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Why is my WiFi so bad? More tips for network problems in lockdown

By Geoffrey A. Fowler Time of article published May 7, 2020

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The WiFi doctor is in. Last week, I shared five steps to fix bad home Internet connections without (necessarily) spending a dime.

The advice hit a nerve during the coronavirus pandemic that has so many of us stuck at home and reliant on the Internet for work, school, talking to family, entertainment and even happy hours. I heard from hundreds of Washington Post readers about your frustrations with dead spots, slow service, bad security updates and glitchy routers. (I can't always answer everyone directly, but I love hearing over email or through my Help Desk form what sorts of tech challenges you're facing.)

I also heard a number of your own good ideas to fix Internet problems that I didn't include in my column. So I'm sharing a few tips you passed along and also answering some of the questions that might help a broader audience.

If you're having Internet problems, start with my guide to the basics. And then you might move on to some of these tips.

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Plug your computer directly into your router with an Ethernet cable - Allan Abrahamse of Long Beach, California

With some devices, you can avoid WiFi problems altogether by plugging them in directly to the router with an Ethernet cable. Obviously this restricts your ability to move about, but it's an option for desktop computers and TVs - and even laptops when a stable connection really matters. You might have to buy an adapter to connect Ethernet to your laptop, as many ultra-slim models (like everything made by Apple) stopped including them seven or eight years ago.

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Use an extension cable for a desktop computer - Dave Mason of Culver City, California

Tablets and laptops can roam to areas with better WiFi. Desktop computers cannot, and might even get interference from their own metal box. Mason recommends buying a USB WiFi adapter, which is a small antenna that plugs into a USB port, and connecting it to a six-foot USB extension cable to place it in an area with better reception.

This same concept can also help TVs. Often, streaming devices like Rokus, Fire TVs and Apple TVs have a hard time picking up WiFi when they're hidden behind a big TV and other obstructions. Hooking them up to a long HDMI cable can let you move the devices back out into the open where they might access a more reliable signal.

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Change the "channel" on your wireless network - a reader from New Jersey.

This one requires some advanced tinkering with your WiFi router but might be worth your time. Wireless networks run on different radio frequencies known as channels. When you and your neighbors are on the same channel, your signals can interfere with each other.

Newer routers know to automatically scan for the clearest channel and choose it. Some do that only when you turn them off and on again. But yours might just be using the defaults. To change it, you'll need to dig into the administrator website or app - the same place you go to update the router's software. Channel may be hidden under "WiFi setup" or "advanced" settings.

To figure out what channels are clearest in your area, you'll need a program that scans nearby networks such as NirSoft's WifiInfoView on Windows. Macs have a diagnostic program built in - tap Option and the WiFi icon in the top right corner at the same time, then select Open Wireless Diagnostics.

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And now on to your questions.

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Q: Is my old router a security risk?


A: "Verizon tells me that my old router is not secure, but I don't trust them at all, since they seem only to want to sell me another product," writes Scott Davis of Fairfax Station, Virginia. "How can I tell whether my router is so insecure that I should buy another one?"

I appreciate the skepticism any time a tech company wants to sell you something. But WiFi routers are actually one of the largest security risks in people's homes. They're a target for hackers because they can tap into all the data flowing in and out of the devices in your home, from passwords to credit card numbers. (And believe it or not, as Consumer Reports found in 2019, some new ones still don't come with important safeguards, such as automatically updating their firmware.

To make sure you're protected, the best thing to do is to turn on automatic software updates. If your router doesn't offer this, or you're not sure, you'll have to look around the router dashboard website or app. Instructions for how to access that are sometimes printed on the bottom of the router. Most routers that people rent from their Internet service provider should include automatic updates.

Davis's Verizon situation is particularly tricky. He purchased his router, made by a company called Actiontec, directly from Verizon. And unfortunately, Actiontec says that it doesn't offer any updates - those have to come from Verizon.

Verizon told me that although the router will continue to function, it's no longer supported and won't be receiving new updates. So, yes, to make sure his network is secure, Davis will need to buy a new router. But this time, I'd consider buying one sold to consumers directly to have more control over it.

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How do you pick a mesh router?

"In looking for the devices you mentioned in your article, they are much more expensive than you quoted," says Sue McClain of Columbia, Maryland.

As luck would have it, the prices of some of the routers I recommended increased after I published. Perhaps there was a surge in demand: Amazon added $30 onto the price of its basic two-pack Eero system. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

But this raises a bigger question. If you're able to spend on new router hardware right now, how do you know which one is right for you: Eero, Google WiFi or Netgear Orbi? Most of the makers of so-called mesh routers, which help spread WiFi over a large or oddly shaped home, sell them in different flavors, configurations and price points.

As a rule of thumb, I suggest starting small and then working your way up. You can usually return a system that doesn't work well for you. In the case of mesh routers, that means looking for a set of two wireless hubs. They're designed so that you can buy a third or fourth if you still need more coverage.

What's the price difference? The cheaper models use what's called dual-band technology, while the more expensive ones operate on three bands. That third band does offer a better highway to transmit data between the hubs. But I'm doing just fine with a dual-band system in my house.

All of the systems are pretty easy to set up, but some offer extras. Eero, for example, offers a subscription service that provides additional security protections for your network, along with access to a virtual private network and malware scanning software.

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Does bad WiFi impact call quality?

"When my iPhone is connected to WiFi at home, the signal strength on my phone reflects a strong signal but my phone repeatedly drops calls," says Steve of Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. Are the two linked?

Normally, cellphone call reception and WiFi are two different matters. They run on different kinds of wireless networks, both of which might be spotty inside your house.

But there is a feature offered by some carriers including AT&T and Verizon that brings them together: WiFi calling. This service, which you usually have to manually turn on in your smartphone settings, lets you make and receive normal calls using the WiFi network. In theory, this could help you receive clearer calls at home if you're not well served by your carrier's cell network.

If your WiFi is spotty, it should be smart enough to hand off to the cellular network - but you still might want to make sure WiFi calling is turned off. On an iPhone, go to Settings, the Cellular, then WiFi Calling. On a Samsung Android phone, go to Settings, then Connections, then WiFi Calling.

The Washington Post 

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