Wireles Networking is a practical guide to planning and building low-cost telecommunications infrastructure. See the editorial for more information....


As mentioned earlier, antennas do not actually create power. They simply direct all available power into a particular pattern. By using a power amplifier, you can use DC power to augment your available signal. An amplifier connects between the radio transmitter and the antenna, and has an additional lead that connects to a power source. Amplifiers are available that work at 2.4GHz, and can add several Watts of power to your transmission. These devices sense when an attached radio is transmitting, and quickly power up and amplify the signal. They then switch off again when transmission ends. When receiving, they also add amplification to the signal before sending it to the radio.

Unfortunately, simply adding amplifiers will not magically solve all of your networking problems. We do not discuss power amplifiers at length in this book because there are a number of significant drawbacks to using them:

  • They are expensive. Amplifiers must work at relatively wide bandwidths at 2.4GHz, and must switch quickly enough to work for Wi-Fi applications. These amplifiers do exist, but they tend to cost several hundred dollars per unit.
  • You will need at least two. Whereas antennas provide reciprocal gain that benefits both sides of a connection, amplifiers work best at amplifying a transmitted signal. If you only add an amplifier to one end of a link with insufficient antenna gain, it will likely be able to be heard but will not be able to hear the other end.
  • They provide no additional directionality. Adding antenna gain provides both gain and directionality benefits to both ends of the link. They not only improve the available amount of signal, but tend to reject noise from other directions. Amplifiers blindly amplify both desired and interfering signals, and can make interference problems worse.
  • Amplifiers generate noise for other users of the band. By increasing your output power, you are creating a louder source of noise for other users of the unlicensed band. This may not be much of an issue today in rural areas, but it can cause big problems in populated areas. Conversely, adding antenna gain will improve your link and can actually decrease the noise level for your neighbors.
  • Using amplifiers probably isn't legal. Every country imposes power limits on use of unlicensed spectrum. Adding an antenna to a highly amplified signal will likely cause the link to exceed legal limits.

Using amplifiers is often compared to the inconsiderate neighbor who wants to listen to the radio outside their home, and so turns it up to full volume. They might even “improve” reception by pointing their speakers out the window. While they may now be able to hear the radio, so must everyone else on the block. This approach may scale to exactly one user, but what happens when the neighbors decide to do the same thing with their radios? Using amplifiers for a wireless link causes roughly the same effect at 2.4GHz. Your link may “work better” for the moment, but you will have problems when other users of the band decide to use amplifiers of their own.

By using higher gain antennas rather than amplifiers, you avoid all of these problems. Antennas cost far less than amps, and can improve a link simply by changing the antenna on one end. Using more sensitive radios and good quality cable also helps significantly on long distance shots. These techniques are unlikely to cause problems for other users of the band, and so we recommend pursuing them long before adding amplifiers.

Last Update: 2007-01-24