It’s maddening when your internet service doesn’t work right. And it’s tricky to figure out what’s wrong.
It might be your internet company’s fault, a boo-boo with your home equipment or interference from your neighbor’s Call of Duty game night. And sometimes we’re our own worst enemy.
Try tackling these four mistakes that could be making your home internet worse:
1. Don’t 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’s typically connected to a cable jack in your wall.
The router connects to your modem with a cord and brings your devices online, typically over WiFi. (Some of you might have a combined router and modem.)
If you’re the type to geek out over your WiFi 6E mesh network, bless your heart. Normal humans just want our internet to work.
The distinction between modems and routers matters because of No. 2.
2. Don’t hide your WiFi router
It’s fine to stick your modem under a stack of books. But your router needs to be treated like a Fabergé egg.
Your WiFi works best if your router is in the heart of your home - not shoved on a bookshelf, parked under a metal table or stuck behind your TV set or fish tank.
I get why people - and I am one of those people - hide these gizmos out of sight. Routers range in looks from “yuck” to “get that creepy UFO out of my house.” (A free business idea: adorable outfits to cover our ugly routers.)
And the farther away your devices are from the router, the harder it may 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 with the company behind Spectrum internet service, said customers often have hiccups with connected doorbells like those from Amazon’s Ring. Your home’s outside wall is in the way, and the doorbell is often far from your router.
If you have flaky WiFi, even a minor router relocation could make a big difference.
Can you put your router on top of your TV stand instead of on a shelf or move it from your living room floor to the top of a cabinet? For connected doorbell problems, Leuschner said Spectrum suggests that people move their routers closer to the door or buy a device that extends WiFi into tricky nooks.
Washington Post technology columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler wrote a guide to wireless fixes where he suggested mostly free solutions. (One tip: Start by unplugging your modem, waiting 10 seconds and plugging it back in.)
3. Don’t buy that super-fast internet
Internet providers dazzle you with service plans promising BLAZING. 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 who watched over zippier connections.
I’m not saying that you’ll be fine with 1990s dial-up internet. But most households will be good with a basic high-speed plan from an internet provider offering download speeds of 50, 100, 200 or 300 megabits per second. (Lots of Americans can’t access speeds even that fast or afford service. Internet access is a huge problem.)
Download speeds measure the maximum rate of online data moving into your home. Will you actually get the 300 megabit speeds that you signed up for? Not necessarily.
Sascha Meinrath, a telecommunications professor at Penn State, said that providers’ download speeds are often adequate for most households but a bottleneck may be upload speeds - a measure of data moving from your devices back to the internet.
Skimpy upload speeds might be the problem if your Zoom call freezes while your teen is firing off her TikTok creations. But upload speeds are usually ignored in internet companies’ marketing pitches.
It’s worthwhile starting with the lowest-tier plan from your provider. If your internet is molasses, then you might consider an upgrade. But first try moving your router and other fix-it experiments from Geoff’s column.
4. You don’t have to get your router from your internet company
Many internet providers 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 versus renting from the internet company.
Some providers charge an extra $5 to $15 a month to use their router or modem. You’ll save money buying your own. Follow the installation instructions from your internet provider. (Here are modem guides from two large providers, Xfinity and Spectrum.)
With your own gear, you replace your 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 longer.
But there are benefits to accepting your internet provider’s modem or router. The company should keep your software updated, 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 that’s not right for everyone.
Whether you pick to rent or buy your internet gear, make it a considered choice and not whatever the internet provider decides for you.
Shira Ovide writes The Washington Post’s The Tech Friend, a newsletter about making your technology into a force for good. She has been a technology journalist for more than a decade and wrote a tech newsletter at the New York Times.