Computers and other devices on a network share a finite capacity of resources, and that's true for wired and wireless (Wi-Fi) networks. When you connect a laptop, a couple of PCs, and some smartphones to your network, it's harder to stream Netflix or Hulu on your TV. That's because as more devices connect to a network, it takes more bandwidth. The router determines where capacity is needed and where it's being used the most. It then pulls indiscriminately to keep all devices working at some level.
How Many Devices Can Connect to a Router?
Most home networks and public Wi-Fi hotspots function with a single wireless access point (a broadband router in the case of home networking). Conversely, business computer networks install multiple access points to expand their wireless network coverage to a larger physical area.
Each access point has limits for the number of connections and the amount of network load it can handle. By integrating multiple access points into a larger network, the overall scale is increased.
Theoretical Limits of Wi-Fi Network Scaling
Many individual wireless routers and other access points can support up to approximately 250 connected devices.
From a wired perspective, routers can accommodate a small number (usually between one and four) of wired Ethernet clients with the rest connected over wireless.
The speed rating of access points represents the maximum theoretical network bandwidth each can support. A Wi-Fi router rated at 300 Mbps with 100 devices connected, for example, can only offer, on average, 3 Mbps to each (300/100=3).
If you're not sure what your router can support, do a web search for the model number, and you should be able to find it that way.
Most people only use their network connection occasionally, and a router shifts its available bandwidth to the devices that need it. Those shifts depend on what a particular device needs at a particular time.Ach5 / Daniel Fishel
Practical Limits of Wi-Fi Network Scaling
Most people don't have anywhere near the maximum number of devices a typical router can hold. That's a good thing, because connecting 250 devices to a single Wi-Fi access point, while theoretically possible, is not feasible for a few reasons.
Administrators often keep limits in place to keep the routers and networks running reliably.
On home networks, all devices typically share a single internet connection. The performance degrades as more devices join the network and use it simultaneously. Even a handful of active devices streaming video or downloading files can quickly max out a shared internet link.
Access points overheat and stop working when operating at extreme loads for extended periods, even if handling only local traffic and not accessing the internet.
A large number of Wi-Fi devices concentrated in close physical proximity, like a home or office building, generates wireless signal interference. Radio interference among Wi-Fi devices degrades network performance (due to frequent re-broadcasting of messages that fail to reach their destination) and eventually causes connection drops.
Some home routers include a feature that allows administrators to control the number of clients that can simultaneously connect. Many Linksys routers, for example, set a default maximum of 50 devices.
How to Maximize Your Network's Potential
Installing a second router or access point on a home network can help distribute the network load. By adding more access points to the network, any number of devices can be supported. However, this makes the network progressively more challenging to manage.
Something else you can do if you have one or more routers that support a large number of devices is to increase the bandwidth available to each simultaneously connected device by upping your subscription with your ISP. For example, if your network devices and internet subscription download at 1 Gbps, having 50 devices connected at once lets each device consume up to 20 megabits of data per second.
Some people use mesh networks to improve wireless network coverage in their homes. These networks provide better coverage because they consist of interlocked routers that supply internet coverage over a broad area, which most traditional, single router networks can't offer.
Thinking of buying a new router? There are lots of brands on the market and we've done our research to ferret out the best ones for you. Read our roundups to see which ones best fit your situation.The 10 Best Linksys Routers of 2021The 7 Best Routers for Under $50 in 2021