Technology Explained

How to Fix a Slow or Unstable Wi-Fi Connection

Kannon Yamada Updated 07-04-2020

Unstable Wi-Fi is often caused by wireless congestion. Congestion problems are common in apartment complexes or densely packed neighborhoods. The more people using the internet, the greater the instability.

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When many people in the same area are working from home, connectivity suffers. For those of you wondering how to fix Wi-Fi that sucks or is unstable, this article is for you.

Unstable Wi-Fi Is Caused by Congestion

Imagine an old car radio. Rotating the station dial sometimes plays a static combination of two different radio stations.  That’s because two radio towers can be on the same frequency channel. The same is true for Wi-Fi routers: when two or more routers transmit on the same channel, they slow each other down and cause unstable connections.

The problem is magnified in dense living spaces. In apartment complexes, dozens of routers can transmit on the same channel. Even modern wireless technology can’t cope with that level of interference.

Just like radio, Wi-Fi is broken up into frequencies on the gigahertz (GHz) spectrum of 2.4GHz and 5GHz. These are much higher frequencies than those radio has access to. Each frequency is broken up into smaller increments called channels.

The 2.4GHz frequency suffers from congestion the most because of its limited number of channels and long range. It has eleven channels but only three of these are non-overlapping. That means speed and connection quality suffer when there are more routers in the same area.

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5GHz, on the other hand, offers 23 non-overlapping channels—and its shorter range means fewer overlapping radio signals. It’s a lot like AM and FM radio where the longer range AM has poorer audio fidelity and FM sounds great but it comes at the expense of range.

unstable wifi is caused by too many overlapping frequencies
Image Credit: Wireless Networking in the Developing World/Wikipedia

Fortunately you can change your router’s channel the same way you can change a radio dial. It works like this: 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 5GHz model (why dual-band routers work How Dual-Band Routers Can Solve Your Wireless Woes Using a router that supports the dual-band standard can significantly boost your Wi-Fi speeds in many circumstances. Read More .)

How to Fix Your Unstable Wi-Fi Connection

Download and Install a Wi-Fi Analysis App

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On Windows, lots of free apps can analyze the quality of wireless channels. One of the best options is available on the Microsoft Store: Wi-Fi Analyzer.

If you’ve got Windows, but don’t have access to the Microsoft Store, we recommend NirSoft’s WifiInfoView. For those without Windows, search your respective operating system’s app store for “Wi-Fi Analyzer” and you should see dozens of options.

Download: Wi-Fi Analyzer (Free)

Detect Unstable Wi-Fi

Using Wi-Fi Analyzer is dead simple. Just install and run the app. After installation, you can launch it by going to Windows Search (Windows key + Q) > Wi-Fi Analyzer.

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The tool should detect your Wi-Fi signal strength, which ranges from zero to -100 decibel milliwatt (dBm), the lower the better. If you have a 5GHz network, there is a toggle in the app that allows you to switch between detecting 2.4GHz and 5GHz. It’s at the bottom of the interface.

To analyze your wireless router’s signal quality, take the following actions:

Click on Analyze in the top menu bar.

Wifi analyzer app analyze menu

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Wi-Fi Analyzer then displays a visualization of the Wi-Fi networks in your vicinity. If two networks broadcast on the same channel, you’ll notice overlap. Each channel is a number between one and 161 on the 5GHz frequency and one through 11 on the 2.4GHz frequency.

Here’s what it looks like when two networks overlap:

wifi analyzer can examine nearby networks for signal quality

The X-plane axis represents the channels available on the 2.4GHz spectrum. As you can see, channels four to seven are unoccupied. Channels five and six have no competition whatsoever. Given the app’s analysis, I should change my router’s 2.4GHz channel to either five or six.

But how do you change your router’s channel?

How to Change Your Router’s Channel

Accessing your router’s settings requires a browser, like Chrome or Microsoft Edge. Accessing its settings, unfortunately, varies between different models of router, but some general rules apply.

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 Telus router, changing the Wi-Fi channel is easy. I navigated to the router login address and entered my login and password. Changing the channel is usually located under Wireless Settings > Advanced Settings.

fix unstable wifi by changing the router's channel

I then changed the network channel to the option which offered good connection, saved the settings, and then restarted the router by power cycling it (turning it off and on again). Afterward, it stopped randomly disconnecting.

One thing to mention: most modern routers include a feature that combines 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies onto a single network name, or SSID. This feature is notoriously unreliable and if you’re having network problems, I suggest disabling it as a precautionary step. On my Telus router, it’s referred to as SmartSteering. Other brands have completely different names.

