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How to Solve WiFi Speed and Connection Problems

By Jack M. Germain
May 14, 2020 10:49 AM PT
how to identify wifi problems and boost network performance

In theory, all you need is a shiny new router for hassle-free wireless connections in your home or small office. Yet in practice, your wireless reception often will be plagued with interference issues.

Interference can cause slow delivery, higher latency than hardwired connections, frequent disconnects and reconnects, and sometimes a complete inability to access a WiFi signal. These problems can be tricky to solve. Unless you are lucky, the solution is not as simple as changing routers.

Your goal is twofold: 1) You want to avoid paying for hardwired Internet connections throughout your house or office to bypass slow or unstable wireless connectivity; 2)You want to avoid buying more expensive wireless routers that still might be subject to interference.

Your home or office WiFi network distributes Internet bandwidth using radio signals. It is the same technology that FM radio, smartphones and television rabbit-ears use. It is susceptible to the same kinds of problems -- interference, penetration blocks and range limitations.

Typically, you can trace wireless connectivity problems to a shortlist of culprits: signal congestion, router location, firmware issues, hardware shortcomings, and the physical size of your home or office.

However, your WiFi problems also could be caused by your neighbors. One of the most common sources of WiFi interference is WiFi signals and static from nearby electrical supplies. That is where your neighbors come into the picture.

Use the following suggestions to fine-tune your WiFi setup.

1. Survey the Terrain

If you have wireless issues, first make sure that the hardwired connection from your service provider or ISP is not at fault. Some providers include WiFi service as a feature of the Internet cable modem.

You can verify that the hardwired Internet pipe to your home is functioning correctly by calling your ISP. The technician can perform tests on the line remotely, reset your connection, and get you to run speed tests with a laptop hardwired to the modem. Upon finding a problem, the technician can schedule a service call to your property to fix the problem.

If your wireless service comes strictly from a mobile WiFi device, skip the ISP diagnosis and focus on troubleshooting to solve router issues. In this case, your goal is to protect your mobile WiFi device from penetration and interference factors.

Conduct a survey to eliminate potential culprits. Rule out each of these items by trial and error:

  • Location counts. Is your router stashed in a distant corner of your workspace or office? Is it low to the floor or blocked by furniture? Move it to a higher spot. The clearer the line of sight, the better the connectivity. Try placing your router as close to the center of your home as possible.
  • Unplug your computer from the modem or router. Then turn off the computer and switch off all other devices connected to the network, including any media-streaming gadgets. Reboot your modem and allow it to fully power on. Then power on the additional router, if you have one, and wait for the lights to stabilize. Last, power on your computer and connect it to the wireless signal.
  • Do an Internet search for your ISP's speed test website, or use a third-party speed test website. If you get poor results for the hardwired connection, contact your ISP. A bad wired connection breeds a terrible wireless feed. WiFi connections, by nature, are slower. Download speeds will be faster than upload speeds.

2. Identify the Competition

If you discover that your wireless results are much too slow, or vary drastically with each test you run, it is time to expand your on-site survey. Start looking for nearby devices in your home or office that could be causing signal interference.

Routers often compete with commonly used devices like cordless phones, Bluetooth speakers, microwave ovens and baby monitors. Temporarily turn off all such devices and check the WiFi connection. Turn on each device one by one to find the offender. Moving the wireless router elsewhere can minimize or eliminate the interference.

You may find that reception falls off in other parts of your home or office. That indicates a penetration or range issue, or both. In this case, expand your survey to the areas where signal strength is poor.

  • Download a WiFi-analyzing app for your smartphone. A good choice is Farproc's WiFi Analyzer for Android, which has a real-time signal strength meter. Others apps are available too. You can obtain Farproc's free app from the Google Play store.
  • Create an actual WiFi heat map of your area using a free tool like WiFi Heatmap, a network analyzer and signal meter available at Google Play. Netspot works for Macs and Windows computers. You also can use an app like the free WiFi Analyzer for Android, which has a real-time signal strength meter.
  • Another good option is Network Analyzer, an all-in-one iPhone and Android app for network analysis, scanning and problem detection.

3. Change Channels

Commonly used connected home devices use a block of tiny-wave 2.4 GHz frequencies, which have difficulty penetrating solid, mass-like walls. The 2.4 GHz frequencies, called "channels," are commonly used by neighboring WiFi networks and so can cause interference.

WiFi standards split WiFi signals in the 2.4 GHz block into up to 14 overlapping channels that act like a range of frequencies. The channels are designed to work together, but when two or more adjacent networks use the same channel they can interfere with each other, reducing bandwidth.

You can change your network's WiFi channel to one that is not being used nearby.

Open the router configuration dashboard from within a PC browser connected to your router. Refer to the router manual for instructions and password. Perform a Web-based search based on model number for a copy if you need it.

Then open the router's wireless tab. Select an available unused channel. Save the configuration and check the connection results.

This can be helpful if you live or work in an apartment or condo-style building. If a nearby WiFi network operates on the same channel as your network, change yours.

4. Juggle Channels

Household appliances -- including cordless phones, baby monitors and microwave ovens -- can cause wireless interference. When they are in use, your WiFi network can cut out. This situation is one of the chief causes of so-called "intermittent connectivity." It can take some clever sleuthing to track down the offending device or devices.

This can happen when a device uses the same channel. Co-channel interference also can result when access points are placed too close together or are configured with an output power that is too high.

An easy way to reduce or eliminate interference from other WiFi equipment is to enable auto-channel if it's available on your devices. WiFi access points that use auto-channel periodically scan the WiFi spectrum and select the clearest channel based on what other WiFi signals are visible.

Another option is to purchase and use cordless phones and headsets that do not use the 2.4 or 5GHz frequencies. Newer cordless phone systems use DECT 6.0 technology and the 1.9GHz band, not the 2.4GHz or 5.8GHz bands.

The same fix can work with a baby monitor or other video monitoring devices. For instance, many baby monitors operate at 900MHz and do not interfere with WiFi. However, some wireless monitors are 2.4GHz, which can interfere with 802.11g or single-band 802.11n routers.

5. Check Penetration

Penetration -- or lack thereof -- is a physical circumstance to consider as a cause when your WiFi signal does not reach devices in other rooms in your house. It is similar to range issues, but even routers with the capability of going the distance can be hampered by physical barriers in your home or office.

For example, do not place the router near reflective surfaces like glass, mirrors and metal. WiFi signals tend to bounce off them. Walls, especially those made of concrete, can severely degrade your WiFi signal.

All metallic surfaces reflect WiFi signals. Signals can bounce off windows, mirrors, metal file cabinets and stainless steel countertops, reducing both network range and performance.

Water -- think fish tanks and water lines behind walls -- can absorb WiFi signals, dramatically affecting your signal strength. Heavy interference can come from nearby TVs, Halogen lamps and electrical dimmer switches. Stereo or computer speakers can cause interference. So can placing a router near power lines in a wall.

One useful option to mitigate these circumstances, other than moving the router or the mobile device, is to install a series of WiFi extenders. You plug these tiny devices into a wall socket, pair them with the router, and have better WiFi signal range.

6. Buy New Gear

Two other options exist to cure consistently bad WiFi. Either update an older router's firmware or buy a new router.

Old firmware is often the culprit. Keeping your firmware up-to-date can minimize or outright eliminate ongoing connectivity problems.

To upgrade firmware on older devices, you have to access the router's administrative interface through a Web browser. Newer routers let you update by pushing a button on the device.

Sometimes, the easiest cure is simply getting a new router. The latest models offer improved WiFi speeds as well as better penetration and range.

Look for a router with an 802.11 N or AC technology with dual- or triple-band capabilities. AC routers have a maximum spectral bandwidth of around 8 x 160 MHz, compared to the 4 x 40 MHz standard of N routers. This increased bandwidth allows more data to be transmitted without slowing down.

Consider a router with multiple bands. This solution would let you keep older 2.4GHz devices on their own bands while allocating newer devices that support the latest WiFi standards to the higher bands. In essence, it lets you function as if you had multiple routers.

One of the newest WiFi network improvements is a Mesh network. This technology is a bit more costly than installing WiFi extenders, but you might find it necessary in hard-core reception situations. Mesh routers are designed to spread a WiFi network's coverage through multiple access points.


Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open source technologies. He has written numerous reviews of Linux distros and other open source software. Email Jack.


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