7 Reasons Your Wireless Network Is Slow (And How to Fix it)

With all of the side hustles out there that involve the internet, the importance of a high speed and reliable wireless network cannot be overstressed. In this article, I listed 34 Side Hustles that you can start for less than $100. I would argue that out of those 34, that 90% – or more – require the internet.

Hustles aside, everyone wants to watch their Netflix or Hulu shows, FaceTime with family and friends, or play games that require the internet. All of these require a solid internet connection, and more often than not, the best connection is (or should be) your wireless network at home. You can’t have slow wireless performance, or intermittent wireless with these services..it will be incredibly frustrating if you do. In my case, I’ll hear it from my boss (aka: my spouse).

In my daily job, I work with customers around the country who have deployed very expensive wireless networks so that their employees can access corporate resources wirelessly. These networks are all built around two ideas: access anywhere, and anytime. They want people to use the internet in their company gym, cafe, and office. And it has to always work. Oh, and they’d like it to be super fast, too. If you see enough of these networks, you begin to see patterns, and understand why some wireless networks perform better than others. The truth is, if you think “wireless is wireless” – you’re probably not alone in this thought, but you also couldn’t be more wrong.

Wireless networks are not created equal.

Before we jump into the common issues with wireless networks, and areas that often require troubleshooting – I want to point one thing out: this stuff is easy! You don’t have to be an IT guy/gal to do any of this, so roll your sleeves up and let’s get to it with the 7 main reasons that wireless networks suck, and how to fix them.

Reason #1: Using an outdated wireless router

All wireless routers operate on some sort of wireless standard. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) defined the main standard known as 802.11 back in 1997. There’s been many iterations since, but what you need to know is that each standard revision brings a different level of performance. Here’s a quick breakdown of the popular standards and their associated speeds:

  • 802.11g
    • 54Mbps
    • 2.4Ghz frequency
    • If you must go 802.11g, you can’t go wrong with the Linksys WRT54G. They’re bulletproof and last forever. I recommend you buy at least an 802.11n router though.
  • 802.11n
    • 300Mbps
    • 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz
    • Budget option is the TP-Link N450, best option is the TP-Link C7 AC1750 (I’ve personally used this one, and loved it)
    • Significant improvement over 802.11g performance
  • 802.11ac
    • 1300Mbps
    • Supports 5Ghz only (though some routers still broadcast on 2.4Ghz using 802.11n and are somewhat of a ‘hybrid’ in this regard, but in these cases, you’ll only get 802.11n performance on the 2.4Ghz band)
    • Can’t go wrong with the TP-Link AC1200, or the top of the line ASUS AC1750.
  • 802.11ad
    • 4600Mbps
    • 60Ghz
    • Expensive
    • The most reasonable option is the TP-Link AC3150. If you need blazing fast performance, this is it – just make sure your wireless devices support the standard or else you’ll be wasting money. Expect to see more laptops and cell phones supporting this standard in mid to late 2017.
    • Due to the frequency 802.11ad operates on (also known as WiGig), the super high speed performance will be limited to short range, but still opens a lot of awesome possibilities.

Here’s the ultimate takeaway: your router should not be the bottleneck, so you want to deploy the most recent standard that you can afford and only if it makes sense. If you’re reading this in 2017, that would be 802.11ad (fastest), or 802.11ac (next best). If you’re currently running a router that is 802.11g or 802.11b – you need to replace it now, at least up to 802.11n.

How do you know which standard you’re running? Take a look at the router. Get the model number, and google it- then read the specs. Many routers also detail this information on a tag on the bottom or rear of the router as well. They’ll often give you a clue by putting a letter in the model number, such as “Awesome Router N” (where N represents 802.11n), or “Super Router G” (again, 802.11g).

Now, don’t rush out and buy an 802.11ad router just because it’s the newest tech. Sure, 802.11ad is much faster than 802.11n at 4600 megabits per second (Mbps) vs. 802.11n’s 450Mbps, but there’s always drawbacks to each standard. As of this writing, I would recommend 802.11n or 802.11ac if you’re wanting to futureproof a little bit – 802.11ad doesn’t bring performance that you can use just yet.

Bottom line: keep reading before rushing to buy a router, there’s more info here that will help you.

