Hardware, Technology

How-to: Troubleshoot Slow Internet Connections Part 1


Netgear Wireless LAN RouterI had to run a colleague through some diagnostics recently. The home Internet connection was running so badly; speeds up and down, intermittent drop-out, low signal wireless signal strength.

While your first inclination may be to ring your service provider, you have to have done your research and have your fact straight before you waste your time and money on phone calls to technical support. A poor connection could be down to any or all of the technical issues on the list we worked through:

  1. Spring-clean your browser
  2. Your computer’s network speed – devices and drivers
  3. Your home network set-up – broadband router, wireless
  4. Software – social networking, file-sharing, malware and viruses
  5. Your Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) broadband Internet service

Start at the beginning. Try your connection with just one machine accessing the connection. Leaving aside any other users for a moment (of course, nobody else hogs the Internet at your house, right?), you need a controlled environment in which to work. If the speed varies according to the time of day, then it’s probably not hardware your hardware; hang fire for Part Two.

1. Spring-clean your Browser

My browser cache, history and temporary folders fill up pretty quickly. On a low-spec device, a few thousand URL’s in Firefox and Chromium’s history list will slow those browsers down. Clear out all the kruft.

Optimize your Browser Options. In ‘Tools’ of ‘Preferences’ in your browser, you can set it to cache pages and content automatically and save temporary Internet files. This cuts down on repeated page loads each time you access the same pages. Modern browsers compare current page content with the cached copy and only download new or changed items. You may occasionally need to manually refresh pages, however.

2. The computer’s network speed – devices and drivers

The first place to look is at the network cards; wired, wireless, internal, external, PCMCIA, USB dongles – especially USB dongles! Check the device manager to make sure it’s working properly. If you have a Network Manager with a Diagnose option, use it. Got to Settings, Additional Drivers and invoke the search for Linux drivers in case any newer drivers pop up. Using a terminal command such as lshw (or lspci or lsucb) get the hardware version numbers and check with the manufacturers’ website to find any updates. Bear in mind both these methods of update may recommend proprietary software which could go against your free and Open Source ethics.

Router firmware: this one is a little more technical as it involves ‘flashing’ or updating the firmware that controls the router operation.  The router manufacturer will have a web-page for each model, where you can download firmware updates released since you got the device. Newer firmware can patch bugs and take advantage of newer protocols for better performance. Make sure you have a backup of the current firmware in case you have to back out any updates. Keep a clear set of instructions for the flashing process, off-line so that you can repeat or reverse the process.

3. Your home network set-up – broadband router, wireless, cables

Router

It’s very easy to mis-configure a broadband router and still get some kind of connection, albeit a poor one. The older routers could be very hit-and-miss, whilst the new ones have so many operating modes and settings that configuration is complex, even with much better administration interfaces.

A few tips;

  • check the manufacturers’ website for fault reports against your router model.

  • ensure your router’s settings are all consistent with your Internet Service Provider’s (ISP) settings they supplied. Find these on the help and support pages of the ISP’s website.

  • bring up the manufacturers’ recommended settings, how-to’s or tutorials on set-up. Download them or print to PDF for reference while you play around with settings.

  • log into the router’s administration console via your web browser (usually this is found at 192.168.0.0, default password is “admin”; if not, it’ll be on a label on the router or the default password as stated on the manufacturers web-site) .

  • walk through the current settings. Make notes or print to PDF through your web-browser – note the starting set before changes. Back this up if you can; any connection is better than none at all!

  • carefully record any changes you make to your router’s configuration so that you can undo them later if necessary.

  • adjust anything that looks wrong against the recommended settings. If the ISP didn’t supply your router, there’s every chance the ISP’s settings won’t be optimized for it. If they did supply it, they have no excuse!

  • find out how to do a hardware reset back to factory settings. If you change anything in the administration console you could lock yourself out of the router altogether, so you many need to do this in the process of troubleshooting.

  • as a last resort, a hardware reset back to factory defaults may be the best option; starting with a ‘clean sheet.’

Cables and Filters

If the computer and the router check out okay, try swapping out the cables and ADSL filters one at a time. Borrow a friend’s working cable before you spend money, not that it hurts to have a spare at the end of the exercise. Heat, cold, damp, cable kinks, snags, split cable sleeving, broken connectors; all kinds of physical faults can develop in home equipment that you may not notice on casual inspection. Internal cable breaks and loose connectors are the devil to spot – and don’t always result in an instant failure. Too many cable splitters and joins can be just as bad. A new, single length of undamaged cable with intact plugs may put you well on the way to faster speeds.

Wireless Signal Interference

Let’s assume you’re not trying to pick up a Wi-fi signal at extreme range – although moving the computer next to the router to prove it’s not an issue of reception range is always a good thing.

Wi-Fi and other types of wireless connections can suffer signal interference, forcing the equipment continually to resend messages to overcome signal issues. Guilty household appliances can include cordless phones, cheap microwave ovens, doorbells, CCTV systems, baby monitors and the like; washing machines and refrigerators used to be the favorites. Signal attenuation caused by the construction of buildings can be a pain; another colleague has enough steel joists in the building to attenuate the signal from the front to the back of the house.

The neighbors’ wireless networks can also interfere with yours, particularly if you’re all using the same Wi-Fi channel.

To overcome slow connections owing to signal interference, reposition your router for better performance, turn off the dish-washer and change your Wi-Fi channel number.

That wraps up the hardware end of things. You may need to do some more research to get the specifics on your own kit. If it all comes up clean, you’ll need to run down the software side, which will be in Part Two. AJS

Image credit: Router1 By Encryptedruler via Wikimedia Commons

About Allan J. Smithie

Allan J. Smithie is a journalist and commentator based in Dubai.

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