And 7 things you can do about it.
First let’s organize the components of good wireless internet.
- A good connection from your ISP.
- A good modem.
- A good wireless router.
- Placement of the router.
- Proper wireless channel selection.
- Size of the house.
- Wireless-N quirks
What you can do:
1. Ensuring a good connection from your ISP.
The best thing to do about this is to make sure you’re getting the speeds you’re paying for. The easiest way to do that is by plugging a computer or laptop directly into the modem and run a speedtest on speedtest.net. Keep in mind that a few factors can affect the results of this test.
- A bad modem (see the next section)
- A computer infected with viruses, spyware, or running slow in general.
2. Making the most of your connection with a good modem
Most Internet Service Providers will provide a modem for your connection. For some ISP’s it’s included but increasingly it’s at a small monthly fee.
The modems provided have also likely been through hell over the years and are usually the cheapest junk the ISP can buy in bulk. It’s also likely the first item an ISP will replace in in troubleshooting your connection because it’s cheaper to ask you to swap it at the store than it is to come out and check your wiring.
Ok with that rant over there is some good news. In most cases you can buy your own modem and if you’re planning on being with the same ISP for at least the next two years investing in a good modem will do a few key things for you.
- Pay for itself by saving you on monthly modem rental fees.
- Provide a better, more reliable, connection.
- Offer insight into cable line signal levels. (Good information for telling the cable company there’s something wrong)
For Cable internet those signals should be:
- Between 40-50 dBmV for transmit (TX) signal
- Between 8 and -8 for receive signal (RX)
- Signal to noise should be around 32dB
For cable modems I would recommend Motorola/Arris modems. I use the Motorola SB6121 and have not had one issue with it. Also make sure it at least supports DOCSIS 3 which is the standard for cable internet speeds above 15Mbps
Motorola Diagnostics page
Looking at the diagnostics page for my modem (192.168.100.1) it’s showing about 38dB for signal to noise, 4 dBmV for RX and 41-43 dBmV for TX and it’s been a solid connection.
For DSL modems unfortunately I don’t have a good recommendation since I don’t use DSL internet but I imagine whatever you can buy is probably better than what they have just don’t go too cheap.
3. Good Router
Like most things in life it’s “Garbage In, Garbage Out” and as I’ve written here it’s starts with a good connection from your ISP, supported by a good Modem which then gets passed to your router.
Arguably the wireless router is one of the most important parts of your wireless connection and it seems quite obvious. What’s not always obvious though is what routers have to deal with. In my house I have a list of 16 devices connected wirelessly and that’s probably not up to date. It’s not that crazy of a number either with a family of four. 3 of us have smart phones, then there’s tablets, laptops, smart TV devices (Roku) for Netflix, Game Consoles, Smart Thermostat, the list goes on and one device is responsible for managing them all on one internet connection. The number is probably not going to get smaller either.
If you have an old router it’s easy to see how it may have been designed for a time when people had much fewer wireless devices in their home and could struggle with the load. If you receive a wireless router from your ISP please see the Rant above as it’s the same issues (they’re old, used, & bought in bulk and cheap).
I use an Asus RT-N10P because I found it dirt cheap with a rebate through Newegg.com and it’s suits me well. It’s a bit under powered and doesn’t really reach my garage or basement well without a repeater but for a small apartment it would be great.
Personal recommendations aside I would take a look here for better suggestions: http://thewirecutter.com/reviews/best-wi-fi-router/
I’ve been reading their reviews and bought products they’ve recommended and I’m happy with them and they are very knowledgeable people as far as I can tell.
I am anxious to also see reviews on how Google’s new wireless performs but as of this writing there’s still a waiting list on a release announcement (https://store.google.com/product/google_wifi).
4. Router Placement
I’m not sure how many people think about this but, from what I can tell, it seems that wherever the ISP installs the modem is where people place their wireless and call it a day. Ideally though you want a central area of your home that can equally reach either side of your house with as few walls in between as possible. Easier said than done in most cases but starting from a good placement helps a lot.
5. Wireless Channel Selection
This is probably my favorite section because this is probably where I’ve learned the most about wireless. For starters in the United States on 2.4Ghz routers (most common) there are 11 channels but you only need to select from 1 of 3 channels as the rest are garbage. Those choices are 1, 6, & 11. Want to know why? There’s a great explanation and visual on this page: https://www.dd-wrt.com/wiki/index.php/Wireless-N_Configuration just scroll to the section labeled “Table of 2.4GHz Channels“ (The article is also useful if you have trouble sleeping).
The take away from that is for 2.4Ghz wireless choose one of those channels (your router’s manual will tell you how) and if you have trouble with the signal try one of the other two. A lot of modern routers do offer automatic channel selection but especially in apartment areas with many routers I don’t trust that idea.
Better wireless through Android
There is an amazing app available for Android phones and tablets that is an absolute essential for wireless troubleshooting called Wifi Analyzer (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.farproc.wifi.analyzer).
This screen here:
Shows the channel your wireless is set to and very simply applies star ratings to other channels available and tells you which channels are better than what you have selected now. In my case it looks like I’m getting some interference on channel 1 and if I look at the next screen I can see why:
This is a graph of channels in the area and signal strength and mine (Blank-Fi) is closest and strongest but it definitely has some competition. I may change it to channel 6 after finishing this write-up.
A note about 5Ghz
If you’re really struggling with wireless getting a router that supports 5Ghz bands is a good idea. Not everyone has them so there’s more open channels to select from. The downside is that a lot of wireless clients you probably already own PS3, Laptop, Tablet, Phone etc. don’t have a 5Ghz option. Laptops can be upgraded with USB devices but other devices are more difficult. It’s a great option for congested apartment complexes though.
6. Size of the house
Sometimes a house is just too big or it’s construction is too intrusive for wireless to work well on it’s own. In this case it’s worth looking into one or more wireless repeaters to increase the available wireless signal in the home. For that again I recommend checking with these guys http://thewirecutter.com/reviews/best-wi-fi-extender/ or keeping an eye on reviews for Google’s new Wifi Router
7. Wireless-N Quirks
I almost forgot about these quirks but they are very important things to be aware of. If your a techie you’re probably aware of most of the things I’ve mentioned above but these are things that even some technically apt people don’t know.
First is choosing the correct encryption. On most routers for home use you have WPA and WPA2 personal for options. This one is easy, choose WPA2 and stick with it unless you find something old in your house that doesn’t support it and needs to be connected. The next part is what trips people up. Inside WPA and WPA2 options you have a choice of AES, TKIP, or AES+TKIP encryption. Most people probably leave this at the defaults and annoyingly I’ve seen the defaults be the wrong setting. The right setting is AES. Why you ask? Simple because any other setting will magically downgrade your wireless connection from wireless-N or above (150Mbps and up) down to wireless-G (54Mbps) speeds.
The last one is another setting that has a magic downgrade to Wireless-G and I used to turn it off because I thought it was a feature that was consuming CPU resources on the router and that is Wi-Fi Multimedia (WMM). Make sure that’s on and your router will meet Wireless-N specs and operate at higher speeds.
Both are also mentioned in this article: https://www.dd-wrt.com/wiki/index.php/Wireless-N_Configuration
If you made it here you’re a scholar and a gentleman and I’m impressed. Thanks for reading. I hope this post is helpful & useful to someone out there. Feel free to comment below and tell me I’m wrong then share it with everyone on how you “schooled” me. 🙂