7 Wireless Router Problems And How To Solve Them

Slow data speeds, dead spots, Wi-Fi that's AWOL -- don't replace that router yet -- first try these tips to overcome your 802.11x router headaches.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

April 8, 2009

14 Min Read

Don't put up with a slow data stream. Troubleshoot your router.

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A good router gone bad isn't always a bad router. Most times it's just a good router looking for a little love and attention.

We've all had it happen: You're sitting there connected to your network, browsing the Internet, or trying to get some game on, or you just want to watch a video from upstairs, and, suddenly, Shazaam! You feel like you're walking uphill through drying cement -- in lead shoes.

The feeling isn't good and, when it happens, all you really want to do is point your 27th century neutron rifle at your router and blast away.

It's an understandable reaction, but it's not the most fiscally responsible solution. Routers can be expensive items to replace. So we've rounded up a few tips to try to overcome some of the more common causes of router headaches.

1. It's So Slow You Can't Get Any Work Done

Problem: Your router is slower than molasses running uphill on a hot day.

Solution:A couple of things that might be causing this problem. Most routers work on the 2.5GHz band. So do Microwave ovens, cordless phones, garage door openers, baby monitors, and some other electronic devices. Have you added anything to the environment recently that works on the 2.5GHz band -- just about when the problem started? If so, turn it off and see if there's an improvement.

If that's not an issue, keep in mind that the 2.5GHz band has only three real channels (1, 6, 11) despite pretending to have eleven (the others overlap with each other). Your neighbors who are Wi-Fi-enabled are also using those same channels. If you live in a major metropolitan area with public transportation, it's a lot like trying to get on the bus during rush hour.

You can modify the channel your router uses (and subsequently any Wi-Fi adapters) by going into the device's setup controls (usually through a browser-based program that's been installed on your computer when you installed the router or adapter) and manually changing it. (The default setting is where the problem can arise; vendors always pick the same channel.)

An adapter like this WGA600N from Lynksys might speed things up.

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Alternately, you can add a 5GHz band component, such as Netgear's WNHDEB111 networking kit or Linksys's WGA600N to your present router. There are 23 channels available at 5GHz, and almost no one is using them right now. Switching to adapters is the most cost-efficient method because you'll basically still be using your original router, but adding a 5GHz pipe to it through which you'll funneling your Wi-Fi devices.

You'll need a pair of adapters. One is attached to a network switch to which you've also attached several of your PCs or other networked devices. The other is attached to your router. As far as your network is concerned, the devices on the switch are hardwired to the router. Practically speaking, they communicate through the 5GHz adapters and it's the adapters that handle the transition down to 2.5GHz at the two end points -- all the while communicating between each other across the 5GHz band.

Don't overlook 2.5GHz/5GHz routers themselves (you'll want at least simultaneous dual-band models, those that can work on both 2.5GH and 5GHz at the same time, not either/or devices). This is a major investment because you've basically put yourself on the full upgrade path for your network and it's not going to be cheap. All of the major router manufacturers have such products. You can read about dual-band models from SMC, Apple, DLink, Linksys, and Netgear here.

Upgrade Your Firmware

Finally, try upgrading your firmware. This is last in the pile because it's a task that will probably make you nervous. The usual procedure is to:

  1. Go to your router's or adapter's website and find and download a firmware upgrade if available. (If you use the setup utility that was installed with your router or adapter, you'll be able to tell what firmware version you currently have. Just compare that to the "new" version.)

  2. Once the new firmware is downloaded onto your PC, go back into the router's or adapter's setup through its utility software or your browser, find the management section, locate the firmware upgrade section in there, and just follow along.

It is that easy, but you may freak out thinking of all the possible things that might go wrong (like if you lose power during the upgrade…). 2. It's So Slow, You Can't Get Your Game On

Problem: You're trying to play a game with your kids upstairs and things are excruciatingly slow.

Solution: There can be quite a few reasons for this to happen, among them: too many game players, a crowded 2.5GHz band on your router, or even a router that isn't optimized for game playing (or even media playback).

D-Link's DGL-4500 is a router made for gaming.

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We've already mentioned two possible solutions above: Netgear's WNHDEB111 networking kit or Linksys's WGA600N. These happen to be gaming adapters that you add to your existing network. They don't increase the overall speed of your network but they do facilitate communication between the adapters themselves which often lets you bypass the bottlenecks.

Then there are gaming routers -- devices specifically designed for gamers -- or at least there were. The advent of 802.11n routers, even in their current Draft 2.0 status, seems to have cured much of these gaming woes just by virtue of their faster speeds. D-Link still sells its GamerLounge Xtreme N Gaming Router DGL-4500, but Linksys appears to have discontinued its WRT330N Wireless-N Gigabit Gaming Router (which isn't even on its website any more.) If the kids are kicking and screaming and tossing furniture it might be time to jump on the 802.11n bandwagon or have the house wired for screaming, gametastic speed.

3. You're Locked Out

Problem: You've lost your passphrase and you can't access all of your router's feature.

Solution: Oh, are you in trouble -- but not for long, and it's not as bad as you think. If you've arrived at that point in the road where you once again need to access the internals of your router but never wrote down what your access passphrase was, relax. You can reset the device to factory defaults.

Most routers have a reset button recessed into the back of the case. It's sometimes ringed in red but often it's just an awfully small hole into which you must blindly poke a safety pin tip (or unbent small paper clip) so you can depress the recessed reset button for (typically) 3 to 5 seconds. (Don't mistake it for the Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS) button prominently placed, and usually labeled, on the front of your router).

