Swift Fox Blog

Jun 5th

This is refrain I hear often, from clients, friends, and even my own family. I consult Independent Internet providers on technical and business strategy and this is the main service complaint that they see these days.

This may not be what you want to hear, but odds are, the problem is not (entirely) with your Internet Provider.

My intent here is not to pass the buck to anyone. What we all want is to be able to sit on the couch or in the hot tub while we like the latest cat video on Facebook. So I’ll start out by describing the issue and then some possible solutions.

Most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have invested many many millions of dollars into delivering service to your home and since they typically own that network they can have pretty good control over it and in the majority of cases they are delivering the speeds you are paying for to your home. The troubles most often start when we decide to go wireless inside our home.

Quickie WiFi History Lesson – back in the early 90’s when WiFi was designed the engineers who designed it, went to the government and said “We are creating a new wireless thingy so that people can sit on the couch and watch cat videos, can you give us some frequencies to use for this?” The government scratched their heads and said “Cat videos? You guys are kind of weird. That’ll never catch on, here, have 3 channels that we have already set aside for microwave ovens. There is a lot of interference on those channels, but you guys are kinda weird so you probably won’t notice”

The engineers had a tough challenge, they had to transmit and receive high speed data, in channels that were essentially considered junk channels. They did a bunch of complicated math and such and found a way to make it work. But the result was that the speeds would always be “Best Effort”. So the speed on that router you bought, say 300mbit/s? That is the speed you would get if you setup your network in a cave. In the real world, the actual speeds you will expect to get are only a tiny tiny fraction of that. (ya the speedometer in my Camry goes up to 200, that’s not going to happen either unless I drop it out of a helicopter)

Why not? I paid good money for the WiFi router, why won’t it give me the full speed?

There are many factors that will reduce your speed:

Signal Strength
This one is the most obvious, if you are 6 blocks away, your signal simply cannot reach that far. Also if your device has a small antenna inside or is not very powerful, your speed will be reduced.

Remember back in the 90’s when the government decided to only give us 3 channels? Well those 3 channels now have to work for everyone in your area. And if two routers are on the same channel, and are nearby, they will eat up each other’s bandwidth; it is much worse if there are 30 routers on that same channel. If you bring up the list of WiFi networks on your device and more than 3-6 networks show up, you will most certainly get reduced speeds. If dozens of networks show in the list, WiFi may be nearly unusable in your area. The only legal way to reduce the number of WiFi networks nearby would be to move into that cave.

Other devices also use those 3 channels, yes microwave ovens use the same frequency, however ovens nowadays are very safe and do not typically “leak” any radio waves or interfere with WiFi. Baby Monitors, wireless speakers, and wireless security cameras in the neighbourhood can effectively jam your WiFi.  So be a good neighbour and don’t go on eBay and buy dodgy made in China wireless video cameras, please.

These channels are called “Unlicensed”, which basically means anyone can use them and it is a free for all with few rules that are never enforced. It is like trying to have a conversation in a loud night club. Even if you yell, nobody really hears each other. And to top it off somebody went on eBay and bought a megaphone and is sitting next to you screaming into it.

Ok so WiFi is not as magical as the ads on TV led me to believe, what can I do about it?

The first thing we have to do is consider what WiFi was first intended for, sitting on the couch watching cat videos (actually cat photos, in the 90’s the Internet was too slow for videos).

This means that if you are using a TV box for Netflix, or a gaming system or a desktop computer, wire it in! A wire will always always be much faster than any WiFi! This also reduces traffic on your WiFi, saving it for the devices that need it most.

Ok, I wired in all the things in my house that don’t move, but my tablet, smartphone and laptop are still coming to the couch with me!

Try changing the channel in your router. Most routers come pre-set to channel 6. Change it to Channel 1 or Channel 11 and see how that works. It doesn’t usually help, but sometimes you get lucky and this fix is free. “What about channels 2,3,4,5,7,8,9,10?” Those are put there to trick you, we will not fall for such Jedi mind tricks. (The real reason is that Channel 1,2,3,4 overlap each other, so 2 offers nothing that 1 doesn’t. Just take my word for it, the only usable channels are 1,6,11. The rest are not the channels you are looking for.)

Get closer to the router! This is not usually workable as routers don’t like hot tubs, moving on to step 3.

Take out the crummy router your ISP gave you and put in a serious one. Most ISPs nowadays glom a cheap router right into the modem. You’ll have to call them and ask them to “Disable the router in my modem” or some such similar thing. Then plug in a decent router, like an Apple Airport Extreme. It has more go than the one that your ISP gave you and it has one major advantage. More channels!! (Some ISPs are starting offer better routers for free if you ask)

More Channels? How is that possible? The government never thought that cat videos would be a thing and only gave us channels 1,6 and 11.

Ah, but you see, in the mid-2000’s the geeks rose up and made the government give us MOAR channels! about 25 of them in fact!

But there was a problem, these new channels are in a totally different frequency band than our first 3 channels, so the chips and such in all our devices cannot use the new channels. So we had to all go out and buy new routers and devices that support this newer 5gHz frequency band.

So if you have a new router and your devices are less than 3-4 years old, they likely support the 5gHz frequencies. So the next step is to configure the Airport Extreme to broadcast two different WiFi networks, one on the old 2.4gHz channels (for when your mother-in-law comes over with her iPhone 3) and another for you to use in a the much less congested 5ghz band on your iPad3 or latest Android.

The key thing is to ensure the router is configured to use *two* network names, one for the old slow 2.4gHz and another for the much faster 5gHz. Do not ever connect to the slower one, no matter how tempting it is. Otherwise your device might just decide to switch back to the old, slow network right in the middle of the Kessel run.

What happens when the 25 5gHz channels are all used up too?  Good question.  If the industry comes up with a solution I’ll post it here.  Some areas are already seeing congestion in the 5gHz band and you may have to change channels occasionally.

It is also possible that your ISP is not delivering full speeds to your house. But that is easy to test, just plug a device in directly, turn off the WiFi, in and try it out. If it is faster, the WiFi is the problem. If it still slow call your ISP. But try and be nice, the poor kid at the other end has just had to explain this all for about he 20th time today and is feeling pretty burnt out. Plus the big telco they work for really doesn’t care about them. (while you are at it, seek out independent ISPs and give them your business wherever possible)

Author: Scott Armstrong