Why does the Wi-Fi suck?

I just spent a morning dealing with two bad Wi-Fi routers, three bad ethernet cables, and a wall of Wi-Fi death, so I thought I’d do a quick little piece which I’m sure I’ve done before on why your Wi-Fi sucks and how to (possibly,) fix it.

First: understand how signal radiates

The Wi-Fi signal you receive comes off of the antennas and radiates out in a straight line in all directions. Wi-Fi can penetrate through walls, furniture, etc, however the more stuff it goes through the weaker your connection becomes.

The ideal location for a main Wi-Fi router is dead center of all devices with no obstacles between devices and the router. Probably not going to happen, but you know.

While signal can bounce and go through things, it loses oomph. You ever wonder if your Wi-Fi is any good? Grab a phone, speed test right next to the unit. Move back in a straight line keeping the unit in sight. If it works for 20-40 feet without faltering the unit is probably fine and you’re dealing with a wall or some Wi-Fi death you can’t see.

A Wi-Fi signal going through a 3 inch wall straight on goes through 3 inches of material. A Wi-Fi signal going through a 3 inch wall at an angle can go through several feet of material before it gets to the other side.

Second: data is a two way street

On the internet to see a web page, the internet doesn’t just send you a web page. Your browser sends a crap ton of requests based on data it gets back. You don’t simply get “pocketables.com” you get a html page that has links to 30-50 images and stylesheets and javascript code and all sorts of things that turn a request into several hundred separate requests for data.

Besides the hundreds of components of a web page, there’s also TCP/IP the underlying protocol that does all this stuff and you turn a small .jpg into several hundred back and forth requests for data.

Fix Your WiFi

Your end device has to send all these requests to your WI-Fi router and it has to send them on to the gateway and grab the stuff and send it back to you.

But let’s say your laptop or phone, designed to sip power conservatively and optimized for running on hummingbird farts, just can’t shout a request to your plugged in to a wall outlet capable of powering a jackhammer Wi-Fi? If your router doesn’t hear the request it asks for a resend, over and over. If your end device has a bad transmitting antenna, does not matter how good the signal is showing on the laptop/phone/etc it’s not going to be able to transmit the requests properly.

This is done quickly, but it only take a couple of missteps and you glitch on video calls.

Third: you’re only as fast as your slowest piece

Some of the Wi-Fi issues I’ve encountered in the past two months.

DNS servers failed, all lookups would take 8 seconds. Wi-Fi just needed to be rebooted to get the ISPs new DNS servers. I hardcoded some.

2 gig fiber connection plugged into a router capable of 1700mbit and getting about 80mbit out of the entire thing. Data cable was old. I don’t know what the theoretical top speed of the cable should have been, but a 12 year old cable was bad and slowed a network to a crawl. Replaced the cable with another one.

Gigabit Clean Router, gig cable, gig manage POE switch, direct testing at 960mbit, getting 22mbit speed tests. Phone and laptops are only connecting at 30mbit speeds on 5ghz. Suspect transmitting antenna is shot as that’s absurdly slow. You can tell your connection speed on Android by going to Wi-Fi, clicking the cog on your current connection, it’ll let you know.

Father-in-law’s Sandy Fiber 300mbit Wi-Fi 6 that speed tested perfect near and abysmal at TV one room away. Ceramic rooster with metal paint (I’m guessing) literally cock blocking the Wi-Fi. Moved chicken.

Apple Airport 2 – speeds of 13mbit when it should be getting 800+ and anything connected to it should be seeing at least 300mbit. Appears the ethernet port in the thing no longer capable of exceeding 20mbit or so. Verified by plugging it into a switch and other devices in as well and performing speed tests using it, and various cables. Nope, Airport just plugs along at ancient speeds. Suspect ethernet port shot.

I have rarely seen an issue in which the ISP’s internet connection was the slowdown case. I have seen an ISP’s Wi-Fi modem produce garbage Wi-Fi however.

Get a repeater or extender to make your horrible connection reach more areas badly

Wi-Fi repeaters, extenders, mesh systems all have to deal with the same issues. If the Wi-Fi is garbage where the extender is, it will extend the garbage. The only reasons I see for most of these things is to make life a little easier on devices on the Wi-FI at the edge of range.

To be clear – there are use cases for them. I use a Mesh setup right now so some Wi-Fi cameras at extreme distance are getting signal better. Pretty sure the mesh slows things down but makes things a bit more reliable that are connected to that side of the Wi-FI equation.

If your Wi-Fi isn’t cutting it, adding a repeater will make it suck in more places, but with more bars.

Troubleshooting steps to take

Get a laptop with an ethernet port, or ethernet port USB thing. Speedtest directly plugged into the main modem. Write that down.

Plug into the ethernet outlets on the back of the Wi-Fi. If it’s a lot different you might have a bad ethernet cable.

Test Wi-Fi. Realize your phone or laptop is probably only connecting at a speed capable of about 300mbit. If this test is good, move to location it’s not good. Re-test.

Turn it off, leave it off for 5 minutes, and on again. Does the speed start going down after a while? If so you’ve probably got a transmitting antenna going south. Or a power supply.

Play Grover – test near, far, near, far.

Remember that speedtest.net doesn’t always pick the fastest connection, it generally goes for lowest ping. Instant response does not equate to that testing location being fast for data transfer.

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Paul E King

Paul King started with GoodAndEVO in 2011, which merged with Pocketables, and as of 2018 he's evidently the owner. He lives in Nashville, works at a film production company, is married with two kids. Facebook | Twitter | Donate | More posts by Paul | Subscribe to Paul's posts

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