Five Steps to Troubleshoot Your Wi-Fi Network

By Eric Geier

January 12, 2011

Wireless problems can be a big headache, but with these five key steps you can isolate and fix most of them.

Wi-Fi gives you freedom from wires, but can also give you a headache if you have connection problems. The attenuation and distance of wireless signals varies with two key factors: the construction material of the building and nearby interference. Two other common causes of Wi-Fi connection issues are using different wireless standards for the wireless router or access points (APs) and/or the wireless adapters and not keeping Windows updated.

In this tutorial, we'll review the main troubleshooting tasks to fix that computer that won't connect, or keep a connection.

1. Poor Signal or Interference

First, try to eliminate poor signal or interference from the list of possible causes of your issue. If using a laptop or mobile device, move closer to the wireless router or AP. Use your judgment based upon the wireless performance of other computers to determine if the problem is just that you're too far from the signal or something is interfering with the signal. Keep in mind, cordless phones, baby monitors, and other wireless devices (especially in the 2.4GHz band) can cause debilitating interference with your Wi-Fi signals.

If you need better range, make sure your wireless router or AP is placed near the middle of the desired coverage area. If that doesn't help, consider upgrading to a router or APs with 802.11n for a slight increase in range. For a big increase, consider purchasing a wireless repeater or bridge, or adding and wiring another AP.

If you think interference is the problem, try to find the interfering device or network. If you can't disable it, try changing the Wi-Fi channel of your router or AP by logging into its Web-based control panel. Try to stick with channel 1 or 11.

2. Not getting full 802.11n speeds

If you can connect but your issue is that you aren't seeing the high data rates or speeds advertised by your 802.11n wireless router, first check that the wireless adapter also supports 802.11n. 802.11b/g gear is compatible with the newer 802.11n standard but connections will be limited to the 11Mbps speed of 802.11b or 54Mbps speed of 802.11g.

If you use both an 802.11n wireless router and wireless adapter, speeds can still be limited if you use WEP or WPA/TKIP encryption. For full support of 802.11n, you must use WPA2/AES encryption. Even then, you won't see the maximum speeds until you change the default channel-width from 20 to 40MHz by logging into the router or AP's Web-based control panel.

3. WPA or WPA2 compatibility of wireless adapter and Windows XP

If you can't connect at all and your wireless router or AP is using WPA or WPA2 encryption, ensure your wireless adapter and Windows supports it. You can check in Windows by opening the wireless network properties window and referring to the authentication types listed, such as shown in Figure 1.

Remember: WEP encryption isn't secure and shouldn't be used. Try to use WPA or WPA2, even if it means buying new hardware.

If you don't see WPA or WPA2 as an authentication type, first ensure support by Windows. Windows XP Service Pack 3 and later versions include both WPA and WPA2 support. If using Windows XP with an earlier Service Pack (or none), download Service Pack 3 via Windows Update or from the Microsoft site. Alternatively, you can manually install the WPA update for Windows XP and WPA2 update for Windows XP Service Pack 2.

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