7 Reasons Your Wireless Sucks, and What You Should Do

The faster things become, the quicker we are used to them. Just 10 years ago, we were all using 56k modems. Now with Fios and Cable modems pushing 10mb and higher connections, we’re grown accustomed to our internet being super fast. Although sometimes, its not. Many times a slow connection has nothing to do with Verizon, Cablevision, Comcast or AT&T. Sometimes it’s your wireless router that’s slowing everyone down.

Is it misconfigured? Is it inside a metal vault? Is it nearing the end of it’s lifespan? Or, is it just too far away? Here are 7 reasons why your wireless sucks and what you can do about it.

The AP, The Airwaves, or You:

There’s three main area to look at why your wireless isn’t working. The Access Point (AP) or Router, the airwaves around you, or your computer’s wireless situation.

#1. Interference in the airwaves:

When interference happens, your connection will slow down to a snail’s pace. Why? Because the data being sent / received is messed up and needs to be retransmitted. This causes your AP and Mac to need extra time to send / receive it’s data.

The Reason: Wireless networks operate in two different frequency bands: 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz. Depending on your wireless gear, you either operate in one or both of them. These frequency zones are licensed to all sorts of other electronic devices – not just wireless connections. Cordless phones, garage door openers, baby monitors and microwaves are all common devices that will spew out interference.

What to do: Well, if it’s something you can’t live without, you can try moving your AP to a better location. For example, if your AP is next to the baby monitor, move it away from it. Understand that when you’re using your cordless phone, the internet may slow down. Try moving to a different area. If possible, try finding a cordless phone that operates in a different frequency range than your AP. 5Ghz cordless phones are less likely to interfere, if you’re running a G wireless network.

#2. Other devices / networks nearby:

Sometimes the interference comes from other Access Points in the area, especially in densely populated apartment buildings, cities or homes built close together.

The Reason: Wireless internet runs on different frequency zones or channels. In the US, this means channel 1, 6 or 11. By default, most Access Points are set at channel 6. If everyone is running on the same channel, the airwaves get crowded and when they do, your wireless connection slows down either from retransmits or collision avoidance measures.

What to do: Scan your network with an app like MacStumbler and see what channel everyone else is on. Then set your AP to use a less crowded channel. For example, if everyone is on 6 or 11, set your router to use channel 1. Remember, only use the recommended channels for your country. In the US it’s 1, 6, and 11.

#3. Congestion on your network:

Somewhat related to the busy neighborhood in the previous reason, but this time it’s congestion on your network. If you’ve got 3 laptops, a PSP, and 4 iPhones all running on the same AP, you may begin to crowd your Access Point.

The Reason: APs, especially home models, can handle only a certain number of connections. Whether it’s throughput, memory for it’s ARP and Routing tables, or number of open connections, once you go past a certain number of clients, you’ll begin to push the router’s limits.

What to do: For one, limit any potentially unauthorized connections by securing your AP with a password. Next, if you’ve got a particularly large network of wireless devices, consider a second AP to take the load off the first one. Set them up on a small switch, and give them different channels / names. Before you run out and buy another AP, try disconnecting a few devices and seeing if results improve.

#4. Distance from your Access Point:

Just because your Airport Base Station is in your house doesn’t mean it’s signal goes everywhere. Like any radio, once you go past a certain distance, the signal fades. When this happens, your Transmit Rate goes down and so does your connection speed.

The Reason: The common 802.11 wireless specs are as follows: 100-150 feet indoors for 802.11b/g (A common but older wireless spec), and around 200-230 feet indoors for 802.11n (The current wireless spec). These are max distances, but as you go past certain distance ranges, the signal decreases and so does your connection rate, even if it still connects to the wireless network. So you could be about 175 feet from an 802.11n Base Station, and have a connection – but it may not be so good.