How to Fix Unstable Wi-Fi? Decongest It!

If your Wi-Fi sucks, using a Wi-Fi analysis app is the best way to find out your router’s ideal network settings. If after changing your router’s channel, you still get unreliable internet, consider optimizing your network for speed 10 Ways to Improve the Speed of Your Current Router Internet connection too slow? Here are a few simple router tweaks that could make a world of difference on your home Wi-Fi network. Read More instead. Sometimes ironing out the kinks in your home internet might fix reliability issues.

Related topics: Network Issues, Network Tips, Router, Troubleshooting, Wi-Fi.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. Jonathan
    December 17, 2016 at 8:12 pm

    One of the biggest problems is with the ISP supplied modem / routers. Not only will you have transmitting the your wifi SSID you will broadcast their public (only members of that ISP ex. xfinity, optimum). I use a mac and yes I have Wifi Explorer. Best thing is disable the wifi on the ISP modem / router and install your own router and hook it via ethernet to the modem / router. I use an ASUS router N66 which does both 2.4 Ghz and 5 Ghz. Also try to get your neighbors to do the same thing. Eliminate as many ISP member-only public wifi hotspots (ex. xfinity, optimum). Have maybe one in the area but definitely not five.

  2. james
    June 20, 2016 at 11:19 am

    Is there a wifi analyzer for the Mac?

  3. JM
    June 15, 2016 at 11:26 pm

    For Linux users there is LinSSID by wseverin. For Android users there is Wifi Analyzer by farproc :)

    • Kannon Yamada
      June 18, 2016 at 7:10 pm

      Thanks JM!

  4. Anonymous
    June 15, 2016 at 8:19 pm

    No love for Linux users, Kannon? :-)

    • Kannon Yamada
      June 15, 2016 at 10:21 pm

      For Linux users, you can install a mobile WiFi analyzer on a smartphone or tablet and use it as a WiFi gauge. There's a lot of WiFi Analyzers out there (you can just type that term into your favorite app store). Try using the open source app WiFi Analyzer for Android devices. It did a great job for me.

  5. Anonymous
    June 15, 2016 at 1:37 pm

    I could write a book on how bad wifi and internet connections.

    Having performed similar tasks to whats written above (most of which DO work) I have had issue with phone line being the problem as well.

    I work from home and have a residential line and separate business phone line. Both have recently become unusable for different reasons and have effected my internet connectivity.

    Sometimes it's worth remembering that phone lines can become worn out and may be an issue with drop connection or loss of signal.

    I have now had both lines replaced which has made a huge boost to my internet speed both for leisure and for work.

  6. Anonymous
    June 15, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    I would love to use WiFi Analyzer. But, when I call it up, it says I am not connected. I know I am connected because I am able to read and write here. I am hardwired to my PC. And, I can use Speedtest. What am I missing?

    • Anonymous
      June 15, 2016 at 1:55 pm

      @jshaw,

      You need to be connected to a wireless network or at least have 802.11 hardware in your device in order to examine wireless signal quality. There is also a Wifi Analyzer for Android and many laptops have some sort of signal analyzer as well, which might be available for computers running older versions of Windows (e.g. Lenovo Access Connections). 802.11 hardware is not standard on desktop PCs, or it might be turned off on a notebook that is wired into a network.

      This article does not address issues with Wireless ISP connectivity (802.16, LTE et al).

      I realize that for many users, "wireless" is the same as ISP connectivity, but this is simply not the case. You can have an absolutely marvelous connection to your ISP and a crummy 802.11 ("wifi") signal or vice versa. Since many home users are allergic to using network cables even when it is entirely appropriate, everything gets lumped together into one issue.

      Consumers should also be aware that not all 802.11 client devices and antenna implementations are created equal. My Thinkpad has a vastly more sensitive hardware configuration than my Dell Venue or Surface Pro and in fact can connect to my wireless network at around 40% greater distance from my most powerful access point. Similarly, my Kindle Fire HDX is better able to connect than my nVidia Shield or my roommate's iPad. If you have a $200 AirPort Extreme on an uncrowded frequency and your $300 laptop still can't reliably connect, the problem might not be the 802.11 signal.

    • Kannon Yamada
      June 15, 2016 at 4:16 pm

      If both WiFi Analyzer and Nirsoft's tool don't work for you, you might want to try a mobile application. The advantage of a mobile app is that you can use it as a portable WiFi meter. Just search for, and install, one of the many WiFi analyzer applications available in the Google Play Store or the Apple Store. Can I ask what smartphone or tablet have?