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Does your wireless connection suck? You could suffer from Wi-Fi congestion. Congestion problems are common in apartment complexes or high population density neighborhoods. Fortunately, the problem isn’t hard to fix.
Note: If you have no internet connection all, although your Wi-Fi appears connected, the issue may lie elsewhere.
What Causes Wi-Fi Congestion?
Picture a radio station tower. In any region there may exist dozens of stations. Each radio tower shoots an invisible wave of radiation, known as a frequency, from the tower to your radio. Adjusting the radio’s dial changes the channel. But what if two stations broadcast on the same channel?
Fortunately, they don’t. The government regulates radios the same way they regulate wireless internet frequencies. If each radio station transmitter used the same frequency, you’d hear a cacophony of distorted sounds — it’s like trying to isolate a single voice at a very crowded party.
Just like radio, Wi-Fi is a form of invisible radiation. Like all forms of radiation, Wi-Fi’s physical shape, or frequency, looks a lot like a wave. It’s also not limited to a single shape — there are multiple kinds of Wi-Fi frequencies used by computers, namely 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. While government regulators exert tight control over how devices connect to each frequency, there are inherent limitations in 2.4 GHz technology.
2.4 GHz offers an underwhelming 3 non-overlapping channels. 5 GHz offers 23 non-overlapping channels — and its shorter range means fewer overlapping radio signals.
The problem with 2.4 GHz: Most consumer technologies, including Bluetooth and several Wi-Fi technologies, use the same frequency and 2.4 GHz only has three non-overlapping channels. On top of that, 2.4 GHz possesses a long range, which leads to many different Wi-Fi signals trampling over one another.
The solution is simple: Identify which channels aren’t congested and switch your device over to it. If that doesn’t work, think about changing your router to a 5 GHz model (why dual-band routers work.) Keep in mind that lots of gimmicky routers offer tri-band and other features. The best option is always a dual-band device.
Tools for Solving Wi-Fi Congestion
First, you must identify which Wi-Fi channel offers reliability and speed. Second (and last,) you must change your router’s channel. That means using a Wi-Fi analyzing tool and changing a setting on your router.
On Windows, a tremendous number of tools can identify crowded out channels. One of the best options comes from the Windows Store: WiFi Analyzer.
If you don’t have access to the Windows Store, we recommend NirSoft’s WifiInfoView.
Using WiFi Analyzer
Using WiFi Analyzer is dead simple. Just install and run the app. After installation, you can launch it by going to Windows Search (Windows key + Q), type WiFi Analyzer, and select the Store result; you might have to install the app before you can proceed to launching it.
The tool should detect your Wi-Fi signal strength, which ranges from -0 to -100 decibel milliwatt (dBm), the lower the better. At -0 dBm you are right next to the transmitter. At -100 dBm your connection won’t work. A number lower (technically a negative is lower) than -70 means a solid connection. -80 dBm or higher means a poor connection.
Next, click on Analyze in the top menu bar. WiFi Analyzer displays a visualization of the different overlapping Wi-Fi networks in your vicinity. If two networks broadcast on the same channel, you’ll notice that they’ll overlap. Each channel is a number between 1 and 161.
It also recommends the most reliable (but not always the fastest) channel on your network. Make note of that number.
Here’s what it looks like when two networks overlap:
The WiFi Analyzer app doesn’t recommend the fastest channel. It only recommends the channel with the most reliable connection. Generally speaking, the higher the channel number, the fastest it is.
If you don’t own Windows 8 or newer, you might want to try’s NirSoft’s WifiInfoView, which offers similar features as WiFi Analyzer.
Change Router Channel
Now that you know what Wi-Fi channel works best, you’ll need to change your router’s settings. Accessing your router’s settings requires a browser, like Chrome or Microsoft Edge. Accessing its settings, unfortuantely, varies between different models of router, but some general rules apply.
- NetGear routers: In your browser, navigate to http://routerlogin.net.
- TP-Link routers: In your browser, navigate to http://tplinklogin.net
- Linksys routers: In your browser, navigate to 192.168.1.1.
Note: Most routers use “admin” as the login and “password” as the password. The login details may also be printed on the back of the router or in the instruction manual that came with it. If you cannot access your router, try searching the internet for your individual router’s access method.
For my own NetGear router, changing the Wi-Fi channel didn’t prove difficult. I navigated to http://routerlogin.net and entered my login and password. The splash screen shows several options in the left-pane. Channel is a wireless property, so it’s certainly located there. The channel changer is located under the name of the network.
I then changed the network channel to the option which offered good connection and a higher channel number (which means a higher frequency). After changing the channel, I suffered from some connection issues, which were solved by power-cycling the router.
The Proof Is in the Pudding
Ultimately, the best way to tell if you’ve improved your network speeds is through testing. I recommend using SpeedTest.net (our review of SpeedTest.) It’s a good way of determining which Wi-Fi channels yield the optimum combination of speed and reliability. If that doesn’t work, you might want to try out some other methods for improving router performance or opting for a mesh Wi-Fi network.
Think you might just be on the wrong side of the digital divide? Find out what it is and where you fall in the mix.
Image Credit: Wireless Channel Width via Wikipedia