Saturday, April 4, 2015

WiFi Slow? Here's How To Speed It Up!

One burden many people have is a slow WiFi connection. A physical connection might yield great results, but for one reason or another the WiFi on your mobile device is or has become dreadfully slow. I am hoping the following information will be useful and that it may help (somewhat) alleviate that issue.

As of right now, there are two channels in use for WiFi routers. They are 2.4GHz and 5GHz. 2.4GHz has been around for a long time and is not only common for WiFi routers, but on numerous other devices such as radios and microwaves. 5GHz has been around for only a short time in terms of consumer routers.

Routers that support only 802.11g or older are not capable of using the 5GHz band. Some 802.11n and all 802.11ac routers are able to use the 5GHz band. However, routers with 802.11n that can use the 5GHz band can only use one band at a time, whereas 802.11ac routers can use both bands simultaneously.

Each band supports a certain number of channels. In the US, 2.4Ghz has 11 channels that overlap into three groups (there are a total of 14 channels). 5Ghz has 23 independent channels. Each network works on one of these specific channels.

The most common reason people experience a slow WiFi connection is because of interference. This normally has to do with multiple varying devices trying to occupy the same channels, but there are a few other reasons. One I have read is having a microwave, which works on a 2.4GHz band, can cause interference for routers using the 2.4GHz band.

802.11b Interference
There is a myth that using a device that can only support 802.11b will cause all your devices on a network to fall back to those speeds. This is not true, however, 802.11b devices can cause interference and slow down your WiFi speeds.

The reason for this is that because 802.11b is so old (well over a decade now) it works on different modulation techniques, and because routers are backwards compatible, your router will change how it functions in order to allow 802.11b devices to run. This causes the router to lessen your performance and impact newer devices.

Some might ask, "I know 802.11a exists, wouldn't this cause problems too?" There are at least two reasons I know for why it wouldn't. The first is that 802.11a is actually on par - in terms of performance - with 802.11g, making it superior to 802.11b speeds. The second is that 802.11a runs on the 5GHz band, so it would be impossible for 802.11b to affect it. This specification was also mainly used in corporate settings due to costs for specialized hardware, so it's unlikely you'll be dealing with it at all.

Some people go ahead and disable 802.11b if their router allows it. This can help but only with your own devices. If a nearby neighbor is using the same channel for their network and is using 802.11b devices, then that simple solution is no longer a viable solution.

Instead, what is recommended is switching to the 5GHz band. 802.11b devices will only work with the 2.4GHz band, so it won't affect anything running on a 5GHz band. The obvious downside to this is if your router doesn't have a 5GHz band, or you still use devices that support 802.11g, then you are out of luck.

Channel Traffic
An easier problem to solve is one of channels. Most routers are defaulted to one channel or the other. If you live in a populated area, you can likely view several different networks when attempting to connect to your own. If those same networks are all on identical or bordering channels, this can cause interference.

The first thing that you will need is some sort of WiFi analyzing software to see what channel everyone around you is using. There are several available for free.

There are a lot of free software available that can easily be found with a Google search, but I'll give some examples to help: If you have an Android device there is "WiFi Analyzer". If using a jailbroken iOS device you can use "WiFi Explorer". If using Windows there is "NirSoft WiFiInfoView". If using OS X there is a built in wireless diagnostic in your utilities. And if using Linux you can use the terminal and type in: sudo iwlist wlan0 scan | grep \(Channel

Once you have the appropriate software up-and-running, you can then view what networks are using what channels. (With the exception of Linux as it just shows channels and how many people are using each one, which is still helpful for this procedure). Check what channel you are on first, if on Linux you can check this via your router settings.

Now check all the other channels and see which is the least congested. Hopefully you come across a channel that has little or no people on it. If not, check if there is another channel that has fewer people than your current channel. This will be the channel you want to switch your network to.

If it helps in making a decision, on the 2.4GHz band the farthest points of overlapping are channels 1, 6 and 11 and the best choices if few people are using it. The 5GHz band is still new so it is unlikely you will have an interference problem, but if you do, remember that the channels are independent, so it would be best to choose the channel with least amount of people on it.

From here you will need to login to your router settings. If you never changed the credentials for your router settings they will likely be something like "admin" for the username, and possibly nothing for the password. Otherwise, check the web as they should be easy to find.

Each router's setting layout is different but have similar functions. You will need to find the section about WiFi and change the channel accordingly. After that is done you will save your settings, and your router should need a minute or two to reboot for the changes to take effect.

You may now see a speed increase for your WiFi, allotting that there was a channel that is not suffocated with networks. But do note that this does not increase your performance beyond what you should actually be receiving from your ISP.

