Try tackling these four mistakes that can make your home network worse:
1. Do not confuse the modem and the router
Confession: I made this mistake just this week.
The modem is the box that pulls the internet into your home. It is usually connected to a cable socket in the wall.
The router connects to your modem with a wire and brings your devices online, usually over WiFi. (Some of you may have a combined router and modem.)
If you’re the type to go all out on your WiFi 6E network, bless your heart. Normal people just want our internet to work.
The distinction between modems and routers matters because of #2.
2. Don’t hide your WiFi router
It’s okay to stick the modem under a stack of books. But your router needs to be treated like a Fabergé egg.
Your Wi-Fi works best if your router is in the heart of your home—not tucked away in a bookcase, parked under a metal table, or stuck behind your TV or fish tank.
I understand why people – and I am one of them – hide these gadgets out of sight. Routers range in appearance from “yikes” to “get that creepy UFO out of my house.” (A free business idea: cute outfits to cover our ugly routers.)
And the further away your devices are from the router, the harder it can be to get a solid connection.
Beware of interference from walls, metal, water and other obstacles that block the beautiful internet rainbows from reaching your bedroom TV.
Carl Leuschner, a senior vice president at the company behind Spectrum internet service, said customers often have hiccups with connected doorbells like those from Amazon’s Ring. The home’s outer wall is in the way, and the doorbell is often far from your router.
If you have flaky WiFi, even a minor move of the router can make a big difference.
Can you put the router on top of the TV stand instead of on a shelf or move it from the living room floor to the top of a cabinet? For connected doorbell problems, Leuschner said Spectrum suggests people move their routers closer to the door or buy a device that extends WiFi into difficult nooks and crannies.
Washington Post technology columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler wrote a guide to wireless fixes in which he suggested mostly free solutions. (A tip: Start by unplugging the modem, wait 10 seconds, and plug it back in.)
3. Don’t buy the super fast internet
ISPs dazzle you with service plans that promise GREAT. FAST. SPEEDS.
But in a 2019 Wall Street Journal project, researchers found that most people were using a fraction of the internet speeds they paid for. Streaming video quality didn’t improve much for people watching via zippier connections.
I’m not saying you’ll get by with 1990s dial-up internet. But most households will be fine with a basic high-speed plan from an ISP that offers download speeds of 50, 100, 200 or 300 megabits per second. (Many Americans don’t have access to speeds even that fast or can afford services. Internet access is a big problem.)
Download speeds measure the maximum speed of online data moving into your home. Will you actually get the 300 megabit speeds you signed up for? Not necessarily.
Sascha Meinrath, a telecommunications professor at Penn State University, said providers’ download speeds are often sufficient for most households, but a bottleneck can be upload speeds — a measure of data moved from your devices back to the Internet.
Slow upload speeds can be the problem if your Zoom call freezes while your teenager fires off their TikTok creations. But upload speeds are usually ignored in Internet companies’ marketing pitches.
It’s worth starting with the lowest plan from your provider. If your internet is molasses, consider an upgrade. But first try moving the router and other fix experiments from Geoff’s column.
4. You don’t need to get the router from your internet company
Many ISPs will provide you (or make you pay for) a modem or router. You should consider buying them yourself, although I’m on the fence about buying vs. renting from the internet company.
Some providers charge an extra $5 to $15 a month to use the router or modem. You save money by buying your own. Follow the installation instructions from your internet provider. (Here are modem guides from two major providers, Xfinity and Spectrum.)
With your own equipment, you replace the modem and router when you want and not when your internet provider chooses. If your router is more than two or three years old, it’s worth considering a new one. Modems are usually fine for a long time.
But there are advantages to accepting the ISP’s modem or router. The company should keep its software up to date, make sure your equipment can handle the internet speeds you’re paying for, and help you with problems.
I buy my own router and modem, but it’s not for everyone.
Whether you choose to rent or buy your internet equipment, make it a well-considered choice and not what the internet provider decides for you.
Related reading: How internet and TV providers get away with jacking up the bill
Does your ISP pay you for a router? Or do you pay extra to use your own? Take a look at your internet bill and email me about it at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you have a relatively new model of an Amazon Echo home speaker, it can add oomph to WiFi dead zones in your home.
For people who also own Amazon’s Eero “mesh” WiFi system — it’s essentially a router plus mini pads to put around your home to spread WiFi around — Echo devices can also act as WiFi signal boosters. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
My colleague Chris Velazco tried out the Eero and Echo combination and found that it was not a miracle solution.
But he said the Echo plus Eero combo can help if you have one spot where your WiFi gets a little wonky. Maybe it’s a bedroom in the corner of your house or the internet dead zone in Chris’s kitchen.
Read more from Chris: Some Amazon Echos can act as WiFi range extenders. It is not a perfect solution.
And Geoff has written about mesh WiFi: Consider this upgrade to fix your Internet dead zones.