for those for my own router.

The data from the Optimum wi-fi hot spot at Pancheros taken outside the store are all 30 or 40 decibels stronger than those at the same distances from my router. It's hard to dispute that the Optimum hot spot has a stronger signal, except when the intervening materials are considered. Outside Pancheros, the signal only passes through a single pane of glass, plus a concrete pillar in some cases. Perhaps this study merits another try with a different Optimum hot spot.
July 11, 2014

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