How to Extend Your Wi-Fi Outdoors to Watch the Big Game This Sunday
Bring your party outdoors with a strong Wi-Fi connection. Here's how.
Trey PaulSenior Editor
Trey Paul is a CNET senior editor covering broadband. His 20+ years of experience as a writer and editor include time at CNET's sister site, Allconnect, and working with clients like Yahoo!, Google, The New York Times and Choice Hotels. An avid movie fan, Trey's career also includes being a film and TV critic while pursuing a degree in New York.
ExpertiseHome internet and broadband, including plans, providers, internet speeds and connection types. Movies and film studies.Credentials
Master's degree in Cinema Studies from NYU and interviews with Conan O'Brien, Stan Lee and some of his biggest Star Trek childhood idols
It's great to seamlessly connect your Wi-Fi to devices throughout your home, but frustration often starts the moment you try to connect your Wi-Fi network to a device outside -- especially annoying if you're trying to connect a laptop and projector or a big-screen TV for the Big Game on Sunday. You can move your router as close to your yard or front porch as your Ethernet cable will take you, but that won't always solve the problem.
Want Wi-Fi outside? Try a weather-resistant device
Most options our CNET writers have explored over the years don't require you to drill holes or run new wiring outdoors. Still, getting reliable, fast Wi-Fi outdoors may take an initial investment. Setting it up the right way may cost more at the start, but in the long run, it will require little maintenance and give you great coverage.
Locating local internet providers
Using a Wi-Fi device meant to be left outside may be your best bet. There aren't many cheap options, so you'll have to decide which setup will work best for your home.
An outdoor Wi-Fi extender -- sometimes called a wireless access point or wireless repeater -- is perhaps the most straightforward option since it's the only solution that involves installing hardware outside. Many of these devices are enterprise-grade, but some manufacturers have consumer-grade outdoor extenders too. These devices are made to be exposed to the elements year-round and they have hardware capable of communicating with your router wirelessly to give you great Wi-Fi coverage outside your home.
Locating local internet providers
The first step is to find an extender that's compatible with your current router, or you can buy a new router and extender to upgrade your entire network. There aren't a ton of wireless extenders designed for the outdoors, but a few notable manufacturers are Netgear, Ubiquiti, EnGenius and Hawking.
Next, check the packaging's ingress protection rating and the temperature range the device can withstand. The IP rating defines the device's weather-resistance, mainly against dust and water. The highest rating is IP69, which means it's totally protected against dust and can withstand long periods of immersion underwater.
The Netgear Orbi Outdoor is a tri-band extender that performed well at over 200 feet when CNET tested it. The major downside is that it's only compatible with an Orbi mesh Wi-Fi router. If it's any consolation, Netgear Orbi produces some of the best mesh systems out there. Setup is easy, too, as you just need to plug the outdoor extender into an outlet and mount it to a wall.
Another option that's a little more of a complicated outdoor access point -- like the Access Point U6 Mesh from Ubiquiti -- allows you to set separate modes for the 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks. The setup is a little more advanced, but you don't have to drill holes or run new cables.
You set your 5GHz band to wireless bridge mode and the 2.4GHz band to access point mode. This makes your 5GHz band a dedicated backhaul link to the router and allows your outdoor devices to connect via 2.4GHz. This setup limits your speed a bit, but you should still be able to take full advantage of your 2.4GHz bandwidth and the additional range that comes with it.
Indoor mesh Wi-Fi systems are easier, more expensive
Another option is to take advantage of an indoor mesh Wi-Fi system. These usually come with one router and one or two satellite units and can cover up to 5,000 square feet. The most recent data from the US Census Bureau shows 53% of American homes are between 1,800 and 2,999 square feet and another 24% are 1,799 square feet and below. The bottom line is that most of us don't have homes as big as 5,000 square feet, so with the right placement, you will get decent coverage outdoors with a mesh system. You may sacrifice a little speed or coverage indoors by moving the satellite units, but most of the best mesh systems are expandable and can add additional units.
Each satellite unit only needs an electrical outlet to plug in the power adapter. No Ethernet cable is required. The idea for extending your Wi-Fi outdoors is to place the mesh router central in your home and put the satellite unit, or units, as close to the exterior as possible. There is a limit to how far apart you can place the units. For example, Asus support recommends placing each one within 10 to 15 meters (approximately 33 to 50 feet) of the other units.
