Why is your Wi-Fi internet so slow? This article summarizes the most common Wi-Fi speed problems and how to fix them. Let’s start with the easiest.
Note that if you’re connected to the Wi-Fi, but have no connection at all, the issue might be something completely different.
1. Router Positioning
Many people underestimate the importance of picking a right spot for a Wi-Fi router. Even a small shift in positioning could end up causing slow Wi-Fi.
High vs. Low
Like most people, you probably unpacked your new router, located a reasonable outlet, and left it on a whatever was nearby: a shelf, a desk, or even the ground. As it turns out, router height does make a difference. Leaving your router on the ground or behind other objects usually results in noticeably worse performance.
Instead, put the router as high up as possible to extend the broadcasting range of the radio waves. This also helps clear the router of potential interference.
Concrete and Metals
Materials like concrete and metal are usually the biggest blockers of Wi-Fi signals. They are so effective at this that Faraday cages use the same materials to block all electromagnetic fields–they can even protect you from RFID hacks.
So you may want to avoid placing your router in your basement, as a lot of concrete usually encloses this area. Other materials can impede your wireless network’s performance, too. Make sure any other large or notable objects don’t block your router.
Distance to Router
The further away from your router you get, the weaker the Wi-Fi signal. Therefore, the best option is to place your router as close to your devices as possible. However, this is only practical if you have one main area where you tend to use your Wi-Fi-enabled devices.
Otherwise, you should place your router near the center of your home. After all, Wi-Fi broadcasts in 360 degrees, so it doesn’t necessarily make sense to put it at one end of the house.
However, if your router’s broadcast is noticeably weak or if your house is particularly large, then you may need to increase the range of those Wi-Fi waves. Wi-Fi extenders or repeaters are auxiliary devices that connect to the main router and repeat the signal to cover a greater area.
If you want to get scientific about your router placement, take a look at this project from London-based Software Engineer Jason Cole. After moving into a new apartment, he mathematically modeled the property’s Wi-Fi hotspots and coldspots. You can try this for yourself with his WiFi Solver app, currently available for Android and Chrome OS.
2. Wireless Interference and Noise
You’ve probably never noticed, but there are wireless signals all around you wherever you go—and they’re passing through you all the time. These signals come from our electronic devices, Wi-Fi routers, satellites, cell towers, and more.
Although Wi-Fi is usually on a different frequency than most of these devices, the amount of radio noise can still cause interference. However, you may be able to minimize some common causes of interference. And hopefully you’re on the right side of the digital divide.
It turns out that microwave ovens can cause interference with your Wi-Fi network, which is particularly common with older routers. This is because microwave ovens operate at a frequency of 2.45GHz, which is incredibly close to the 2.4GHz Wi-Fi band.
The 2.4GHz Wi-Fi band actually broadcasts between 2.412GHz and 2.472GHz, so there are times when the microwave frequency can overlap with the Wi-Fi frequency. When that happens, the data being transferred gets disrupted. Most microwaves have proper shielding, so no waves should be detected outside of the oven.
But interference can occur with inadequate or poor shielding.
One of the other popular wireless connections, Bluetooth, also happens to operate at 2.4GHz. In theory, a properly designed device should be shielded in a way that prevents interference.
To avoid frequency clash, Bluetooth manufacturers use frequency hopping, where the signal randomly rotates between 70 different channels, changing up to 1,600 times per second. Newer Bluetooth devices can also have the ability to identify “bad” (currently in-use) channels and avoid those. But interference can still occur, so try moving the router away from Bluetooth devices.
Experiment by turning your Bluetooth devices off to see if this is the cause of your troubles, especially if they are older Bluetooth devices without channel management.
Strangely enough, Christmas lights (or fairy lights) can be a devious culprit in slowing down your Wi-Fi. The effect is caused by these lights emitting an electromagnetic field that interacts with your Wi-Fi band. Flashing lights are particularly problematic.
But you aren’t even immune with modern LED lights. Some LED strings have flashing chips built into each lamp, and these create an interfering electromagnetic field.
In reality, all other kinds of electric lights can cause interference by emitting electromagnetic fields like this, but the effect is close to negligible in most cases. However, you should keep your router away from electric lights just in case.
Information designer Richard Vijgen created the mobile app Architecture of Radio. It uses public information on satellites and cell towers, along with Wi-Fi information and GPS location, to create a map of all the invisible signals around you.
While the app isn’t intended as a measurement tool, it helps to visualize the digital signals all around us.
3. Your Neighbors
Nearly every household has its own Wi-Fi network, which can create channel overlap. This can cause issues in a townhouse, but is especially problematic in housing complexes and apartments with many routers nearby.
Channel overlap is mostly an issue for routers that can only broadcast at 2.4GHz, or if you have devices that can only receive a 2.4GHz wireless signal. This is because there are only 14 channels to transmit on. Two routers broadcasting on the same channel at the same frequency will interfere with each other.
That’s why it’s crucial that you pick a proper channel in your router settings. Modern routers can choose channels for you automatically, but sometimes it’s better to investigate and find the best channel yourself.
People may also try to get on your network without your knowledge. It’s a security issue, but could also slow down your Wi-Fi. The most important way to prevent this is to make sure your router has a strong password. Weak Wi-Fi passwords are relatively easy to hack, especially those based on WEP standards.
You should also keep your router up-to-date and regularly check for suspicious devices on your network.
4. Other Household Users
Have you ever left a large download running on your PC? That may be the cause of your slow Wi-Fi. Downloading large files can take quite a toll on your Wi-Fi performance. Sometimes you can’t avoid this—operating system updates can be massive, for example—but if you’re running tasks that aren’t urgent, try pausing them.
More likely, however, is that the people on your network—such as friends, roommates, or family members—are participating in bandwidth-heavy activities like gaming and streaming Netflix. Fortunately, if this is the case, you can prioritize your network traffic by enabling Quality of Service in your router settings. You should also think twice about sharing your Wi-Fi password in the first place.
As humans are 60 percent water, and water can reduce the frequency of radio waves, people can also pose a connection problem. I’m not suggesting that you remove all the people from your house, of course. But do make sure to keep your router out of the main areas where people congregate. The impact won’t be monumental, but it may be noticeable.
Ready to Fix Your Internet Speed?
Identifying the cause of your slow Wi-Fi can be a challenge. From router placement to the people in your home, there are a lot of possibilities. If you’ve exhausted the physical explanations for your sluggish network, then it might be time to turn to the digital.
Also, take the opportunity to change your DNS settings to see if that helps. If the slowdown is isolated to your mobile devices, it’s worth considering that there may be reasons your smartphone has slow internet speeds.
And if you’ve been hearing about Wi-Fi 6 and have questions, we have answers: