As IT professionals, we have often glossed over our clients’ home networks/Wi-Fi and their maintenance as the realm of Geek Squad or, for the lucky, a clever family member with an interest in gaming. This makes sense. Before we all began working out of our houses, issues with the odd home network here and there were limited to the few users who had VPN access to their respective workplaces. Now, months into our new paradigm, we have an opportunity to come up for air. Offices have reopened (for now), but with limited capacity, and many of us will continue to work remotely indefinitely.
Over a cacophony of children with urgent needs for attention, the din of spouses and partners’ unrelated background calls and rankled pets who don’t understand why they can’t sit in your lap right now, I have been troubleshooting many a flaky Wi-Fi link, unreliable VPN, and slow loading website. The problem is nearly always the connection at home, straining under the regular demands of the modern office, only with more video than ever before.
What can we do to fix this? I’ll tell you! There are several juicy low-hanging fruits we can pluck before we need to go to the store and get some equipment or call the ISP and beg (pay) for an increase in speed.
The biggest question: Where in the house is your router? A router, for those who don’t know, is the device which interfaces your computer with the internet at large. If this is via Wi-Fi, it will often have a couple of antennae on it, like a cute little bug.
If you keep your cute little bug near where the cable comes into your house like many of us do, you might find that where you like to sit and work (your kitchen table, your bathtub, a tent outside, or a desk if you are lucky) is simply too far away for it to ‘hear’ you very well. There is the obvious first step: either you move closer, or it moves closer to you. Ideally, if you can run an ethernet cable directly from computer to router, you will avoid nearly all the major issues most people have.
“But, Brian!” you say. “Cables are ugly, and I don’t have a 150’ long one that I can run across my living room and upstairs to the tub! What do I do?” Don’t worry! There are still some free options available before we might need to consider an online order.
If you have lots of neighbors, you likely have a congested Wi-Fi spectrum. Do you see many other networks all around you when you try and connect to your own? Does your Wi-Fi drop randomly, or slow down for no reason? If so, you are probably competing for the channel you are using with your neighbors, to both of your detriment. Wi-Fi operates on one of 150 or so semi-discrete channels; however, the menu of channels for home use contains fewer than that. In practice, all of the channels experience some overlap, with the exception of channel 1, 6 and 11.
If you are on a Mac, you’re in luck, because there is a tool which can discover this information for you, built right in. Click on your Wi-Fi icon, and at the very bottom, you should see a “Open wireless Diagnostics…” menu. Go ahead and open it and navigate to “Utilities”. There should be a “Wi-Fi scan” tab, and from there you can perform a little survey. On the lower right the tool will determine which channels are most likely to work best for you.
Changing the channel can be done by logging into your router and going to the Wi-Fi settings. Common IP addresses to log in to routers at home include: https://192.168.1.1, https://10.0.0.1. If you are unsure of how to find this or log in, your local IT professional can help you do so. It’s certainly worth experimenting to see if you can improve your performance.
What about frequencies?
5GHz vs. 2.4GHz – what does it even mean? Many of us have been told that the 5GHz connections are faster, and this is true… provided you are relatively close to the router and do not have any obstructions in the way. In practice, 5GHz Wi-Fi has trouble penetrating walls, large furniture, cars, driving sheets of rain (for those of you out in the tent), etc. beyond a very short range, sometimes as little as 15-20 feet.
2.4GHz can penetrate more physical clutter due to the longer wavelength, but the 2.4 GHz channels are often busier, and the overall speed is slower. If you see lots of networks in your area, 2.4Ghz is probably going to be crowded. We must then consider the spectre of DFS.
DFS (Dynamic Frequency Selection) is a special technology which allows 5GHz Wi-Fi to exist—unfortunately, what it means is that we share the spectrum. 5GHZ is essentially radar, and we civilians are allowed to use it for our civilian internet needs provided an actual radar (police, weather, aircraft, yachts, etc.) is not using it.
As soon as a radar source is detected on a 5GHZ DFS channel, your router will stop broadcasting on that channel and hop to another 5GHZ DFS channel. This kills the internet connection, for several seconds, while your computer attempts to reconnect on the new channel. Some areas don’t see much competition for DFS channels, while others definitely do. You will have to experiment a bit, but in the USA 5GHz channels (which increment by 4 for each jump) numbers 36-140 are available, with 52-120 and 132-140 being shared, DFS channels. Your mileage may vary, depending on your location.
Does all this sound just awful? How could anyone enjoy working with technology? Ugh! If you agree with this statement but still want your home connection to work better, there is a way to use hard currency to solve the problem.
If you are still using the basic Wi-Fi which came with your internet service, and your workspace is across the house, in the basement or outside in that tent in the yard, you’re going to need think about extending your range. Powerline Ethernet adapters are a modestly priced way to get an ethernet connection from your router to your computer if there is a power outlet near both (tip: there is).
Simply paste this term “powerline ethernet 1gbps” into your search engine of choice, and you will find a wealth of options. All you need to make this work is to plug in one of the magic boxes into the wall near the router and connect it to the router with an ethernet cable. Then plug the other magic box in near your computer and connect the computer to it with an ethernet cable. You’re done. No running wires required.
If you can see more than 15 wireless networks available nearby and they come and go frequently, you are almost guaranteed to have too much congestion in your local Wi-Fi spectrum to be able to avoid it by simply changing the channel. For all you know, the guy next door is an IT pro who has already gobbled up all the good ones. Powerline Ethernet will give you the reliability you need to show the world that despite the cat on your lap and the mysteriously familiar outfit, you are ready to crush it at work, from home.