By Joanna Stern 

Time to stand up and journey to your basement, garage or whatever corner your wireless router calls home. Please, like you don't need the exercise right now.

Blow off the dust and kindly ask: "Dear old Wi-Fi router, what's wrong? Why do you hate me?"

Unless you've taken some hallucinogens, it won't respond. And that's what makes home networking so challenging. Whether you have slow speeds, dropped connections or dead zones, diagnosing your home network's problems is one of the greatest tech frustrations.

As the majority of us move to working, learning and, well, doing everything from home to slow the spread of coronavirus, we are taxing our home networks and our wireless gear in ways we never imagined. Here's the proof in my own home-network stats: My three-person family used more bandwidth just this week than we did all of last month. (Thanks, hourlong video chats!)

It's time for all of us to become what we always dreamed of as little children: network managers. Fear not. After years of testing wireless routers and speaking to experts, I'm hopeful this advice will help you diagnose and solve the bandwidth blues on your own.

Don't rush to blame your ISP.

When that video chat with your boss starts to stutter, or you get the buffering wheel of death in the middle of Kristoff's breakout song in "Frozen 2," it's easy to immediately blame (or maybe in some cases thank!) your service provider, aka ISP. Except it often has nothing to do with your actual internet pipe.

While ISPs are certainly being hit with loads more activity during this time, the biggest players, including Verizon, Comcast, Charter and others, maintain all is under control.

During the daytime, Comcast's Xfinity's current usage patterns look a lot like those weeknight peaks when everybody's watching Netflix and Hulu, Comcast Chief Communications Officer Jennifer Khoury explained to me. "Overall peaks are still well within our network capability," she said.

Still, providers are doing a lot to make this an easier time. Many have already waived your data limits and increased your speeds -- although my colleagues have reported that most of us don't need those speeds anyway.

Confirm it's the Wi-Fi.

If it's not your actual internet pipe, all signs point to it being your Wi-Fi router.

How can you figure that out? It's best to plug your computer directly into your home router via an Ethernet port. (Yes, there's a chance you'll need a dongle for that. I like this one, though I just bought this one for twice the price, since it's all I could find at Best Buy.)

Then you'll need to go to Ookla's Speedtest.net website, or download the app, to run a test. If you are getting decent speeds while chained to the router -- if you paid for 25 megabits a second, you should hopefully see around 25 megabits a second! -- but relatively reduced speeds when you're wireless in a different room, blame the damn Wi-Fi router.

I suggest walking around the house or apartment with your laptop or phone, running tests in various locations and writing down the results. This should give you an idea of where the biggest dead zones may be.

Move the Wi-Fi router.

You'll notice that speeds are better the closer you are to the router. This is why the No. 1 piece of router-installation advice is to position the router as close to the center of your house as you can. (And if that coincides with your workspace, great -- just keep it plugged in with Ethernet.)

You'll also notice that speeds, when you're on the 5GHz network, can typically be faster than the 2.4GHz network. Try to stay on 5GHz; it provides faster speeds at shorter distances. The 2.4GHz connection offers coverage for farther distances, but can be slower and operates on the same band as lots of other devices in the house.

Buy a new router.

If you have an old router, typically more than five years old, it's probably time for a new one. Wireless standards have changed, and your newer devices need to be on a more modern network to perform as designed. If you got one from your ISP, you might need to call about an upgrade, or go buy one on your own.

My top pick for a router these days is the Eero. You can buy the router by itself for $99 or, if you have a larger house, you can add on $149 beacons that extend its reach, creating a mesh Wi-Fi network that blankets your home in wireless. (You can start with a $249 three-pack.)

I've tested many of these mesh systems over the past few years and while they may be overkill for a smaller apartment, they solve so many home Wi-Fi issues. In my four-story townhouse, my main router is in the basement, yet I still get great speeds on every floor -- even in the top-floor bathroom.

Other mesh systems have provided similar speeds and range, but Eero tops the others with its simple app interface and regular updates. Eero co-founder and Chief Executive Nick Weaver says there has been a rise in orders in the past few weeks but he is confident the company can continue to maintain supply.

(One downside of Eero? It doesn't support Wi-Fi 6, the latest and fastest wireless standard, but there aren't a lot of gadgets that take advantage of it yet anyway.)

If you don't want to invest in an entirely new system to kill those dead zones, try a network extender. It's always a good idea to buy one from the same manufacturer as your router -- not least because they'll help with tech support. Because I sure won't!

In fact, AT&T is offering free network extenders to its customers starting Monday. This is a good reminder to check with your ISPs to see what they are offering right now.

Monitor your network.

If you've got devices sitting on your network but you aren't using them, they can still slow things down a bit. Many apps that work with new routers -- like ones from Eero, Netgear, Google etc. -- let you see which devices are connected and pause their connection. Eero even lets you see which are using the most bandwidth.

Keep an eye on the apps.

Even if you follow all these tips to create the world's greatest home network, you may still encounter those slowdowns and pauses.

"We also need to consider the application providers themselves," said Ookla Chief Technology Officer Luke Deryckx. "Even if our end of the connection is fine, there could be a problem impacting the video-calling service we're using."

Fun fact: Video-chat services like Zoom are often more bandwidth intensive than video-streaming apps, like YouTube or Netflix. Unlike video streaming, which can send a chunk of your movie at one time, live video chat sends all the data in a real-time stream. Many of these services adjust the video quality in the background so as to not pummel your network. Zoom, specifically, said it is constantly monitoring its infrastructure to ensure that it is able to respond to increases in demand.

Try cellular.

If worst comes to worst and your home Wi-Fi network just isn't performing when you need it, try your phone's cellular network. Use your phone's hot spot feature to connect, though you'll want to make sure your data plan allows for this -- and can take the pounding.

T-Mobile and Sprint announced that it will offer unlimited data for all of their smartphone users. Starting March 18, Sprint began offering 20GB of service on its mobile hot spot for the next 60 days. T-Mobile began offering an extra 10GB of mobile-hotspot service.

Thanks to the Federal Communications Commission's Keep Americans Connected pledge, all the ISPs and wireless carriers have agreed to waive late fees and open Wi-Fi hotspots to anyone who needs them during this period.

If all else fails, try talking to your router. Maybe give it a nickname. Heaven knows, we're lonelier these days and could use the company.

Write to Joanna Stern at joanna.stern@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 19, 2020 11:32 ET (15:32 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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