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I live in a packed area of Brooklyn. The houses are all smooshed together—literally touching each other—and many houses have multiple families in them. I just counted 16 WiFi networks for my computer to choose from, and only two of them belong to me. The rest belong to neighbors. And right now I’m on the ground floor, in the back of my house. If I go to a higher floor, or to the front of my house, I’ll pick up even more signals.
What does all of that WiFi traffic mean for your own WiFi signal? It means that all of those WiFi signals flying through the air are interfering with each other, because there are only so many channels for your router to choose from. Unless you live far enough away from all of your neighbors that their signals can’t be detected inside your home, your WiFi router’s performance is probably suffering.
The PORTAL Turbocharged Self-Optimizing Urban WiFi Gigabit Router was designed specifically for crowded environments like mine. Originally launched on Kickstarter, Portal is now available on Amazon for $199.
How Portal Is Different
So what makes Portal different from other WiFi routers? Simple: Portal has access to radio frequencies that the others do not, giving Portal access to 300% more of the spectrum than other routers. The government reserves most of the radio frequencies for radar that tracks things like military flights and weather. Everybody else using WiFi is usually jammed into what’s left.
The original Kickstarter campaign explains it best:
Think of spectrum like the lanes of highway. Most home WiFi routers today operate on just one shared WiFi lane; maybe two if you’re lucky. If you live in a city or apartment, your WiFi network could be competing with 35 or more neighboring WiFi networks. And the problem isn’t just the number of neighboring WiFi networks, it’s also what they’re doing. A single neighbor running a bit torrent, or simply folks all streaming HD video at 8pm every night can consume most of the spectrum you all share. This is called congestion, and it’s like being stuck in rush hour traffic all the time.
Even if your internet is OK all day but then starts to suck as you sit down to stream a post-dinner movie with your family, it might not be your imagination. Everybody else around you is probably doing the same thing, and you’re all slowing each other down.
So why is Portal allowed to use the frequencies that other routers aren’t? The Portal developers figured out a way to automatically and seamlessly move you to a different band if the one you’re using is needed for radar, so they’ve been given access to those other frequencies, frequencies which largely go unused most of the time. While all of your neighbors are competing for the same signal space, you’ll be on a band of your own.Cities are crowded enough. Your wifi shouldn't be jostling for space. Click To Tweet
The Portal is super easy to set up. It’s done through an app over bluetooth, and takes only a few minutes. During this process you can rename your router if you wish, and change the password. And that’s it. A glowing green ring lets you know that all is working.
There are five Ethernet ports in the back in case you want to connect some devices directly instead of over WiFi.
Like the router you probably have now, Portal works on two bands: 2.4GHz and 5GHz, only they call their 5GHz “HD.” In general, the 2.4 band can reach farther, but doesn’t have as fast a speed as 5GHz. So whenever you have a strong 5GHz signal, you should connect to that, whatever your router. But switching to HD on the Portal is where you get access to those other bands that aren’t being used by everybody else.
My house is tall but narrow, covering 3,200 square feet on four floors. The Portal claims that it can cover about 2,500 square feet (you can link two units together to cover up to 5,000 square feet). I set up the Portal on my second floor in a central location near the stairs, in an attempt to get the signal to as much of my house as possible. I started taking my phone to different areas of my house and testing the signal.
First I tested the 2.4GHz band. I started standing next to the router to get a baseline speed.
Then I went one floor up, both with the door open (first screenshot) and with the door closed (second screenshot). As you can see, closing the door made a huge difference. With the door open, the signal was almost as strong as when I was standing next to the router. But the speed was still decent with the door closed – fast enough to stream in HD, according to Netflix.
Speeds were similar when I went one floor down.
Portal HD Test
Now it was time to test the 5GHz range, or Portal HD. I started near the router again for a baseline speed, which was super fast.
Going up one floor and keeping the door open was also really fast – faster, in fact, than when I was standing next to the router, probably due to normal fluctuations in the speed my modem was providing.
But what really surprised me was what happened when I closed the door on the HD signal: practically no change! The HD signal was super strong, even one flight up. Remember, closing the door on the 2.4GHz signal resulted in a drop from 32mbps to 9mbps, a signal loss of almost 75%. The loss in HD was only around 11%!
One Portal HD signal was easily covering 2,400 square feet of my house at lightning-fast speeds. Pretty incredible. I was able to get a usable—albeit slow—signal two floors away from the router, but ideally I would add a second Portal to cover my entire house at fast speeds.
The app doesn’t have much to it yet, but there’s a lot promised in the coming weeks, including the ability to see which devices are attached to the Portal, and guest network access with a password that changes automatically each time.
To sum up, if you live in a crowded area and hate your internet, or notice a definite drop in speed when everybody in your neighborhood is home from work and school and using their devices, I strongly urge you to check out this router. It solves a problem that I hadn’t really seen addressed before. We city-dwellers are already crowded onto bustling sidewalks and clogged streets and packed public transportation and into overwhelmingly big buildings. Our WiFi shouldn’t be jostling for space too.