The coronavirus pandemic is now entering its third year, meaning many former commuters are now in their third year of working from home. Even people who are back in the office a few days a week are often working from home more than before the pandemic started. If your Wi-Fi goes down, becomes slow, or drops out at inopportune times, here’s how to get it working again, ranging from free and basic to complicated and rather expensive.
Test your connection
Your first step is to understand the nature of the problem: is the internet bad in your entire house or only in certain areas or on certain devices? Does it fall or slow down randomly during the day or only during certain activities? Is the problem your internet connection, your wifi signal or something else?
The easiest way to get started is to run an internet speed test. On a computer, go to speedtest.net; on a phone or tablet, download and run the Speedtest app (iOS, android). Make sure you are using your Wi-Fi instead of mobile data and any VPNs are disconnected.
Because this test measures the speed and latency of your connection to a server on the Internet, it will never exceed the speed of your Internet connection or your Wi-Fi, whichever is lower. It also can’t distinguish between a slow internet connection and a poor Wi-Fi signal (unless it drops out halfway through). We have other tools for that.
Some routers can run speed tests directly from the web interface. If you can do that, you should. If yours doesn’t and you have a computer with an Ethernet port that you can plug directly into your router, you’ll need to run Speedtest from there. Both should give you a result that is within the range of the speed you pay your ISP for. If not, it’s time to give them a call and complain – or switch providers if possible. (See “Buying More Bandwidth” below.)
Check your WiFi signal strength
If you have more than enough bandwidth at home, it’s time to check the Wi-Fi. You can use speed tests as a fast proxy for signal strength. Check your speed and ping in different rooms. Start right next to the router and then move further and further away, noting any places with significantly slower download and upload speeds or higher ping than others.
You can also check your signal strength directly on most laptops and Android phones.
On a Mac, holding Option and clicking the Wi-Fi icon in your top bar will give you a ton of detail, including signal strength or RSSI (received signal strength indicator) and interference, which is a measure of the strength of competing signals on the same channel. On Android phones, you can use an app like the open source Wifi analyzer; on Windows, the seemingly unrelated WiFi Analyzer does the same job. Both also show a lot more information about your Wi-Fi neighborhood, which can be helpful later, but for now we only care about signal strength.
Any number above -70dBm should indicate a decent connection. If your signal strength is lower (meaning -71 dBm or worse, since these are negative numbers) and your router isn’t old, here are a few free things you can try to improve your signal. Try them one by one and check your connection after each connection to see if it helped.
Move your router
If the bandwidth or signal strength tests show dead spots in your home, try relocating your wireless router. It’s not at all uncommon for a Wi-Fi router to be stuck in the corner of a house or apartment near the wall where the service enters your home. That’s the worst place for it. Wi-Fi is radio; radios have a limited range and sometimes struggle to penetrate walls. If practical, you can try moving your router to a more central location by using a longer wall jack cable.
If you can’t move the router far, at least try to keep the router away from cabinets and away from large pieces of metal, such as refrigerators, desktop computers, or microwaves. Wi-Fi also doesn’t do well near a lot of water, so stay away from 100 gallon aquariums.
Even moving books and clutter away from your router can reduce interference and increase your signal strength. It also helps increase airflow to the router to prevent overheating. Speaking of which:
Clean your router
This may sound crazy, but when was the last time you cleaned your router? If your router’s vents are clogged with dust or pet hair, it will overheat more easily, throttling the processor and freezing your connection.
Go to another band
Modern Wi-Fi works on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency bands. The latter is faster and less subject to interference, but it doesn’t travel as far and can’t penetrate walls either. The former is more robust, but has lower maximum speeds and is prone to interference from microwave ovens, some older cordless phones, and (especially) neighboring Wi-Fi signals.
The usual advice here is to switch as many devices as possible to 5GHz. And if you’re having trouble on the 2.4GHz band, that can help. The 5GHz channels aren’t as crowded, and the lack of range can actually work to your advantage, as your router isn’t as bothered by neighbor interference.
On the other hand, if your device is already on 5GHz and can’t get a decent signal, try switching to 2.4GHz. The greater range could make all the difference.
Side note: Many modern routers have a feature that basically boils down to giving the 2.4GHz and 5GHz the same name and letting the router figure out which one to assign each device to. In practice, it usually just slides any device it can onto the 5GHz band, regardless of the signal. It may be better to keep them separate if your router allows it.
Second side note: Wi-Fi 6E routers have a 6GHz band in addition to the other two, but Wi-Fi 6E devices are still rare and 6GHz has an even worse range than 5GHz.
Change the channel
If there are many other Wi-Fi networks in your area, you may be experiencing radio interference. Some routers are designed to detect interference and pick their own manageable frequencies, but not all are equally good at finding clearer frequencies as conditions change.
You can use one of the Wi-Fi Analyzer apps mentioned above to explore the radio environment, then go into your router’s settings and manually switch to a less crowded channel.
Plug it in
Any device that’s on Ethernet is one that doesn’t compete for Wi-Fi signal or is limited by Wi-Fi transfer speeds. It is an elegant weapon from a more civilized time.
Options that cost money
Buy more bandwidth
Data requirements creep in to us, and you’re probably using more bandwidth than you used to. Perhaps several people are now working from home and doing a lot of video calls. Maybe you bought a new TV during the pandemic and are enjoying 4K Netflix, or you’ve started interactive gaming, or your kids are home from school before you finish work, or a combination of all these things. It adds up.
There’s no point in improving your home Wi-Fi coverage if your ISP is blocking traffic. View your invoice or log into your ISP’s customer portal to see your current plan and upgrade options. Depending on where you live, your ISP may be offering higher bandwidth plans than the last time you checked, or they may have competition from cable, fiber, or even cellular carriers. Especially if you still have DSL service from your local phone company, check to see if there isn’t a faster alternative in your area. In many parts of the country, it’s now easy to find plans with 100 Mbps and above — or even gigabit and more. If your connection doesn’t slow down until the end of the month, you may also run into monthly data caps, although ISPs usually warn you if that’s the problem.
Buy a Wi-Fi Extender (But Probably Not)
You may not be able to move your router or moving it didn’t help. If your router is relatively new and you don’t want to replace it and you only have problems in one part of your home, you can purchase a range extender. Most router companies now sell range extenders designed to work with their routers as an à la carte mesh network system. Or just grab one cheap TP-Link.
Range extenders can be useful in certain situations, but they are not very efficient and do not deliver well fast connections everywhere. If all you need is a signal, any kind of signal, they’ll come in handy for that. Otherwise, a mesh router (see below) is generally a better option.
Buy a new router or mesh network kit
Replacing your entire Wi-Fi setup is the nuclear option for improving your bandwidth, but you should think about it if your router is more than five years old. If your home is over about 2,000 square feet, has multiple stories, or has a layout that makes it difficult for a single Wi-Fi router to cover, consider a mesh network like Eero or TP-Link Deco. Otherwise, a single powerful router like the Asus RT-AX86U is a good bet.
We’re starting to see more and more routers and mesh networking kits that support Wi-Fi 6E – which adds a 6GHz band – but few devices do so now, aside from some recent high-end Android phones and Windows laptops. Wi-Fi 6 is still fine. But if you’re considering a new router or mesh kit and need to upgrade your computer or phone soon, consider Wi-Fi 6E.
In the end, it’s worth making sure your home Wi-Fi network is working properly — especially when it comes to your income or your kids’ education — and probably the cost, too.