5Bar connection Xirrus

In a mobile world, achieving ‘5 bars’ of Wi-Fi has become the Holy Grail of communication. But what do those 5 bars even mean? And how come I can still get lousy service, even when my device tells me the nearby Wi-Fi is great?

To break it down, the brainiest among us will try to explain the alphabet soup of RSSI, SNR, MIMO and QAM. But for those who don’t want to translate the techno babble, the answer is far simpler.

What the 5 bars on your screen really indicate is the quality of the Wi-Fi signal, not the quality of the Wi-Fi itself. Just because the signal is “great” doesn’t mean the service will match it. The key point is that a strong signal only offers the potential for good service – not a guarantee.

Think about it this way. You’re driving on an LA freeway at 7:30 on a Monday morning, and although the speed limit signs say 55 MPH (i.e. a great signal), you’re barely making 10. Of course, it’s not just you who’s using the road. You’re contending with lots of other drivers for that same piece of highway.

Or take a more appropriate example: You’re in a conference room that sits hundreds of people, it’s early in the morning, and only a dozen attendees have arrived. You have 5 bars of signal, and are enjoying a perfectly great Wi-Fi experience.

Two hours later, there are 250 people in the room (and maybe 500 devices with them). You still have the 5 bars, yet performance has slowed to a crawl. It’s the same signal strength – it’s just that now, a whole lot more users are sharing that signal with you.

So how do you fix this problem in YOUR Wi-Fi network? The solutions are more bandwidth, more channels (5GHz), and segmentation of clients.