Wireless connection problems can be incredibly frustrating, especially when they happen at the worst possible time (like when you need to send an email to meet a deadline and are working on the road with no access to tech support). But don't worry, wi-fi problems can often be fixed rather easily.
The most common types of wi-fi/networking issues for remote workers are (we'll tackle these one by one):
Here's what to do if you get a red X over the wireless network icon in your status bar, your computer/smartphone reports there is no wireless connection, or you're told there are no wireless networks available (when you know there are):
Look for a hardware switch or special function key on your laptop that can turn the wireless radio on or off -- it may have accidentally been turned off. Flip the switch or hit the function keys to test if this is the case.
Also, sometimes the wireless radio may be disabled by power management settings on your laptop or your phone; fix this permanently by going to the Power Options for your device and changing the settings there so the wireless adapter won't be disabled by low battery triggers.
If you're using a USB wireless network adapter, make sure it's plugged in correctly. On smartphones, you should also check whether wireless is enabled in the phone's main settings.
Windows, walls, furniture, wireless phones, metal objects and all sorts of other obstructions can affect wireless signal strength (one study quoted by Cisco found that microwaves can degrade data throughput as much as 64% and video cameras and analog phones can create 100% decreased throughput -- or, no data connection). If you're able to, move closer to the wireless signal source. For your home network, also try placing the wireless router in a more central location in your house.
If you have access to the wireless router, powering down and restarting the wireless router can reset the signal, sometimes enabling you to connect.
Sometimes, weather or electrical disturbances can reset wireless equipment to their default state. If you recently had a bad storm in your area, try connecting to your wireless router using the default settings provided in the manufacturer's manual (usually, the admin settings for a router can be accessed at an IP address such as http://192.168.2.1). If you get in using the default settings, you'll need to again set up any custom settings, like essential WPA wireless security.
Typically, your computer or smartphone will automatically find new available wireless networks and let you choose one to connect to. Some wireless networks, however, are set up to be hidden (they don't broadcast their network name or SSID -- Service Station Identifier -- to the public). If you can't find the name of a network in your list of available wireless networks, find out from the network owner what the SSID and security key, if any, are. Then, manually add the new wireless network.
Most wireless routers are set up as DHCP servers, which allow computers and other client devices to join the network so their IP addresses don't have to be manually set up. Check your wireless network adapter's TCP/IP settings to make sure your adapter is automatically obtaining settings from the DHCP server:
Driver issues can also cause problems with network connections -- your network driver may be outdated, a new driver can cause problems, the wireless router may have been recently upgraded, etc. Try doing a system update first; going to Windows Update can suggest updates for both your operating system and network adapter; also visit your router's website to see if there are available firmware updates.
Windows can try to repair wireless issues for you or provide additional troubleshooting. Right-click on the network conections icon in the status bar and select either "Repair" (Windows XP) or "Diagnose and Repair" (Vista/Windows 7).
(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.)