If the coronavirus pandemic means you’re now working from home, chances are you’ve been confronted with the grim reality of a faltering internet connection. With most of the country under stay-at-home orders, broadband providers in the U.S. are reporting increased internet usage.
According to Comcast, the national’s largest residential network, video conferencing and VOIP calls (such as Skype and WhatsApp) are up 228%, while evening and weekend streaming and downloading have significantly increased as Americans trade nightlife for staying in with Netflix.
While providers say they’re managing the bump in demand, the fact is, more of us are experiencing laggy connections, often most noticeable because we’re undertaking more data-intensive tasks such as video calling, or because the whole family is home, streaming, gaming and using the internet at the same time.
Your connection speed can also be influenced by your router—how old it is, how good its processor and antenna are, how good it is at picking up wireless signals and how many devices are using it. Newer routers may support faster WiFi technology and can do things like prioritize certain traffic streams, such as business video calls, or work devices over the kids’ tablets.
In some cases, your connection speed may even come down to your service provider's preference for certain kinds of traffic. Service providers prioritize voice traffic first, then their own video services.
Luckily, there are several things that can help you get more out of your bandwidth. Here’s what you can boost your WiFi speed.
1. Run a speed test
First, you want to determine whether the internet from your service provider is in fact slow, or if that super-popular video platform is buckling under everybody’s Thursday night virtual drinks.
Test the internet connection from any device by running a speed test from a site such as SpeedTest.net at different times during the day (There can be confusing ads on this page, so don't click on anything but the big "Go" button). If you’re doing more video conferencing than usual, you’ll want to check upload as well as download speeds – video calling has comparatively high demands for both.
For a handy real-world breakdown of what your internet speeds can handle, you can also check out Comcast’s speedtest.xfinity.com, (though that only shows download speeds).
The speeds should always be at least 80 to 90 percent of what your service provider promises. Take note of what your upload and download numbers are before you start testing out tips for boosting your WiFi – you’ll want to check whether your connection improves and what seems to do the trick.
2. Run a ping test
When networks are congested, you’ll feel it first in data-intensive applications like video calling which will freeze or stutter due to higher latency - the delay in communication between your computer (or phone) and a particular website on the Internet.
Doing a ping test can confirm the latency - and quality - of your Internet connection.
Head back to SpeedTest.net, where you'll receive a ping figure measured in milliseconds. In general, lower numbers are better, but anything under 50 is considered good and under 100 is average. Keep a note of those numbers, so you can check in at different times of day to see when there might be less congested periods.
3. Reboot the router
So you’ve determined the internet is indeed slower than normal – and slower than you require. Try restarting the router.
The IP connection between your device and the router or between the router and Internet can get hung up. A restart of the router reboots all its systems, including the network processor and wireless radios.
If your router has a reset button, hold it down for a few seconds. If not, restart it by removing the cable from the power socket, waiting half a minute and then plugging it in again.
4. Turn off Eco mode
Some routers have a power-saving or Eco mode that's on by default. Eco mode can slow down your WiFi and the actual power savings are minimal. In your router's settings, look for Eco mode or power-saving mode and turn it off. Also, check to see if your router has an Automatic transmission setting and make sure it's at 100 percent.
5. Check how many other devices are connected
If you had a high ping rate (that is, higher latency), or are experiencing latency issues like frozen video calls, you might be able to reduce bandwidth congestion starting with your own household.
Intensive activities like streaming 4K video or file sharing can take its toll on Internet speed. Routers can support hundreds of devices connecting, but it's more about what each device is doing online. For example, if someone is streaming Netflix, another person is working over Zoom, and two others are on FaceTime and House Party, that can certainly increase congestion – and latency – on your internet connection.
Each device’s distance from the router is important as well. If four people are streaming video but they're all close to the router, you may not experience any slowdowns. So if everyone simply must watch Netflix or play Fortnite separately and simultaneously, try to move the devices closer to the router with as little wall or floor obstructing the path as possible.
6. Check for interference from a nearby cordless device
Baby monitors, older cordless phones, microwave ovens and wireless speakers are just some of the common household gadgets that can interfere with the wireless signal from your router.
Deal with the conflict by moving the router away from these devices and ensuring that no devices that could potentially interfere lie in a straight line between your router and the gadget you're trying to get online with.
7. Move the router
You may be able to increase the speed of your connection by choosing a better location for your router.
While a WiFi signal can travel hundreds of feet in an unobstructed space, walls and floors can cut that distance by half or more.
According to Comcast’s Patti Loyack, VP, xFi, Multifamily & Digital Security, the most important thing is to place the router in a central location with plenty of open space, near where you and your family use your devices the most.
If you can, a high location will help with minimizing obstructions to all devices that may connect to the router. The idea is to get a direct line of sight between devices and the router.
The materials surrounding the router matter as well. Metal interferes with WiFi signals, while wood does not. Try not to place your router behind a wall with a large mirror (like your bathroom) as the mirror can reflect the signal waves. Loyack cautions that even water, such as in a fish tank, can interfere with WiFi signal.
