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My Wireless Sucks!

10.14.2013
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The WiFi at my house has been somewhat slow and unreliable lately, so I decided to look into it. I did a lot of experiments with Speakeasy's Speed Test. I also upgraded my wireless access point from a Linksys WRT54GL to a ASUS RT-AC56U, although that wasn't strictly necessary. I fixed it to the point where my DSL connection is once again my bottleneck. Here's what I learned.

First of all, the "wireless neighborhood" I live in is very different these days than when I first setup my wireless access point. When I first set it up, I only had 1-2 devices connected to it, and there were no other wireless access points in the neighborhood. These days, I have 3 wireless devices connected to my TV, 7 Nexus 7s, 2 laptops, 2 phones, and a Rasberry Pi all connected to the same access point. Furthermore, there are 5-7 wireless access points in my neighborhood (which is still low compared to some neighborhoods). Since wireless bandwidth is a shared resource, I'm sure there's quite a lot of contention these days.

Another thing I noticed is that a lot of the APs were using channel 6. Simply switching to channel 11 made my wireless stop sucking. My guess is that newer APs are better at picking the best channel than older APs are, but I don't know that for certain.

Furthermore, I suspect that my Linksys WRT54GL was dying. Since I have a 100 year old house, devices tend to die from time to time. Hence, I've had to buy a couple Linksys APs over the years. Sometimes doing a factory reset and then reconfiguring it is enough to fix the problem. However, this time, even though I could log into the device, when I tried to do a factory reset, it didn't work. I wonder if that could possibly do with old flash memory.

Here's another trick. My buddy at work, Chris Dudte, pointed out that almost everyone has 2.4Ghz devices and APs these days, whereas very few people use 5Ghz, even though the 802.11a standard has been around forever. If you're confused by the different frequencies and the different 802.11 wireless standards (as I was), check out this useful overview. I was able to setup a 5Ghz network for my wife and I (since we have laptops and phones that support 5Ghz), whereas the kids are on a 2.4Ghz network (since their Nexus 7s don't support 5Ghz).

Unfortunately, there's a downside to using 5Ghz. We just bought a Google Chromecast for streaming Netflix, YouTube, and movies on Google Play, and it only supports 2.4Ghz. Furthermore, to control it with your phone, you have to be on the same network. Hence, if you're enjoying the contentious-free life on 5Ghz, you'll have to temporarily switch back to 2.4Ghz in order to watch videos on TV. What's worse is that streaming movies and videos to the TV is the situation in which you want the best wireless connection, and because it's stuck on 2.4Ghz, it's actually the worst wireless connection.

As I mentioned, I upgraded my wireless access point and router from a Linksys WRT54GL to an ASUS RT-AC56U. The guy at work who's in charge of wireless gave me a thumbs up when I told him that, so I assume it was the right decision. Although I was able to fix my problems with the Linksys WRT54GL simply by changing channels, I'm excited about the ASUS RT-AC56U for a few reasons. My favorite feature is that I can use one device to run a 5Ghz protected network, a 2.4Ghz protected network, and a completely open, but segregated guest network. Previously, I was only using a 2.4Ghz completely open network (because I'm a fan of open networks). It's nice to be able to continue to provide an open network, while segregating and protecting the rest of my house. There are a ton of other features as well, such as the ability to plug in USB hard drives and USB printers, but I haven't tried any of those features yet. I'm also excited to try the new 802.11ac wireless standard that it supports, but I don't have any other devices that support it yet.

Since DSL is still the bottleneck, you might wonder why faster wireless speeds matter. When all of your devices only talk to the internet and rarely talk to each other, it probably doesn't matter. However, once in a while, I need to transfer things from one laptop to another. With the Linksys WRT54GL, transferring files between laptops over wireless was ridiculously slow. With the ASUS RT-AC56U, it's much better. Of course, I prefer to keep a cross-over cable handy when I move large amounts of data between laptops, but it's nice to have the wireless network if I only need to transfer a couple gigs.

Since I've mentioned DSL multiple times, you might wonder why I don't switch to cable. One reason is that I don't want to run cable to my house. I just spent a lot of money putting new siding on my house, and I don't want the cable guy to mess it up trying to punch a whole through it. However, the biggest reason I don't want to switch to cable is that Comcast cable is well known for being one of the most disliked companies out there. It routinely has the lowest customer satisfaction ratings. Hence, I stick with DIRECTV and AT&T DSL (which was originally SBC Yahoo DSL).

By the way, one thing that surprised me was that I can actually get faster download speeds over my T-Mobile phone (while on BART) than I can over DSL. However, the T-Mobile coverage at my house sucks, as does AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon.

If you're interested in the raw data for all of my tests, here it is:

Linksys WRT54GL (several years old):
 Wired:
  Download: 5.13Mbps
  Upload: 0.59Mbps
 Wireless (originally channel 6):
  Download: 1.33Mbps
  Upload: 0.43Mbps
 Wireless (changed to channel 11):
  Download: 5.13Mbps
  Upload: 0.60Mbps
 Downloading 1.1GB from one laptop to another over wireless: 15-20mins
ASUS RT-AC56U ($200, new at Frys):
 Wireless 5Ghz (with QoS enabled, on top of my microwave):
  Download: 5.19Mbps
  Upload: 0.58Mbps
 Same on 2.4Ghz.
 Downloading 1.1GB from one laptop to another over 5Ghz wireless: 2-3mins
Using my T-Mobile Android phone as a personal HotSpot (over 3G, I think):
 Download: 8.35Mbps
 Upload: 0.53Mbps
Published at DZone with permission of Shannon Behrens, author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)

Comments

Developer Dude replied on Mon, 2013/10/14 - 5:03pm

I would love to get Comcast, although in my experience FIOS is much better.

Imagine my dismay when I moved from the city where I had 30 mbps FIOS for years to the boonies where I could get only 1.5 mbps DSL, no DTV (trees block it), no cable (not offered), so I have to go to Netflix, etc. for TV, but my DSL is too slow (I am near the end of the loop, so 1.5 mbps is the best they can do). I too have Chromecast (interestingly, Netflix works better than YouTube on CC).

I recently switched to WLL (essentially long distance WiFi) which gives me 3 to 4 mbps when it works, but I think it is interfering with my WAP (Linksys WRT54GL) - sometimes it works ok, sometimes not. Certainly when weather is really bad (heavy downpours between my house and any link) connectivity almost dissappears - also, my microwave knocks out the WLL when I turn it on (which I am willing to live with as it is temporary).

I need to sniff what the WLL is doing and see if I can switch channels.

Riccardo Cossu replied on Tue, 2013/10/15 - 3:14am

Hi,

the part where you write about channels and such is useful; but I think the biggest gain is from replacing a 2005 router with a recent one, and one of the best around too!

I did something similar, my old Netgear couldn't cope with the wireless devices we added in the past years, so I bought a Asus RT-N66U and it's been like switching from a pull bike to a race motorbike. There really is no match, I still haven't been able to stress the new router and I had to remove two of the three antennas to avoid having my wi-fi in all my neighborhood. 

Greg Brown replied on Tue, 2013/10/15 - 6:45am

I recently had a similar experience. I also ended up upgrading my main access point, but what actually helped the most was adding more APs. I now have one main Airport Extreme and several satellite Airport Expresses situated throughout my house (which is also 100 years old). With a single AP I did not get a very strong signal unless I was in the same room as the router. I now get consistently good performance regardless of which room I'm in.

 

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