Linksys advised one of our writers that its indoor, three-piece Velop mesh system can help with outdoor coverage. Each unit can cover around 2,000 square feet, so if you place one of the units 5 to 10 feet from an exterior concrete wall, your outdoor coverage can improve. Everyone's home environment is different, so your results may vary. Your best bet is to place the satellite unit near a window or door.
There are more potential problems with this setup, though.
Generally, most mesh satellites link directly back to the router, not to the closest satellite and then back to the router. This means you won't be able to wirelessly daisy chain them in sequence to stretch your signal in one direction. This is part of the reason it is best to place your router central in your home.
Also, your exterior walls will still interfere with and weaken your signal, especially on 5GHz. You may have to play around with the location to figure out which spot will work best for outdoor coverage in your environment.
If you aren't familiar with Wi-Fi signals, they are measured in decibel-milliwatts. The signal reading will be negative, so closer to zero is better. You want a signal between -60dBm and -30dBm (which is best). That's your sweet spot. Your signal is near nonexistent if you see something around -80dBm or -90dBm or lower.
The price of mesh systems has begun to decline, but they can still be quite expensive. Still, you shouldn't need to spend more than a few hundred dollars for a decent, up-to-date system. For instance, Amazon's Eero 6 Plus performed well in our tests, and the three-piece system can cover up to 4,500 square feet for around $300. Another of our top choices, the two-piece TP-Link Deco W7200 Mesh Router, covers up to 5,500 square feet and costs approximately $190.
You might be tempted to leave an indoor router or satellite unit in a covered area outside or a weatherproof enclosure. This may work in the short term, but the risk factors are high. The device could overheat or freeze. Humidity is also a factor, as well as foreign objects like dust and insects, which can clog up the device's vents. Not to mention that leaving an indoor device outside will void your warranty.
Indoor range extenders are cheaper but less reliable
You can replicate the mesh setup mentioned above with a regular router combined with indoor Wi-Fi range extenders or repeaters. This option is a little more affordable, with the extenders taking the place of the mesh satellite units. This approach's setup is slightly more complicated, but you shouldn't have much trouble following the quick start guide included with the extender. Many newer devices, such as the well-tested D-Link EaglePro AI, are designed to work with different routers.
Remember, most wireless extenders will cut your Wi-Fi in half because they receive the wireless signal and then rebroadcast it using the same radio on the same channel. Expect your speeds to be slower when connected to an extender instead of the router. One way around this is to use a tri-band extender with an extra 5GHz network that can act as a dedicated link to your router. This will help you get the maximum bandwidth out of the extender.
Remember that many routers also work as extenders, so another option is to buy a new router and use your old one as a wired or wireless extender. Check your current router to see if it can function as a wireless access point or extender. A new router will most likely give you better coverage, including outdoors, so using the old router as an extender could give you the extra boost in Wi-Fi coverage that you need.
Between the two setups, the mesh system's big advantage over the router plus extenders is that the mesh devices create a single network, so you don't have to reconnect to Wi-Fi when you move from room to room or outdoors. In general, mesh systems are designed so that your phone or laptop will automatically connect to the closest mesh unit without issue. When you have an extender, you have two networks, one for the router and one for the extender, that you may need to switch between when you move around. Plus, having two networks could cause interference with each other, especially on 2.4GHz.
Powerline adapters are a last resort for outdoor Wi-Fi
One inexpensive option is using powerline adapters, which use your existing in-wall electrical wiring to extend your signal. You can plug some into an outdoor electrical socket, but you'll be hard-pressed to find an affordable one that's weather-resistant. An indoor powerline adapter can also overheat if you plug it into a covered outlet outdoors.
A temporary solution would be to use an indoor Wi-Fi powerline adapter, such as the Zyxel Powerline series, which you plug into an indoor outlet near where you need better coverage. Your range outdoors won't be great, but it should improve your current setup.
What's the bottom line?
The simplest option to extend Wi-Fi outdoors is with a mesh system and additional satellite units. This should give you a few hundred square feet of coverage outside your home. Mesh systems can be expensive, but the setup is usually easy for novice users.
In theory, the best option would be to use an outdoor extender, but there aren't many consumer-rated products available beyond the Orbi Outdoor. TP-Link also offers an outdoor unit, the Deco X50-Outdoor, which is certified waterproof and dustproof. CNET hasn't had a chance to test that unit, but we will update this post as soon as we do.