If you’re now working at home due to the COVID-19 outbreak, you may have a moment when you realize that your Wi-Fi just isn’t cutting it anymore — it could be a frozen video feed, a rainbow spinner on your screen, or a cry from your kids when their favorite game doesn’t load. Here are a few things you can do to get the most out of your bandwidth.
Measure your speed
Your first step is to understand the nature of your problem and measure the quality of your Wi-Fi. You can do this from your laptop’s browser; you can also use your phone by going into Airplane Mode and turning on the Wi-Fi (you want to be sure that you’re not using cellular data for this.) Then point your browser to a service like fast.com or Speedtest (which has apps for mobile devices) to see how fast your Wi-Fi is running.
Check your speed in several different rooms, and take note if there are places that score significantly lower than others.
Check your network
It sounds dumb, but it does happen: make sure your devices are using the network you think they are. Sometimes (and for no reason), devices will glom onto, say, your ISP’s lower-speed wireless hotspot rather than your home’s high-speed network. It just takes a second, so double-check.
Buy enough bandwidth
Data requirements creep up on us, and you’re probably sucking down more bits than you used to. Maybe you bought a higher-resolution HDTV and are enjoying 4K Netflix, or you’ve started using a tablet while you watch streams, or you’ve taken up interactive gaming, or your kids’ school has closed, or you’re working from home and doing a lot of video conferencing. Or some combination of all of these. It adds up.
It won’t do you any good to improve your Wi-Fi coverage around the house if traffic is getting choked by your ISP. Look at your bill or contact customer service to find out how much bandwidth you’re buying. It’s now easy to find plans with 100Mbps and up, but if you haven’t checked lately, you may have an older plan with much slower speeds. It’s also possible that you’re nudging up against monthly data caps, though ISPs will usually warn you if that’s the problem.
If you still have DSL service from your local phone company, check to be sure that no faster alternative has materialized in your area.
Many ISPs are offering COVID-19-related deals. For example, Altice, Spectrum, and Xfinity are offering two free months of service for new customers with kindergarten through college students. Also, major ISPs are lifting data caps and opening up their Wi-Fi hotspots to non-subscribers (in fact, all carriers have opened their mobile hotspots to the public for 60 days, per the FCC’s request). Some are even increasing internet speeds for existing customers. Look at your provider’s website and check.
Move your wireless router
If the bandwidth test you did shows dead spots in your home, try moving your wireless router. It’s not at all unusual for a Wi-Fi router to be stuck in the corner of a house or apartment, near the wall where service enters your home. That’s the worst place for it. Wi-Fi is radio; radios have limited range and sometimes have trouble penetrating walls. If it’s practical, try moving your router to a more central location by running a longer coax or Ethernet cable from the wall jack.
Try to keep the router away from big pieces of metal, like refrigerators or microwave ovens. Wi-Fi doesn’t do well around lots of water, either, so stay away from 100-gallon aquariums.
Then try the speed checks again to see if it helped.
Change the channel
This is an especially fruitful thing to try if there are a lot of other Wi-Fi networks near you, because you may be experiencing radio interference. Some routers are designed to sense interference and pick uncluttered frequencies themselves, but not all of them are great at that or at finding clearer frequencies as conditions change. Go into your router’s settings and systematically try other channels and see if that helps.
Move to 5GHz
Modern Wi-Fi works on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency band. The latter is faster and is less subject to interference but doesn’t travel as far and can’t penetrate walls as well. The former is more robust but is susceptible to interference from microwave ovens and some older cordless phones.
If you can, opt for 5GHz if your devices support it. If you have an old router that doesn’t support 5GHz (that is, 802.11ax, 802.11ac, 802.11n or 802.11a), you should think seriously about getting a new one.
And note: the 5GHz band has nothing to do with 5G cellular service. The similarity in names is a coincidence. Don’t be confused.
Get a Wi-Fi extender
It’s possible that you can’t move your router or that moving it didn’t help. In that case, look into getting a range extender and placing it where the signal is weak.
Get a mesh network
Replacing your whole Wi-Fi network is the nuclear option of improving your bandwidth, but you should think about it if your network is more than five years old — certainly if it’s more than 10. Mesh networks like Google Nest, Netgear’s Orbi, Eero, or TP-Link Deco (and there are many others) are a big step up from older point-to-point systems both in speed and convenience.
The very latest routers support the newest 802.11ax standard, also known as Wi-Fi 6, but it’s unlikely that any of your devices do. However, if you’re buying for the future, device upgrades for the next several years will increasingly be able to use that standard.
In the end, making sure your home Wi-Fi network runs well — especially when your income or your kids’ education is concerned — is worth the effort and probably the expense as well.
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