Wi-Fi – Problem solving
Posted by Timothy Platt on Apr 19, 2015
At Virtual Operations, we are commonly asked to help improve Wi-Fi for our customers. In fact, it’s one of the most common complaints. Weak signal, poor performance, dropping connection, or the inability to connect to Wi-Fi at all are very common issues. Poor Wi-Fi can be the problem behind a slow computer. Why does Wi-Fi seem to have so many issues?
Why is my Wi-Fi so slow?
There are a variety of reasons Wi-Fi is a complicated topic. Inherently Wi-Fi uses a chaotic and uncontrolled environment to operate – your Wi-Fi signals must traverse a crowded electromagnetic environment used by many other devices (such as microwaves, cordless phones, your neighbor’s Wi-Fi signals, etc.). As such “air quality” can vary based on the time of day and other activities taking place (even by your neighbors!). The signals sent by your Wireless Access Point (WAP) must co-exist with all this other activity as well as natural background noise. Having the correct frequencies, channels, and protocols implemented can ensure the best performance.
The Wi-Fi signal grows weaker with distance, and the number of obstacles it must overcome (walls, doors, windows, etc.). Even people in a crowded room can influence the Wi-Fi signal, as the human body will absorb the electromagnetic signal. Proper number and placement of your Wi-Fi devices is an important factor in performance and reliability.
The equipment that uses the network can also be part of the issue. There are many devices that we expect to use with Wi-Fi – desktops, laptops, tablets, phones, A/V such as Google Chromecast, video cameras, and more. Each of these devices has different capabilities – including the protocols it can connect with, the frequencies it can use, how well it handles the need to reconnect, etc. A properly designed and configured Wi-Fi environment will use the proper setup to support the array of devices that are business critical (or provided for convenience – such as Wi-Fi for phones). Additionally, choosing the right equipment and ensuring it has the latest drivers and patches can be a critical factor in achieving best performance. For example, some lower end hardware (Windows Netbooks and cheaper Android tablets, as an example) only support the 2.4 Ghz frequency range – and this frequency range will always be more crowded and problematic than the higher performance 5 Ghz frequency range. Ensuring all equipment is 5 Ghz compatible is a best practice, but there are compelling reasons to use 2.4 Ghz as well (it can better penetrate walls and obstacles).
Overhyped marketing is another significant factor. The state of the industry is such that all the marketing material for Wi-Fi routers is based on theoretical speeds that are simply not achievable in the real world. We see this day in and day out – but these observations are also backed up by findings in the test lab of CNet. (Apologies for the link to an article with an auto-play video, but that is an excellent article worth linking). You may think you are getting multi-gigabit speeds with the newest consumer router, but that is simply an unrealistic expectation. Having said that, any decent equipment should be capable of providing adequate performance for web browsing, video streaming, etc.
Lastly, many of the issues we see are simply due to the wrong choices having been made in the initial setup and configuration of the Wi-Fi environment. In fact, nearly every environment from a local source (A common local cable and internet provider – a household name I guarantee you are familiar with) seems to have always been setup by inexperienced technicians without training in Wi-Fi design. We often see these environments under-utilizing the capabilities of the equipment provided (We can often greatly improve the situation without any investment in new hardware).
What can I do to fix my slow Wi-Fi?
Here we present the quick guide to Wi-Fi troubleshooting. This step by step process will give you some ideas and direction on how to start improving your Wi-Fi environment.
1. Wi-Fi clients – What kind of equipment is experiencing issues (laptops, tablets, phones, or other)? Is it all clients (which suggests a system wide problem, rather than an issue with a single piece of equipment)? Has the device experiencing issues been rebooted recently (as cliché as this suggestion is we continue to find this to be the most cost effective first troubleshooting step). Is the device up to date with operating system versions and patches? For example, recent versions of Mac OS X (10.10, 10.10.1, 10.10.2) all contained common and severe Wi-Fi issues, which largely have been resolved with April’s 10.10.3 release). Lastly, what is the equipment capable of? Can the device connect on the commonly less crowded (and more reliable) 5 Ghz frequencies?
2. How is your environment configured? Has it been designed to support a variety of devices and scenarios (2.4 Ghz for range and for legacy device support, 5 Ghz for maximum performance and reliability?). Is the equipment implemented enterprise strength or is it consumer/home quality? We do find that consumer level Wi-Fi Access Points simply do not support the sophisticated and integrated features to obtain maximum performance – a small step up in equipment can provide a huge boost to reliability and performance. Further, we find that the Access Points can also benefit from a periodic reboot/restart – for all the same reasons this is an effective step for clients as well.
3. Other factors that should be incorporated into troubleshooting – is the problem reproducible? Does it vary based on time of day? Is it based on physical location? For example, try monitoring your 2.4 Ghz Wi-Fi connection while standing next to a running Microwave oven – you will see a dramatic drop off in performance and may even lose connection, depending on how close you are standing. We often see a symptom such as good performance in the morning, poor performance in the afternoon. This indicates equipment that is overloaded in capacity as the office fills up during the day. This can also be exacerbated by poor choice of frequencies – as the 5 Ghz range provides much more “room” for signals, whereas the 2.4 Ghz range is quite small by comparison (it becomes overcrowded quickly because less space is available, but because it is the default choice for legacy devices most providers will setup equipment to use 2.4 only).
Virtual Operations is experienced with fixing small and medium sized business Wi-Fi environments. We do Wi-Fi work with all our clients as it is an integral part of the business environment. We have the experience, tools, and personnel to make your Wi-Fi better, with a minimum outlay of money. We don’t provide Band-Aid solutions and we can improve your environment for the long term. Contact us if we can help you today.
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Virtual Operations provides IT support for small businesses in the Orlando and Central Florida area. Our managed IT services offering provides the expertise and quality care your small business needs. Please contact us today to find out how we can help with your computer support and network support needs.
Quick Tip – In this weekly series of articles, we’ll provide a quick, simple overview of an IT related topic – relating complex topics in easy to understand terms. This particular topic is part of our computer repair series, which includes what to do if you’ve got a slow computer, among other topics.