Wireless networking is one of life’s great mysteries. You’ve probably run into plenty of frustrating questions with your own setup: Why are my downloads slow even when I have a great connection? Why does my connection drop out so quickly when I move around my home? Why is my wifi terrible even though I spent a lot of money on hardware? Those kinds of things.
For this week’s Tech 911 Q&A, Lifehacker reader George wants an answer to a common question — why is his wifi causing him so much grief? — with a fun twist:
“Been having a issue for a while now. At first my wifi network only showed on my wife’s Android tablets and cell. My mother-in-law’s wifi from over a block away shows a stronger connection than our own. My devices, both Android and iPhone, just started not only showing her wifi as stronger, but several others as well even when standing next to my router and modem. No one else’s devices show any available wifi other than my own when they try to connect. What’s going on?
When in doubt, factory-reset
This is a real quirky one, George. I don’t have a good explanation for why your devices, and only your devices, are showing a strong signal for a wireless network a block away. That’s just not normal. A typical router’s signal won’t reach that far; you’re lucky if it fills your entire house with a strong signal.
Your devices are being weird. Everyone else’s are acting correctly, as there’s no faraway wifi signal for them to glom on to. As for the other wireless networks you’re seeing that are allegedly more powerful than your own, that’s plausible. It’s strange for that to happen when you’re right next to your own router; possibly some kind of wireless interference is causing this.
Pull out a laptop — ideally one that has at least wireless-n connectivity, so one purchased in the last decade or so — and use a dedicated app to check your wifi signals. What do you see? If there’s a lot of wifi interference, you’ll see your wireless network (and everybody else’s) all trying to use the same channels. If that’s the case, go into your router’s settings and either pick a freer channel manually (if it’s set to automatically select one), or set it to automatically pick one if you manually selected a busy one previously.
If it’s on “auto,” try powering down your router, waiting about 15 seconds, and powering it back up again. Ideally, it won’t go back to using super-congested channels for your wireless networks. If it does, you can make a manual correction.
If the app shows you that your router’s wifi signals are actually pretty strong, and it’s just your phone(s) displaying it weird, I wouldn’t sweat it. Maybe there’s some kind of bug or hardware issue with your devices. (Update to the latest version of Android or iOS on either, just to be sure.)
Wi-Fi is one of the most important developments in the evolution of the internet — no one wants to be chained to a desktop — but it’s also one of the most frustrating. If you’re plagued by slow speeds, bad reception, and other Wi-Fi issues, here are 10 ways you...Read more
Next, go ahead and reset your router to its factory-default settings, typically accomplished by hitting a button within its settings or using a paperclip to physically jab a tiny hardware button on your router. Why the nuclear approach? It’s easier to start from scratch, especially if all you have to do is type in your SSID and password to get started again.
Once you’ve done that, update its firmware — the software the router uses to function. If your router doesn’t have a built-in way to do this automatically, you’ll likely have to head over to its manufacturer’s support site, type in your router’s exact model number, and download it yourself. Upload it to your router, restart it, and you’ll be good to go.
Next, check the channel situation again. If you need to make any adjustments, let ‘er rip. Otherwise, one other troubleshooting technique you can try is using separate SSIDs for your 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz networks (if you’re using the same SSID for both).
What do you see now? If your device only shows your 2.4GHz network and not your 5Ghz network, that helps pinpoint the problem. Perhaps there’s a hardware issue that troubleshooting won’t be able to fix. Try tightening your router antennas? At least you’ll be able to access one of your wifi networks for the time being.
This doesn’t quite explain why your devices wouldn’t show a wireless network when your wife’s would. I’d wager that there’s something weird with the devices you’re using, but I wouldn’t expect them all to have a similar issue, with the only unifying characteristic being the fact that you own them.
If updating your devices doesn’t allow you to connect to your wifi, but everyone else can connect to your wifi, it’s reasonable to assume that your devices have an issue. Why they’re all affected, and what that issue is, I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps your devices are very old and your router is using encryption they don’t support (WPA2, for example, if your devices are only compatible with WPA). Or perhaps you’re using an older standard for your wireless networks that you shouldn’t (like WEP), and switching to something more modern (like WPA2) will solve it.
Still, your device should still be able to see the wireless network even if it can’t connect. Try entering your wireless network’s information manually, if your phones let you, and see if that helps. (I suspect it won’t.) Make sure everything is running the latest updates, then factory reset them to make sure you’ve eliminated any software variables. If you still don’t see your wifi network on your devices, it’s either time for a new router, or new devices.
Did I miss anything, Lifehacker readers?
Do you have a tech question keeping you up at night? Tired of troubleshooting your Windows or Mac? Looking for advice on apps, browser extensions, or utilities to accomplish a particular task? Let us know! Tell us in the comments below or email [email protected].