Typical symptoms include frequent slowdowns when web browsing, intermittent loss of internet access and a low rating in the WiFi signal strength meter (in Windows, less than 3 ‘bars’ out of 5 is a poor signal and likely to cause issues).
There are a number of possible causes – I’ll look at the most common and how I fix them.
Location Of Router
If your device (e.g. laptop or phone) is simply too far away from the wireless router you may not get a good enough WiFi signal. Likewise, wireless signals degrade if passing through walls or other obstructions (two thin walls is often the maximum).
- Simplest (but often not practical) – move closer to the router or move the router to a room providing better WiFi coverage around the house.
- If you have an old wireless-N (or even older, G) router, consider replacing it with a new wireless-AC router to provide an increase in speed and range – often double or more.
This is especially recommended if you have a device with a wireless-AC adapter built in (many laptops and phones sold in the last year do) – you will then gain the full benefit of the router’s increase in speed and wireless coverage.
- If your house is large or has very thick walls, even a wireless-AC router may struggle to provide a satisfactory signal everywhere – consider using a powerline adapter to extend WiFi coverage all around the house.
If your wireless router is not well protected, it is possible that your neighbors could be using it to download from the internet without your permission…
Obviously, the more people that use your internet connection, the slower it will be – quite apart from the security risks of allowing someone else onto your network (hacking, privacy, illegal downloads appearing to come from your house etc).
Make sure that your WiFi network is securely protected by using WPA2 encryption with a hard to guess password e.g. at least 8 characters including some numbers, letters in lower and upper case and symbols such as *
[WPA3 encryption, with even greater security, was announced in late 2018 but very few routers or devices use it yet. However it will become the new standard over the coming years]
Using no encryption (open) or the obsolete WEP and WPA standards (which can be easily hacked) is just asking for other people to use your network – resulting in a slower and less reliable internet connection for you…
If you need to configure your router’s security, see my article on how to set up a wireless router.
Interference From Other Wireless Networks
Interference between wireless channels is often the cause of a poor connection or intermittent slowdowns and dropouts.
The wireless signal range in standard 2.4GHz wireless routers is divided into a number of channels. There are 11 channels (1 to 11) for WiFi signals in the US whereas the UK and most of the world have 13 channels (1 to 13).
Without going into tech details, in the US and UK only 3 of these channels do not overlap or interfere with each other and therefore provide the best/strong signal – channels 1, 6 and 11.
[Tip: in other countries, it may be only channels 1, 5, 9 and 13 that do not overlap]
Because there are only three good channels to choose from in US/UK, there is a high risk that a close neighbor’s router uses the same channel as yours. This overlap causes interference which can make your internet speeds slower or unreliable.
To avoid your router’s channel ‘clashing’ with theirs, use a WiFi Analyzer app to scan for nearby wireless networks and show which channels they use – so you can then change your router to use a different channel if necessary.
E.g. if the app reveals that nearby networks with a strong signal are using channels 6 and 11, you should set your own wireless network to channel 1 to reduce interference.
Note: some routers offer ‘Automatic channel scanning’ which is supposed to search channels to find the one least used and prevent interference – in my experience this often doesn’t work very well so I set the channel manually as above. See my article on how to set up a wireless router for more detail.
The best free WiFi Analyzer app for Android that I have used is by Farproc. It turns your phone into a WiFi channel analyzer – I’ll review how to use it below.
WiFi Analyzer Android App
This app can help improve your WiFi speed and reliability in two ways:
- At home – the app helps you find the best, least congested, channel for your wireless router, away from interference from neighbors
- Away from home – the app helps you find a WiFi network (e.g. a free hotspot) with the best signal strength and least interference – so you enjoy a more reliable and faster connection.
The app is available at Google Play here. The app has a high user rating of 4.4 stars and 10m+ installs. It’s easy to use and free but includes a small advert (although this can be disabled in the app settings for a week at a time).
The app shows the name, signal strength, channel, security type and MAC address of nearby wireless networks – in real time and historical graphs. Open you open it, there are several views – swipe to move between them:
Signal Strength View – this simple view shows the channels used by nearby WiFi networks, network names and their signal strength – the higher the peak, the stronger the signal i.e. the red network below is by far the strongest:
Tip: signal strength is measured in dBm which is always a negative figure. So a high dBm e.g. -30 is a very strong signal whereas a low dBm e.g. -85 is too weak and may drop the connection or cause slow speeds.
In the example above, there are three networks on channel 11, one on channel 6 and one on channel 4 – at home, you should set your router to use channel 1 for best performance (as that channel has least interference). Away from home, you should connect to the strongest (red) network on channel 11 if possible.
Security View – this view also shows channels and signal strength but adds the type of security used and the MAC address of the wireless routers.
A network with a padlock icon means that it has security so you will need a password to connect to it – try to avoid connecting to networks secured only by WPA or WEP as both have been cracked so are relatively insecure. WPA2 is the current and most secure protocol.
A network without a padlock icon is Open so requires no password but is therefore also inherently insecure – be wary of connecting to an Open hotspot and avoid submitting any financial or login details while using it.
Real Time View – this view shows how the signal strength of each WiFi network varies in real time – tap the tab of a network name at the top of the screen to highlight that network graph.
Location View – this view is particularly useful to measure, in real time, how signal strength varies when moving from room to room. This can help you locate the best position for your router e.g. test with the router in different parts of the house to see which location provides best all round coverage.
There is also a cool Sound option which makes it act like a WiFi Geiger counter :-)
The aim of all these app screens is to help you find a less crowded (hopefully empty) WiFi channel to allocate to your wireless router, or to find the best location for your router, or to find the strongest and safest WiFi hotspot to connect to while away from home.
What If Nearby Networks Use All Three Channels?
You will have to configure your router to share a channel with one of the other networks – always share a channel with the network that has the lowest signal strength. The lower the strength of the other network, the less likely it will be to cause you interference.
If there are multiple strong signals using all available channels (e.g. in an apartment block) and this interference is causing you serious speed and reliability issues then consider using a faster and more stable wired network instead.
Using cheap powerline adapters to extend internet access around the home is a great solution if you can’t run additional network cables between rooms.
How To Change The Wireless Channel On Your Router
If the app has shown that you need to change the WiFi channel that your router uses, see ‘set up a cable router‘ for an illustrated guide, especially the ‘Wireless Network’ section in Step 5.
If you have an ADSL router see ‘set up a ADSL router‘, especially the ‘Wireless Network’ section in Step 4.
This is the best WiFi Analyzer Android app I have used – it makes it easy to find the best WiFi channel for your router to improve performance and to prevent disconnections or slowdowns.
The screens provide a lot of information but, in most cases, the simple Signal Strength view is sufficient to find the right channel while the Location view is ideal to check WiFi coverage in each room of the house.