The question of how many literal connections a wireless router can handle is anywhere between 50 and 253 depending on manufacturer. (Quick question answered: It’s not 255 because the router has to assign itself a few IPs.)
The question of how many usable simultaneous connections is a different story altogether because that number is drastically smaller.
When I say usable simultaneous connections I’m referring to how many connections the wireless router can handle before your connectivity speed gets so slow it’s unusable.
Examining network requests per connection
While it’s true each computer connected wirelessly uses a single IP address, that connection has multiple network requests dependent upon how many apps that use the network.
If you examine a single computer on the network and how many requests it makes, this is how it usually breaks down:
- Web browser
- Instant messaging
You might be saying to yourself “Okay.. that’s just two apps. No big deal, right?”
A web browser can balloon up to as many as 30 or more network requests at any given time.
When you visit a web site, the primary request is made from that dot-com. But maybe that dot-com is requesting images to be displayed for advertisements. That’s 5 to 10 more requests right there. And maybe there’s video on the site. That’s a binary transfer that adds a few more requests. And maybe you have add-ons/plugins in your browser. They usually make network requests as well.
An instant messaging app is even worse because it’s keeping a consistent connection with the server(s) it connects to for chat. And if the IM app has ads displayed in it (Yahoo! Messenger, Windows Live, AIM, etc.), even more network requests are made.
So just from a browser and instant messaging app alone, this can lead up to 40 or 50 requests at any given time depending on what you’re doing on the internet.
How to view the requests?
In Windows you do this via the NETSTAT command line application.
- Launch a command prompt (Start, Run, type CMD, click OK)
- Type NETSTAT -B
You’ll see all the apps that are currently making network requests and what they are requesting.
Network requests will be listed as ESTABLISHED or CLOSE_WAIT for most instances.
Crunching the real numbers
Let’s say for the moment all the computer boxes on the network are making really high network requests and each box uses 50 at any given time.
Even though the requests are small in size, when added up this can lead to network “bottlenecking” where the connection “chokes”.
If you’ve got 4 boxes making 50 requests, that’s 200 requests.
Will the network slow down at this point?
This is especially true if you have a basic cheapo wireless router that can’t route very well.
How many usable simultaneous connections can you have at this point?
Probably not more than 5 before things really start to crawl.
What can you do to loosen the bottleneck?
The first obvious answer is to buy a better wireless router.
The second answer is to decrease the amount of network activity per box.
Tips on how to decrease network activity:
1. Don’t use a from-service IM client.
Instead of using Yahoo! Messenger, Windows Live Messenger or AIM, try some of these (asterisk denotes multi-service). None of them make requests to advertising servers and you can turn off all the “goodies” which will decrease the traffic.
2. If using an e-mail app, increase the time between check intervals.
If using an e-mail app like Microsoft Outlook, Windows Live Mail, Mozilla Thunderbird or the like, it’s making network requests every few minutes.
You can either just close the app or set the intervals to be longer, such as every 10 to 20 minutes.
3. If not using the browser, close it.
If the app isn’t running it’s not making network requests, plain and simple.
4. Examine if you really need certain plugins/add-ons in the browser.
Browsers like Firefox make it easy to install plugins but this can lead to network choke if sharing a wireless connection when you have too many of them installed.
Examine what you need and what you don’t. Obviously the best way to run Firefox is “bare” if network speed is a concerned on a shared connection.
5. For computers idling on the network, shut them down when not in use.
Other than buying a new router to accommodate for your traffic, this is by far the easiest thing to do because it doesn’t cost anything and all you have to know how to do is shut off a computer when not in use (duh).