And play with those sticks - positioning the router's antenna vertically rather than horizontally also increases signal strength.
8. Check your frequency
Most of today's WiFi routers support two frequencies: 2.4GHz and 5GHz. The 2.4GHz band tends to reach farther but is more congested than the 5GHz band because it's used by more types of devices, including smart home devices and baby monitors. The 5GHz band has faster throughput – but can’t travel as far because its shorter waves are less able to get through walls and floors.
If you have a router that supports both frequencies, then it may have automatically created two networks when you set it up, one tagged 5GHz. In this case, on a computer (or other device) that requires a strong internet connection, try switching to the 5GHz network from the wireless network icon in your toolbar.
Here’s how you can check what frequency your network is on:
On a Mac, hold down Option and tap the WiFi icon to see details about the network you’re currently connected to, including the frequency and channel.
On a PC, head to Settings > Network & Internet, click on the SSID name and scroll down to Properties.
9. Check to see if you’re on an overcrowded WiFi channel
Within the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, there are multiple channels through which signal can travel. Slow speeds can be down to interference from your neighbors trying to connect via the same WiFi channel.
According to Intel’s Eric McLaughlin, Vice President Compute Client Group and GM Wireless Solutions Group, many routers default to channel 6, which means your neighbors’ routers might also be running on the same channel, causing bandwidth congestion that impacts your internet speed.
You can try to increase your WiFi speed by switching to a less busy channel.
Some routers automatically change channels depending on internet traffic, but you might want to check if there’s a better channel anyway. For a free option, McLaughlin recommends the WiFi Analyzer app (Android and Windows 10) to identify which router channel has the best bandwidth, allowing for faster connections and better calls. Another Windows option is NirSoft's WiFiInfoView.
Although there’s no free equivalent for iOS, Mac users can take advantage of a built-in tool to scan for the best channels. Hold down Option on the keyboard and click on the wireless icon to open Wireless Diagnostics. Ignoring the window that opens, click on Window in the toolbar, then select Scan. You’ll see a summary that notes the best channel for 2.4GHz and best channel for the 5GHz band. (Newer routers should be able to switch between both automatically to access all available channels.)
10. Switch to a different channel
Once you’ve identified whether there’s a better channel you can use, head to your router admin page by entering your router’s IP address in your browser toolbar. You can find this address in your manual, the back of the router, or by googling the router brand and model (it will look something like 192.168.1.1), then enter your credentials. If it’s your first time, these will be default login and password (again, findable online – which makes a great case for changing it ASAP to prevent others from accessing your router).
Select wireless settings to see what channel you’re on. You should be able to change to the optimal channel found by your WiFi scan - though if your router was set to automatically choose the best channel, it might already be using the optimum one.
Note: Avoid tampering with settings here unless you know what you’re doing, as changing basic configuration such as the SSID (network name) can affect how other household devices connect to the internet.
11. Change your DNS settings
When you browse the web, the URL that you type in has to be translated into the website's IP address in order for you to see the page. A Domain Name System (DNS) serves as that translator. Each time you connect to the internet, your ISP assigns you to DNS servers in its infrastructure, but if those servers aren’t fast and stable, it could bog down your internet experience.
In that case, switching to a third-party DNS server might boost your internet speed. There are many third-party DNS providers out there, but one of the most popular free options is Google Public DNS. You can use its address (188.8.131.52 or 184.108.40.206) to update your DNS settings.
To do that, log back into your router admin and open LAN or DHCP server settings, and look for a DNS field, then fill in the address of your new DNS server.
(If you’re interested in testing out different DNS servers, the free download Namebench scans for DNS servers you can use and compares their speed. Some are free, others are paid-for, offering parental control and anti-phishing features.)
12. Get a wireless signal extender
In homes larger than 3,000 square feet, getting a good WiFi signal from one corner to another can be a challenge. Multistory houses pose an obstacle as well if the router isn't plugged into the broadband line somewhere in the middle.
In these cases, you could benefit from using a wireless extender. A signal extender plugs into any outlet to rebroadcast and boost your WiFi signal across the home, from your garage to the front garden.
We like Netgear’s Nighthawk Nighthawk X6S EX8000 WiFi Mesh Extender ($199.99, check price on Amazon) for its one-button setup and tri-band support (which includes a dedicated channel for transmissions between the extender and router itself).
If you have a router that you bought or are renting through your internet service provider, you'll want to see if they offer an extender. For instance, Comcast offers Xfinity xFi Pods extenders which are configured for its routers. A three pack costs $119.
You can also check out wired signal extenders that make use of your home’s existing wiring systems. If your home is wired for coax (cat 5), a coax adapter can receive signal from your router over the existing coaxial cabling to where you need coverage, providing the speed of a wired connection. We like the Actiontec Actiontec 802.11ac Wireless Network Extender with Gigabit Ethernet Bonded MoCA ($149.99, check price on Amazon) – though note that some coax adapters are not suitable if you have satellite TV, so be sure to check the specs.