5GHz Over 2.4GHz
By this point it should be obvious that using the 5GHz band is really the way to go. Yet, if you jumped straight to this section, I'll give a quick rundown as to why:

  • 5GHz can only be used by 802.11ac routers, and some 802.11n routers. Older devices are not be able to run on this band, so they cannot cause interference on that band's channels.
  • 5GHz has only been around since 2013. Because of this it is unlikely that you will find many people on this band; which means less opportunity for interference to occur.
  • 5GHz uses more channels so there is a better chance of finding an empty channel to use.
  • 5GHz uses independent channels so the overlapping interference issue that occurs for the 2.4GHz band is not an issue at 5GHz.
  • 802.11ac routers allow for both 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. Meaning compatibility with older devices is still possible.

There are a few downsides, most of which have also been noted but bear repeating:

  • Some 802.11n routers support both 2.4Ghz and 5GHz bands, however, they can only use one or the other at any given time. This would mean that if you use 2.4GHz you should have compatibility with all devices, but channel traffic would be a much more prevalent or susceptible problem. If using only the 5GHz band you should get faster WiFi speeds, but only devices that can support 5GHz will be able to connect to the network.
  • At some point in the way off future the 5GHz will enjoy the same problems 2.4GHz does now due to its popularity and existence in newer products (at which point the solutions above will still be helpful).
  • One odd issue that some people have reported is that while 5GHz allows for better speeds, it can do worse in relation to signal strength. This would become a problem if you are in a large residence and certain areas drop your connection altogether.

Signal Boosting
Since I mentioned a possible weak signal issue for the 5GHz band, I thought I would throw this in. This is also a good idea if having problems with signal strength on the 2.4GHz band...

Simply buy a WiFi extender or repeater. These devices help boost your signal so that areas that had signal problems should be able to pick up a stronger signal. They can be inexpensive and are fairly simple to setup.

Worst case scenario you can always use a spare router laying around, but this would mean having an Ethernet cable long enough to connect from your main router to that one, which would be positioned somewhere farther to help boost the signal to other areas. However, there are free router firmwares like DD-WRT that can sometimes turn a router into a repeater, but I won't get into that here.

Channel Width
This is an interesting aspect of routers that seems to go under the radar when people talk about how to possibly increase their WiFi speed. Channel width is a give-and-take concept. The bigger the channel the faster the transfer of data but with less range. The smaller the channel width the slower the transfer of data but with more range.

The channel width comes in 20MHz and 40MHz (and sometimes 60MHz) for the 2.4GHz band. The 2.4GHz band has all that and 80MHz. To get the fastest WiFi speeds you would just need to choose the highest channel width available on your router. You will find these options in your router settings.

Circling back to the 5GHz signal range issue, actually going to a lower channel width to extend the range could be a quick fix. If nothing else, you can always set your router to a high channel width for online gaming or streaming media, and then back to a low channel width when WiFi range is a priority. Experimenting to find a channel width for good balance would also be a welcomed compromise.

Quality of Service (QoS) won't help overall WiFi performance, but it will help specific applications. Most routers now have these settings. The downside to this is that QoS only affects outbound traffic, data coming from you to the Internet. So, it won't be useful for downloads or other inbound traffic

Frame Burst
Many routers have frame burst as a feature. This feature is meant to increase data transfer speeds when enabled. If you have this setting and it is turned off, it should help speed up your WiFi once turned on.

This is considered an advanced setting, so if it has multiple options along with it, don't mess with those as you could lose your WiFi signal if something goes wrong. But if it does have a enable/disable option, go ahead and try it if your router isn't using it already by default.

Sometimes It's Your PC
A short story I have on slow WiFi involves my brother. He recently decided to move and wanted to upgrade his router to another model that supported Wireless AC. His smartphone could handle it, but he also needed a WiFi adapter that could do the same. I recommended a D-Link router that he was able to purchase for just over $20, and a Belkin adapter that cost almost the same.

The router came first and he tested his speeds with his phone where he got a huge speed improvement over his current 802.11n router. The adapter came a few days later and he tried it out. Suspiciously, the speeds were incredibly slow on his laptop. His built-in WiFi, which uses 802.11n, was leaps and bounds ahead of the Belkin adapter. Since his smartphone had achieved high speeds, we eliminated the router as the problem.

We both checked the reviews on the adapter and while it had a high rating, many people were complaining of slow speeds. Some people were just not installing the drivers beforehand, others were using Windows 8 where evidently a little more prep work is needed. My brother uses Windows 7. He decided to return the adapter and buy a Linksys adapter for the same price.

The adapter finally came and he installed all the drivers before testing it. The same problem occurred. He had a spare laptop that I suggested he tested it on first before sending it back. Luckily he still had the Belkin adapter in his possession, allowing us to test that as well. After testing both adapters, we found the speeds incredibly high on either, making it an issue of his other laptop.

This just goes to show that sometimes the speed isn't just dependent on your router and adapter setup, but on the PC you are using. His laptop seems to have something happening between the USB port and connection that forces it to slower speeds. His built-in WiFi works fine. 

Connection Lost
Those are some of the easiest ways you can increase your WiFi speeds without doing too much work, paying for extra components, or going into advanced wireless settings. Chances are at least one of these items can help you squeeze out a bit more juice from your wireless connection.

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