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Troubleshooting Wireless Problems - Dropped Signals and Spotty Connections

What to check when you have intermittent wireless connection problems

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Some of the same issues that affect not being able to get a wireless connection at all (the first part in our wireless troubleshooting series) can also cause a weak wireless signal or one that often drops out. Dropped wireless signals can, however, have other unique causes and possible solutions.

Wireless Troubleshooting: Wireless Signal Drops Out Frequently

Here's what to do when you often find yourself having to restart your computer or wireless router to "fix" the wireless connection:

1. Remove interference and get closer to the access point/router

One of the biggest causes of dropped or weak wireless signals is interference from other objects (including walls, metal objects like filing cabinets, etc.). Being very far from the wireless signal source also negatively impacts signal strength. To solve these issues, try to move closer to the wireless router or access point and remove any obstacles you can -- a clear path to the router is your best bet. Also, try placing your home wireless router in a more central location of your home.

2. Update your wireless network card drivers and OS

Another cause of dropped wireless signals is outdated drivers for your devices (computer, wireless router) or your operating system. Windows XP, for example, greatly improved its support for WPA/WPA2 wireless security with XP Service Pack 3; if you only have the earlier SP1 or SP2 update, that may be the source of your intermittent wireless problems. Use Windows Update to see if there are operating system and device driver updates available; also visit your router manufacturer's website for any firmware upgrades needed.

3. Change the Wireless Channel

Sometimes interference is caused by other wireless networks or devices in the area. You may be able to get a clearer signal on your home network by changing the channel that the wireless router is using. You can use a utility like NetStumbler to see what channels nearby wireless networks are using and choose a different one for your wireless network. Follow the instructions in your router's manual to get to the administrative controls (usually you'll be directed to go to a URL like http://192.168.2.1) and find the section where you can select a different channel.

4. Boost your wireless signal with a wireless repeater

If being too far from the wireless access point or router is the problem, you can get a wireless repeater or wireless extender to extend the range of the wireless network. These "signal amplifiers" are available from Linksys, TRENDnet, Dlink and other makers of networking products; prices go from around $50 and up (check prices on wireless extenders)

5. Replace your wireless router

Unfortunately, the cause of some wireless problems -- especially frequently dropped wireless signals -- is the router itself (I've personally seen three cases where wireless routers just died after constantly dropping the wireless signal). If the suggestions above don't work, try resetting your wireless router to the defaults and testing if it can maintain a wireless signal. If not, you probably need to get a new router (while you're at it, you may consider upgrading to wireless-n).

 

(Note: This article is also available in a PDF version for saving to your computer for reference before going on the road. If you need further help or want to discuss wi-fi or other mobile computing topics, feel free to visit our forum.)

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