Figuring out why your home internet connection is slow can be nearly impossible. We’ve put together a list of tips on how to make your internet faster, no matter where you live.
There’s a great meme floating around that suggests that WiFi might be the most basic step in Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs – and for good reason: wireless networking has become a necessity for just about anyone that uses the internet. It’s not just for browsing the web anymore; a modern house might have a television, a refrigerator, several light bulbs, and its deadbolts connected to WiFi – and that’s before you count the myriad of notebooks, tablets, and or phones a house full of people might have.
We’re focusing on problems within the home – most of the time, that means figuring out why your WiFi is so slow. If you’ve gone through the list and your internet is still slow, call your internet service provider and have them come out to check the line.
What makes your WiFi slow?
While everyone’s situation is different, there are two main issues that can slow down your WiFi. One of them is sort of under your control, and one isn’t. The first problem is signal attenuation. Depending on where you put your wireless router, you might simply have weak coverage in parts of your living space that are the furthest away – if it’s in your living room, your rear bedroom might have issues; if it’s upstairs, then downstairs might have an issue, etc.
Distance isn’t the only WiFi attenuator in your house: while radio waves can pass through your building, for the most part, different materials will have different effects. If you move to a new place with a similar layout, you might find that your WiFi is much weaker or much stronger, even if you’re the same distance away. One enterprising redditor found a document (warning, it’s in German) detailing the radio attenuation of some common building materials:
Another common reason you might have WiFi issues is simple interference. Most WiFi networks fall within fairly narrow frequency ranges, known as channels. If you’re in an area with a lot of wireless access points, you can actually end up with many networks operating on the same channels, and this results in interference – interference that can slow down your own networks. There can be other, non-WiFi interference, too, as anything that operates in the unlicensed 2.4GHz spectrum can cause issues (a very common example is the typical microwave). For the most part, however, this kind of interference is mostly periodic and not enduring, so it’s less of a concern.
How to speed up your WiFi
There are a few things you can do to speed up the networking within your home. The easiest and cheapest is to move your router to as central a location as is possible. This isn’t always possible, since you’ll need to be hooked up to either a cable or phone line (or fiber, if you’re lucky enough to have fiber internet), but most residences have a little bit of wiggle room.
If you’re unwilling or unable to move your router to the most central room of your house, consider putting it in or near the area where you spend most of your time. That might mean a home office, a basement, a kitchen, or the living room. Either way, the closer you are to your router, the stronger your signal will be (and thus the faster it will be, as well).
New WiFi technology is much, much faster
In the past few years, we’ve seen new standards come out that govern how WiFi operates. Newer standards have, for the most part, introduced faster and faster connections, with a few caveats. The protocol that details how WiFi works is called 802.11, usually followed by a lowercase letter, depending on which standard you’re using.
If you’ll pardon the alphabet soup: 802.11b has very likely been phased out, but there are still a few 802.11g routers, with the majority being 802.11n, and the latest generation known as 802.11ac. Each of these has been markedly faster than the last, for a number of reasons. It must be pointed out that each protocol has a very high “theoretical maximum” that real world conditions will never reach. Having said that, if you upgrade your network hardware, there’s a good chance that you’ll see a stronger signal, and with a stronger signal comes faster internet speeds.
Upgrading your network in this way can be a little tricky – both your router and the chip inside of your laptop, iPhone, Android, or tablet each follow one of those protocols we talked about above. Buying a more advanced router, however, can help you get the best possible speeds out of your devices, and as you upgrade your mobile gadgets, they’ll all take advantage of the newer technologies.
You can add additional WiFi access points to make your internet faster
Most customers will stick with whatever equipment gets installed when your internet provider first comes to set up your service. Unfortunately, those sorts of combination modems and WiFi routers don’t always give you the best service. If you really wish to stick to a single WiFi access point, you should buy a separate router and follow the instructions to hook it up to your cable or DSL modem.
Extend it with a wired network
If you’re open to adding some more WiFi access points to your house, however, you can drastically improve the coverage. The best way to do this is to run Ethernet cables from wherever you’ve put your WiFi router to the area where you want to put your new access point (these can sometimes be called WiFi “repeaters”).
You can use another router set to “access point mode” or buy a new access point explicitly for this function. Wired networks are preferred because it guarantees you’ll the maximum amount of speed for your environment.
Extend your network wirelessly
Not up for running a bunch of cabling through your walls or floors? That’s okay, there’s another option that might work for you. You can actually extend your network completely without wires. The extra repeaters or access points will connect to your wireless network and extend your WiFi to whatever room they’re in. These don’t work quite as well as using a wired network for a couple of reasons:
- You need to place them in area where they have good reception on your pre-existing network. That means you can’t put them straight in the room where your poor signal is, and you might need more to cover a given area.
- Because of how they connect to each other wirelessly, it will cut (in half or more, depending on how complicated you get) your network speeds, sometimes substantially. The good news is that this is unlikely to affect your actual internet speed unless you have a package that hits speeds of 150Mbps or more. Anything less and you’re unlikely to notice.
There are two products that work very well for this sort of setup. If you have at least one iPhone or Mac in your house, Apple’s AirPort Extreme works well as a primary router, with the cheaper AirPort Express modules serving as wireless extenders. These will work regardless of the kind of devices you have, but having something made by Apple makes the setup much easier thanks to purpose-made apps.
A relative newcomer on the scene, Eero uses identical routers to spread your network throughout your house. Early reviews praise the devices, but they are expensive: a single device is $199, while a 3-pack can be purchased for $499.
Extend your network with powerline networking
The final easy way to extend your wireless network coverage is through a technology known as powerline networking. You’ll find these products with labels like powerline, power-line, HomePlug, and more. These kits work by sending your network over the electrical lines inside of your house or apartment. Just plug one in next to your router, plug a second one in somewhere else, and connect your WiFi access point to that plug.
The one downside to this sort of connection is that its performance will vary wildly from house to house. They have to be plugged directly into an outlet, you might get spotty performance if you have to cross a number of circuits, change floors, etc. With the right conditions, however, they work really well. Our favorite model is ZyXEL Powerline AV1200.
Switch the channel your router uses for WiFi
Remember when we talked about channels above? If your WiFi runs on the same channel as a number of other networks in your neighborhood or building, you might run into some interference and slowdown issues.
What you may not know is that you can often force your network to use a different channel. By default, a good router will analyze the radio environment, look for the least “polluted” channel and move your network over accordingly. Sometimes these don’t work well, and taking manual control can deliver better performance.
Look for a “WiFi spectrum analyzer” app – they’re made for Windows, Mac, iPhone and Android. Run it, and you’ll be able to see every network within range of where you are, and a lot of information about each – the network’s name, its signal strength, and the channel it runs on. Figure which channel has the least traffic, and move your network over.
This isn’t an ideal solution, as some channels still overlap, but it can solve some of the worst of your issues. It’s also only an issue for 2.4GHz networks. If you have a 5GHz network, too (if your WiFi router says 802.11n or 802.11ac, you do), you probably don’t need change anything around, as there are many, many more channels, and the automatic tool should do a better job.
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