Reason #2: Your wireless devices aren’t up to speed

For optimal wireless performance, you want to have wireless devices, such as laptops, Smart TVs, streaming devices, cell phones, and tablets – to be at the same standard as your wireless router. Most wireless technology is backward compatible, so if you have an old tablet, it’ll work just fine on the 802.11n access point, but you just won’t get the full 802.11n speed. Likewise, if you have an old 802.11g wireless router and a brand new iPhone (802.11ac), you’ll be hitting a performance bottleneck on the router, and will be limited to its speed, even though you have a shiny new Apple toy.

What I generally recommend, is upgrading anything that’s 802.11g to newer 802.11n standards, when it makes sense. For example, the first generation Roku streaming devices came with 802.11g wireless cards in them. If you still had one of those, and an 802.11g, n, or ac router – you’re not getting as much performance as you could be getting by simply upgrading to a newer Roku device. If, however, your issue is an older laptop, or desktop, consider using something like an 802.11n USB wireless card – this will allow you to retrofit your older device with a newer wireless adapter. Obviously there’s a cost-benefit analysis to be done here – I typically upgrade when I can either get a significant performance increase OR the device stops working.

For the iPhone users out there – you don’t have to worry: all iPhones beginning with the iPhone 4 have supported 802.11n or better. See below:

  • iPhone 4 supports speeds up to 802.11n (2.4Ghz band only)
  • iPhone 5 supports speeds up to 802.11n (2.4Ghz and 5Ghz)
  • iPhone 6 and 7 supports speeds up to 802.11ac
  • iPhone 8 will support 802.11ad

Protip: if you use wireless for streaming, you should ensure it has 802.11n or 802.11ac to ensure optimal performance. 

Reason #3: Poor wireless router placement

I’ve seen it a million times: people get a nice shiny new router, only to realize their wireless performance still sucks.

“My house isn’t that big!”

“The wireless router is in the middle of the apartment!”

“I turned the transmit power up all the way!”

These are all typical lines of thinking, and that’s OK – but you should know, the placement of your wireless router absolutely matters. While high end wireless access points have special antennas which can be directional and manipulated to achieve the exact coverage desired, consumer models are much simpler. The goal is pretty straightforward: place the router as central as possible, and with as few obstacles in its way as feasible. You don’t have to go crazy with avoiding things like furniture and appliances. While they may have the slightest bit of impact on your signal, the real things to avoid in your wireless path are concrete, mirrors close to the wireless router, or marble. If you live in an area where this is unavoidable, it’s worth playing with your frequencies and checking to see if 2.4Ghz or 5Ghz perform any better than the other.

If you do find that range is an issue in your house, you can check out WiFi signal extenders on Amazon – just make sure you select an extender that matches your routers wireless standard.

Reason #4: Unsecured Wireless Router (Access Point)

If your wireless router is not secure, there’s a good chance someone could be leaching off your internet. To avoid the scenario where you’re paying for someone else’s internet, there’s a couple of easy ways to lock down your wireless:

  • Use WPA or WPA2 (WPA2 preferred) – do NOT use WEP or Open/Unsecured wireless networks that require no password. WEP can be hacked into in less than five minutes if the attacker knows what they’re doing. WPA and WPA2 have been cracked already, but they require a little more work.
  • Don’t use the default admin username and password if you can avoid it. If an attacker gets control over your router, they can bypass any controls you’ve put into place to allow them on the network.
  • If you’re paranoid: lock down your wireless devices by Mac Addresses. These are unique to each wireless device, so if you specify which devices are allowed – then anything that doesn’t match that whitelist, will be blocked. This isn’t foolproof, but it can help deter the weekend hacker.
  • Periodically do a check of devices on your network. You can view this information (typically listed as Mac Addresses) via most wireless routers web interfaces. Mac Addresses are assigned in blocks to manufacturers, so if you see an address such as dc-3a-5e-00-10-bc, you can use this free Mac Address lookup tool – which will identify the manufacturer of the device – in this case, it’s a Roku streaming device. Word of caution – sometimes you’ll see the vendor of the wireless card and NOT the name of the device manufacturer, so don’t jump to the conclusion immediately that it’s not one of your devices. The best way to check is to power the device off and refresh your active client list in your router. If the address is gone, it’s likely yours. If it’s not, investigate further.
  • Ensure web interface access is disabled on the WAN/Internet side of your router if possible. This ensures that someone can’t connect to it via the internet and make changes to your router – only people who are already on your wireless network will have access.