Or, you can use a powerline adapter, which plugs into wall electrical sockets and receives signal through your home’s existing wiring with Ethernet ports allowing for wired connections to devices. Our pick for a powerline adapter is the TP-Link AV2000 Powerline Adapter Kit ($119.99, check price on Amazon).
13. Get a new router
If your router is old or you're using the WiFi embedded in the box your Internet Service Provider supplied, it may be time to shell out for a new router.
Many ISP-provided routers are not only pretty basic, but are more likely to support the older (and slower) WiFi protocols 802.11a/b/g/n - especially if you received the box around 2015 or earlier. You can get a significant speed bump by upgrading to a newer router that supports WiFi 5 (also known as 802.11ac) or the recently rolled out WiFi 6 (802.11ax) protocol that promises speeds up to three times faster than WiFi 5.
(On Macs, you can see what wireless standards your network currently supports by pressing Option on the keyboard and clicking the wireless icon, then selecting Wireless Diagnostics > Window > Scan.
On Windows 10: Settings > Network & Internet > WiFi > Hardware properties
Routers from third-party manufacturers can also come with extra features such as the ability to prioritize traffic from particular apps (such as work-related video or file-sharing) or optimize bandwidth by assigning different channels to household devices – and crucially, all this can be managed via easy-to-use companion apps.
How to choose a new router
For long-time customers, some ISPs might offer a free router that supports a newer WiFi standard than your original box, or if you’re signing up for a new contract, you could be eligible for a high-speed router too. Otherwise, established brands such as Linksys, Netgear and TP-Link are good bets for upgrading your router.
Router model names always include something like AC1900 – that’s an indication of its theoretical bandwidth (1900Mbps) and the WiFi standard it uses (802.11ac, or WiFi 5).
For many people, AC1900 routers will hit the sweet spot of price and performance. They are more than capable of delivering the faster speeds required for multi-user households or streaming-heavy users but don’t have as many high-bandwidth channels as high-end routers do. However, they’re more expensive than AC1200 routers, say, which are likely to be sufficient for a household with only a couple devices using data-intensive apps like streaming.
For WiFi 5, a great value option is the Linksys AC1200 ($49.99, check price on Amazon) with its Smart WiFi app for prioritizing media. For a full-featured WiFi 6 router with smart frequency and channel selection as well as built-in anti-malware and parental controls, we like the TP-Link Archer AX6000 ($269.99, check price on Amazon).
Note: Before upgrading to a WiFi 6 router, be aware that to take advantage of the higher speeds, your devices need to support WiFi 6. (Last year’s smartphones such as the iPhone 11 and Galaxy S10 fall in this category, but most laptops and desktops won’t.)
14. Improve coverage with a mesh WiFi system
If you have a larger or multi-story home, instead of a single router, you'll want to consider a mesh WiFi system to banish any dead zones. Mesh routers work with extenders that piggyback on one another using an internal mesh network that blankets the home for better coverage.
For a straightforward option, we like the Google Nest WiFi, which offers AC2200 connection in a sleek round design, with easy setup and a streamlined app for checking internet speed, prioritizing devices, and setting parental controls. If you live in an apartment smaller than 2200 sq ft, a standalone unit ($169, check price on Amazon) should be sufficient, while larger homes can go for the two-pack ($299, check price on Amazon) which can cover about 4,400 sq ft. or a three-pack ($468, check price on Amazon), which covers up to 6,600 sq ft.
If you want a little more control over your wireless settings, our long-time favorite is the Netgear Orbi Home Mesh WiFi System (from $369.99, check price on Amazon), which provides an AC3000 connection and can cover a 5000 sq ft home with two units. Along with the basics of wireless admin, the app offers advanced settings for port forwarding and prioritization of web traffic.
15. Buy a USB WiFi adapter for your computer
If you want to work on your computer in a location that doesn't get good WiFi, you can invest in a USB WiFi adapter to increase your reception range. These plug into a laptop or desktop USB port, overriding the computer’s in-built wireless function, and can increase speed and stability of the connection, especially for older computers that might not support newer WiFi standards.
For streaming or video calling, look for a USB WiFi adapter with a higher rate of data transfer – at least 500Mbps. You’ll also want one that supports dual bands for the maximum choice of channels.
We like the dual-band Linksys WUSB6400M AC1200 ($69.99, check price on Amazon), which gets speeds up to 866Mbps on the 5GHz channel and about 300Mbps on the 2.4GHz channel. And for faster speeds, try the TP-Link Archer T9UH AC1900 (check price on Amazon), which gets a maximum speed of up to 1300Mbps on the 5GHz channel or 600Mbps on the 2.4GHZ channel.
Updated on 4/16/2020 with new suggestions
[Wi-Fi repair concept via Shutterstock]