What to do: Move your AP to an area that is more central for your home. If not, just remember that in certain rooms / areas, it may not be a great connection. Another piece of advice, the antennae is set to radiate downwards, not upwards. Putting your AP on a higher floor will increase coverage. Putting an AP in the basement is a surefire way to have bad wireless at home.

#5. Where your AP / Router is located:

As we say in the last reason, distance is a factor in wireless coverage, but many people don’t realize that the building materials also play a role in wireless coverage. Basements with concrete walls are horrible for wireless signals. Metal ductwork and pipes, aluminum, glass and heavy doors also affect wireless signals.

The Reason: Each building material has it’s own properties for radio frequencies. Basically, some materials absorb the signal, others reflect it. Anything metal or metallic in nature is going to block wireless signals. Thickness is also a factor. A thick concrete wall is going to stop your signal more than a thin interior wall. Glass will reflect the signal, causing echoes and interference.

What to do: Take note of your home and move your access point around. Be mindful of thick walls, metal ducts, large metal pipes / plumbing, metal doors, and window / mirror reflections. Sometimes just moving the AP over a few feet changes the signal strength dramatically.

#6. Router can’t handle the traffic:

Depending on what you do on the internet, you may be stressing out your router. Bit Torrent, online gaming and anything that requires it to handle and keep track of large numbers of multiple connections is a workout for it. An older or lower spec router may lock up after a while.

The Reason: Routers and AP’s need to keep track of open connections (NAT), device locations (ARP Table) and routes to different networks (Routing Table). To do this they are basically little computers that do only one job – routing traffic. They have processors and memory just like a regular computer. An older or lower spec AP may not have the horsepower to keep up with the workload. An older AP may have memory issues or memory leaks in it’s programming that cause it to act badly when it’s overworked.

What to do: You’ll know your AP is overworked if it locks up or works really slowly when there’s a few clients connected or after you fire up your Torrent client. Restarting your AP always fixes this. Just unplug the power cord, wait a few seconds and plug it back in. If you have to restart it frequently (more than once or twice a day), you may want to consider a new AP. Especially if it locks up regularly with more than one client connected.

#7. Outdated equipment:

Sometimes everything is fine with your wireless – it’s in a good location, no interference, not overworked and only one or two clients are connected. However it still is painfully slow.. Perhaps it’s outdated equipment.

The Reason: Since 2003, 802.11g has been the default for most wireless devices. In the past 2 years, that’s moving to 802.11n. Anything older than this is running 802.11b and 802.11b is slow. If you have an 802.11b AP / Router, you’re not going any faster than 4.3Mbps (Typical Throughput), even with that new MacBook Pro and 802.11n card. Additionally, because of the way 802.11b was designed, it creates some serious pain for 802.11n networks broadcasting over the 2.4Ghz range.

What to do: Check your wireless equipment – Laptop, Desktop, Mobile Devices, and AP. If you’ve got anything 802.11a or 802.11b, it’s time to upgrade. I’d recommend an 802.11n AP. Most newer laptops / desktops come with 802.11n now and mobile devices are usually 802.11g which both work well with an 802.11n AP.

Bonus Reason:You’re in a large deployment:

Large Deployments are when more than one AP acts like a single AP. Large deployments have many APs, permitting load balancing, roaming and usually have some sort of encryption. They are often found in offices, schools, libraries, and large wifi hotspots. Apple has had problems since 10.5 with large deployments.

The Reason: My theory is that the multiple APs transmitting on different channels with the same ID seems to confuse the wireless driver. I’ve noticed that when the MacBook is in range of only one AP in the large deployment (it’s on the edge, basement or other area where the others can’t be seen), it connects without a problem. This also depends on which version of OS X 10.5 you are running. Certain versions break the wireless and then later versions fix it. Because different models of Mac have different wireless cards inside, this may or may not affect some while not others.

What to do: Upgrade OS X to the latest version. Although this may not work with the MacBook model 1,1. In that model’s case, downgrade to 10.5.5. Just remember iLife 09 and iWork 09 isn’t compatible with 10.5.5 and below.

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