Reason #5: Noisy Wireless Environment

There’s a bunch of sources of wireless interference, both inside and outside of your home. Many baby monitors operate in the 900Mhz frequency – which is great, because it doesn’t interfere with your wireless signal. Unfortunately, some monitors do operate on the 2.4Ghz wireless signal, which will step on your wireless network. Outside of baby monitors, ensure your home phone is not 2.4Ghz. In addition to this, I always ensure that any unnecessary wireless devices are turned off or in airplane mode (for example, if you have a tablet that you only use for reading). This helps un-clutter the wireless space a bit.

Outside of your home, the biggest offender is other wireless networks. If you’ve taken a peak at your wireless router configuration, you’ve probably seen something labeled “Wireless channel.” In the 2.4Ghz range, there’s 14 channels which are 20Mhz wide. In a nutshell, the goal is to operate on a channel that doesn’t overlap with other channels. For example, if your neighbor is using Channel 2, and you’re using Channel 1, you’ll be interfering with each others’ signals, which severely degrades your performance.

The fix? Use channels 1, 6, or 11. These are the only non-overlapping channels in 2.4Ghz. Think about it like this, you want to be as “far” channel-wise from your neighbors as you can. There’s tools out there which can show you which channels your neighbors are using if you’re on windows, but I have good news for Mac OSX users: this functionality is built into the OS already.

Note: 5Ghz offers plenty of non-overlapping channels, so this isn’t an issue I would worry about if you’re running a 5Ghz network at home.

How to view wireless networks and channels in Mac OSX

If you want to view available wireless networks, their associated channels, and which channel you should be on, do this: Option+Click on the wireless logo in the top right of your screen (see image to the right)

Then, you’ll click “Open Wireless Diagnostics” – this will prompt you to run a report to check your wireless, don’t bother with that.

Instead, with the focus on the wireless diagnostics screen, click the ‘Window’ menu at the top of the screen, then select ‘Scan’.

At this point, you should be looking at a list of networks. You can hit “scan” to scan again, and you’ll see in the left pane that it will tell you what the optimal channel is for your network.

For Windows Users

I would recommend a free tool such as WirelessNetView. If you’re not up for downloading a tool – you can just try changing channels and testing your network throughput. One good method is to transfer files between laptops on the same network, or using a site like Speedtest.net – just ensure that your laptop stays in the same spot between tests so you can an accurate reading. Remember, with wireless, the farther you are from the access point or router, the less throughput you’ll have.

Reason #6: Lack of Available Bandwidth

With the prevalence of wireless devices these days, and bandwidth-sucking services like Netflix, Hulu, and basically anything that streams or downloads big files: it’s very possible that you’re simply beating your wireless connection to death. Many people will recognize they have a slow wireless network and purchase an upgraded internet package from their provider. This can improve things if the provider includes a new wireless router (see caveats on Reason #7 below for this option) – and this may help – but don’t default to an upgrade without taking a look at what’s on your wireless already to assess if you’ve simply hit the proverbial performance ceiling with too much data. A simple test here is to shut off the majority of your devices, and see if your performance improves. If it does, upgrading your wireless network probably makes sense to give your devices more bandwidth. If it doesn’t improve, you likely have a wireless configuration issue, or a device issue. Make sure you test multiple devices whenever troubleshooting – often times you’ll find an issue is isolated to a single device.

Reason #7: Using the wireless router your service provider gave you

I can’t stand the service provider-provided (that sounds weird, I know) wireless router/modem’s out there. They usually lack features, and can severely impair your network’s performance. If you’re unsure, my recommendation is to get in the configuration and have a look around. Make sure your wireless is secured, using an optimal channel, and if possible, using a 5Ghz frequency (or both, if available).

If you’re like me, and don’t want to rely on the router that came with your service, you can typically request that the provider “bridge” your router and disable the wireless functionality all together. To do this, you need a separate wireless router (that you provide) which will be plugged into the device your internet provider has given you. This allows you to fully control your wireless network, and means you can upgrade to newer standards as they come out – without involving your ISP. I strongly prefer this route, as I’ve personally had performance and reliability issues with the Verizon-provided routers. Your mileage may vary.

Hopefully this list helps! I’m a big fan of not spending money unnecessarily, so I hope this list provides some things that you can check to avoid throwing money at a problem that might be solved otherwise. If I’ve left anything out, feel free to comment!