The upside is that you'll now have access to your router. The downside is that any settings you may have modified will now be back to their factory defaults and you'll need to redo them. You've saved the manual that was supplied with your router so you can look up the factory default username and passphrase, right? In case you haven't, the usual combinations of usernames and passphrases are admin/password and admin/admin. (And now you realize why you should always change those values, right?)

Plug into a timer that shuts the power off overnight.

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4. Your Router
Is A Vampire

Problem: Your router runs 24/7 and sucks wattage continuously.

Solution:Everything sucks wattage. Some things should.

While you can purchase a more energy-efficient router, consider the possibilities: Have you set up Windows to check for updates when you're not using your computer? Do you have other software that scans for updates? (Windows Media Center, for example, will routinely go online to update the program listing, as will most anti-virus software, and scads of other stuff.) We live online, 24/7, and 24/7 power usage is one of the consequences. If your network and Internet access is shut down, those scheduled services will not complete.

That said, Netgear, for one, has a line of Energy Star devices that include more efficient power supplies and (gasp!) an On/Off switch in many cases. You're not going to save a lot on your power consumption -- just turning off your monitor or even (gasp!) your PC will do much more for you -- but everything adds up.

Make a habit out of shutting down and turning everything off during the wee hours. An easy way to do it is to plug PCs, routers, and printers into a power strip, and plug the power strip into a timer. Then set the timer to turn the power off overnight. Just remember to schedule software updates during hours when your system is "awake" and be sure to properly shut all your devices down before the power goes off each night. The savings are small, but they'll add up over time.

5. Dead Spots

Problem: You have a dead spot in your home that your 802.11g router can't seem to reliably reach.

Solution: If you're not already using an 802.11n router and adapter, it might be time for the switch. (True, the standard hasn't been finally approved yet, but best guess is that the hardware is locked down and any changes that are needed will be done to firmware --which you can upgrade.)

Why "n?" Because it uses a technology called MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) that allows it to broadcast and receive multiple signals.

When a data stream arrives at your dead spot, it's often been bounced off of too many walls, floors, and other obstructions to make much sense to your 802.11g or 802.11b router. A MIMO-enabled router takes all those bounced reflections and compares them, looking to fill in the blanks until it's pieced together as much of the signal -- if not all of it -- as possible. It's more than likely that the drop-outs you've experienced with your 802.11b/g router and adapter will be cured and you might actually see some honest Wi-Fi speed emerge.

Powerline network adapters use existing electrical lines in your home as if it were CAT 5e.

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6. No Wi-Fi Signal

Problem: Your office at home is so far away from your router that no Wi-Fi signal will connect.

Solution: The best and most obvious solution is to run a CAT 5e cable between the two points, but that's not a viable solution for many people who have neither the funds to get it done nor the skill to do it themselves.

Renters face another obstacle: Landlords who don't want holes poked through their walls and ceilings. If you find yourself in that rather large group of folk, all isn't lost. There's always Powerline networking gear.

If you're not familiar with the work being done by the Homeplug Powerline Alliance, check its website for the all the background. The gist of things is simple: You get two adapters. You plug one into an AC wall outlet near the equipment you want to network and the other in a wall outlet near your router.

Too Good To Be True?

As soon as you do that, the pair will begin to look for each other, and, once they find themselves, they start communicating. When that happens, you plug your computer gear into one of the adapters and your router into the other and you're networked. The adapters use the existing electrical lines in your home as if it were CAT 5e strung between the devices.

If that sounds too good to be true, in some cases it is. Despite being advertised at 300Mbs, at best the networking speeds probably hover around 802.11g levels (about 54Mbs). It might be slower as well or even totally ineffective.

The throughput speed depends on the condition of your electrical wiring (older wiring tends to be slower), what, if any, other loads you might have on those lines, and something called a phase leg. The latter is probably the most important factor if your goal is to have some network communication ability rather than none at all.

Motorola's Surfboard modem has an exposed, easy-to-accidentally hit parental control button.

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In the U.S., our electricity enters our home as 220v –two wires each carrying 110v (the legs) and a return line. Inside our homes, those lines can run out to 220v AC out lets for heavy duty electrical equipment (washers, electric ovens, or even a gigantic air compressor in the garage) or 110v outlets for the majority of our electrical appliances. The problem is that those 110v lines might be wired from either leg of the 220v input. If your computer gear ends up on one leg and your router is on another, communications between the two might not possible.

If that's the case, you'll need to hire a licensed electrician to switch the lines so they both run off the same leg. It's not very expensive but you should weigh the cost of CAT 5e wiring against the electrical work because the speed differential between the two can easily be 4:1 in favor of the CAT 5e and, as long as you're spending money, you might as well put it to its best use.

7. No Internet Connection

Problem: You just moved your router and modem to a new location and now Windows says you have a local connection but no access to the Internet.

Solution: Reorganizing your network topology to make best use of your wired and wireless connections is always a good thing, but changing something that's working can often lead to unintended consequences. Assuming that everything is plugged in as before, your router may not be at fault. If you have a local connection (and you've tried it to be sure) but no Internet connection, it could be your modem. Some modems have parental control buttons that, once pressed, lock out your internet connection. They're not always in the best locations.

For example, the Motorola SB5100 Surfboard modem, popular with several cable companies, has its button at the very top of the case. If you palm the modem, with your fingers holding onto the sides as you lift and move it, you can easily press that button. (Don't ask how we know!) If your router is all lit up and your modem isn't (or perhaps just the yellow router communication light is on) find the parental control button and press it. You might surprise yourself at what happens and you won't have to call your local cable or DSL provider and spend 20 minutes listening to a computerized menu.

Other Router Problems

These are a few of the most common Wi-Fi router problems and remedies. If you have other router issues and solutions to share, please leave a comment below.

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