Slow Wi-Fi Speeds? 5 Things That Might Be Wrong

reasons you aren't getting the Wi-Fi speed you want

A slower Wi-Fi speed than what you’re expecting can slow your streaming and browsing to a crawl. Here are five common problems, and how you can fix them. | iStock

Your home Wi-Fi network has a tough job. We all know that plugging our computers in with an Ethernet cable is the most reliable to get the fastest internet speed possible. But we still want to connect all of our devices wirelessly — which often results in the realization that you aren’t getting the Wi-Fi speed you want. There are some simple ways to improve the Wi-Fi signal in your home, and there are plenty of new routers that can help you get faster speeds and more reliable connections. But no matter how much time you spend troubleshooting your home Wi-Fi network, it seems like you’re never getting the speeds you expect.

That’s in part because the speeds you expect are not actually speeds you can achieve in real-world situations. Dong Ngo explains at CNET that the only way to get the top speeds in your home is to run gigabit Ethernet cables to every room. But wires are annoying to install. They’re also unsightly additions to your home decor, and it’s annoying to be tethered to a cable at all times. And not every device is even compatible with wired Ethernet. (Your phone, your tablet, and your streaming stick, for instance, are going to have to use Wi-Fi.) But Ngo explains that even once you understand that wired connections are always going to be faster than wireless ones, your expectations for your Wi-Fi speed may still be off.

That’s because there’s a big gap between real-world speed, ceiling speed, and advertised speed. The ceiling speed is the maximum theoretical speed of a connection standard. Keep in mind that the ceiling speed of a real-life connection is that of the slowest device in the chain. In Ngo’s experience, the real-world speed of a Wi-Fi connection is always going to be significantly lower than the ceiling speed of the Wi-Fi standard being used. He explains that, “at best, the actual sustained speed of a Wi-Fi connection is between a third and a half of its ceiling speed.” Need to know what stands between you and those theoretical speeds, and why you aren’t getting the Wi-Fi speeds you want? Read on.

1. Your devices are too far from the router

Man using laptop in bed with woman sleeping next to him

Man using laptop in bed | iStock

The farther your device is from your router, the slower the connection is likely to be. Distance can be a big factor in Wi-Fi strength, especially in sprawling apartments or large houses. The best place to position your router is at the center of your home. It’s also a good idea to make sure that there’s some open space around it, and that it’s sitting a few feet off of the floor. You should also ensure that it’s a few feet away from other electronics, or physical obstacles that can obstruct your Wi-Fi signal. (More on those obstacles on the next page.)

If you’re serious about getting the fastest Wi-Fi speed, even in rooms that are far from your router, there are some steps you can take. Ngo recommends using access points connected to the main router via Ethernet cables to extend your Wi-Fi network and get the best Wi-Fi speed. You can even name the Wi-Fi network provided by the access points the same name as the main router, with the same password and settings, so that devices can move from one network to another automatically. This is an especially easy option if you’ve already run network cables to each room.

2. There are significant obstacles between your router and your gadgets

Computer monitor on desk next to ladder bookshelf

Computer monitor on desk | iStock

Are there walls, doorways, windows, pillars, or other major architectural features between your Wi-Fi router and the devices you’re trying to connect to the network? If so, you’re probably going to have a pretty difficult time getting the Wi-Fi speeds you want thanks to those obstacles. Steel, concrete, and even typical home features like an air conditioning unit can block your Wi-Fi signal, and make it tough to get the speeds you want even in the same area of the house where the router is positioned.

If you’re having trouble with your Wi-Fi speed, assess what might be blocking the signal. Things like air conditioners and concrete pillars are obvious things to avoid positioning your router next to. But even the steel studs in your walls, or, notoriously enough, plaster and lath walls themselves, can also interfere with your router’s ability to broadcast a strong signal. Barring any major obstacles built into your home, make sure that your router isn’t placed behind your TV or shoved into the corner of a closet. Ensure that its antenna is pointing up, that it’s not jammed against a thick wall or against other electronics, and that it’s sitting on a piece of furniture, not on the floor.

3. Many devices are using the same frequencies in your area

mother and father working at the breakfast table with their son

Family working at breakfast table | iStock

Interference can be a major reason why you aren’t getting the Wi-Fi speed you expect or want. The more devices that are using the same radio frequencies within a small area, the slower they’ll each get. Wi-Fi transfers data using two radio frequencies — 2.4GHz and 5GHz — with 14 different channels at 2.4GHz and 30 channels at 5GHz. Since every house has its own Wi-Fi network, you may experience issues with channel overlap, especially if you live in an apartment building where there are large numbers of routers all within close proximity of one another. Your best bet is to learn how to pick the right wireless channel to eliminate some of the interference.

You should also keep in mind that even if you’ve chosen a unique channel, you may still run into issues with interference. Even devices that don’t have anything to do with Wi-Fi can cause interference that disrupts your network and slows the speeds you experience. Microwave ovens, Bluetooth devices, and even Christmas lights can cause interference. And that’s to say nothing of the slowdowns that you may experience if somebody else is stealing your Wi-Fi.

4. All of your devices aren’t compatible with the fastest speed standard

Person using tablet

Using a tablet | iStock

If you’re using devices that support different tiers of Wi-Fi speed, use different standards, or are from different manufacturers, then the fastest devices will need to slow down to a lower speed standard so that they can all function properly together. The idea is that the speed you experience across the network is determined by the weakest (or slowest) link.

Ngo recommends an AC1900 router, which will be affordable and support the fastest Wi-Fi clients on the market (at 1,300Mbps). If you have many Wi-Fi clients being used at the same time, a tri-band AC3200 router is a good choice, since multiple devices will be able to connect to each band without affecting performance dramatically. While it won’t hurt to choose a router with a higher ceiling speed, that won’t result in faster Wi-Fi speed. You really only need to choose a router with a ceiling speed faster than 1,300Mbps if you specifically want to future-proof your setup.

5. Your router is old

Wi-Fi wireless router on a table

Wireless router | iStock

We aren’t advocating for you to replace your router every year. But if your router is so old that you’re not exactly sure when you bought it, or when you last dusted it, then it may be time for an upgrade. If you’re paying for high-speed internet access, you need to have a router that can take advantage of it. The old router that you (or your roommate) installed when you first moved in likely isn’t doing the best job of handling the multitude of devices that you connect to the network on a daily basis.

A quick rule of thumb when you’re trying to decide whether you should replace your router is to check the wireless standard it supports. The latest standard is 802.11ac. If your current router doesn’t support that standard (you can read the manual or simply search the model number to find out), then you aren’t going to get top Wi-Fi speeds unless you replace it with a newer model.