Wireless internet at home is incredibly comfortable. Once everything is set up and running, you can easily connect multiple devices over the air and move them around the house freely.
The trouble is setting up the network and eventually figuring out how to connect each device. There are some common mistakes that are best avoided in the first place. If you’re struggling with your WiFi, let this be your "WiFi For Dummies" troubleshooting guide.
1. Not reading manuals
This should be common sense. Your WiFi setup depends on the router you have and the devices you want to connect. Thus it’s essential to read the respective manuals and follow their instructions. Some of the following mistakes can be avoided simply by reading manuals.
2. Using default passwords
Your wireless router comes with a default password for its administration interface. The password is required to log into the device and configure countless critical settings. To avoid damage it’s essential to secure this area by replacing the default password with a strong password. The same applies to all devices you’re going to connect to your wireless network.
3. Failing to turn on WiFi transmission
Especially laptops and mobile phones have buttons or software settings that allow you to turn on or off wireless transmissions. Naturally, you won’t be able to locate a wireless network, let alone connect to it as long as WiFi is turned off on your laptop or phone. More details can be found in the device manual.
4. Mixing or excluding wireless standards
There are several wireless standards or WiFi technologies available: 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, and 802.11n. 802.11n is the latest standard and supports higher bandwidth as well as multiple wireless signals and antennas (MIMO technology). This article on About.com explains the differences in detail.
You may have devices supporting different standards and you should sort this out before purchasing a router or a device you want to connect to an existing router (i.e. read manuals). In general, it’s best not to mix wireless standards. You’ll see the best performance, if all connected devices "speak the same language", i.e. use the same standard. For example a device running using outdated wireless technology may slow down the entire network, even for devices that support higher standards.
That’s also the reason why many routers have an option that excludes devices only supporting old standards. So if you cannot connect your old laptop to your wireless network, maybe your router is configured to support only 802.11g and up, while your laptop only supports 802.11a.
5. Mixing encryption standards
New devices support different forms of WPA (Wi-Fi Protected Access) encryption. The old encryption standard WEP (Wired Equivalent Privacy) should be avoided because it’s easily cracked.
Most users will be smart and set up their router with WPA encryption. Now what would happen if you tried to connect a device that only supports WEP, for example a PDA, to such a network. Of course it would not work! Again, it’s essential to read the manuals and understand which encryption standards are supported by the devices you want to connect.
If WPA is your only option, make sure you have a strong password, i.e. random, alphanumeric and longer than 10 characters. Don’t skip encryption! Even if WPA can be cracked, it does require a few minutes and a bit of skill, so your regular neighbor will probably be too lazy to try.
6. Badly configured firewall
One of the main reasons a computer won’t connect to a wireless network is a firewall that denies the connection. To test this, simply turn off the firewall and try again. If the firewall was the cause, learn how to configure it properly (check out a few WiFi For Dummies books from your local bookstore to learn more) to allow WiFi access.
Another mistake could be transposed digits or wrong spelling of manually entered IDs, passwords, MAC addresses etc. that are required to setup the network or connect a device. When you’re receving a signal, but cannot connect, make sure your WEP or WPA key is correct. Double check!
8. Not using any security
Your data is transmitted over the air and it is an easy target for anyone trying to spy on you or hack into your system. So any security measurement is better than none. Use passwords, use strong passwords, use encryption, use a firewall or at least turn on Windows’ default firewall, monitor your traffic.
For more information about securing your WiFi connection, read these articles:
From Aibek: How To Secure Your Wireless Network Connection
From Tina (me): Is Your Wireless Network Safe?
9. False sense of security
You may have changed all default passwords, turned off DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol), set up MAC (Media Access Control) filtering, turned off remote router administration, turned on the router firewall, set up a firewall on your computer, and hidden your SSID (Service Set Identifier) beaconing and you probably feel safe.
Apparently, some people also try to secure their WiFi network "physically". They place the router in a central location of the area they want to cover and reduce the signal until it can not be detected outside that area. I hope they don’t forget that the signal is transmitted three-dimensionally. Also, someone using a strong antenna, e.g. a determined hacker, will still pick up the signal and invade the network.
Among harmless neighbors, you probably are safe even if you don’t apply any security measurements. But for a skilled hacker, you’re still a relatively easy target, despite all the precautions. Each security layer can be cracked separately and it’s only a matter of time until WPA will be hacked. So never feel too safe, back up your data and disconnect sensible data from connected devices.
If you’re interested in wireless internet, you should check out Guy’s other great WiFi for dummies type article Technology Explained: How Does Wireless Internet Work? and if you’re going to set up your own network, download the Home Networking Guide PDF that was written by Stefan.
What other problems or mistakes did you encounter in setting up a wireless network?
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