If you experience Wi-Fi dropping signals or disconnections, or you can’t connect a specific device to your network, this post is for you.
I’ll explain how things work and walk you through a few specific tricks that will likely make things better. (Tip: Use the Table of Content below to jump to the part applicable to your situation.)
“Likely” because there’s a chance it’s not possible to remedy the problem at your particular place. That’s just the nature of the wireless connection.
But at least, you’ll know you’ve done all you could to improve your Wi-Fi situation. Before continuing, though, make sure you’re comfortable with handling a home router.
(By the way, this post is about the Wi-Fi connection. If you have Internet disconnection issues, that’s taken care of in this one about troubleshooting your network.)
Dong’s note: I first published this post on March 29, 2020, and updated it on April 9, 2021, to include additional up-to-date and practical tips.
Wi-Fi dropping or disconnection repair: Don’t immediately blame your router.
Wi-Fi signals (and speeds): A brief perspective
Signal distortion and disconnection are part of radio transmission’s nature. As the radio waves travel through the air, they run into so many things that can alter their integrity.
But starting with the age of cellular Internet and Wi-Fi, signal dropping has become more and more of an issue.
If you want to imagine how wireless transmissions take place, drop a pebble in a still pond, and watch the ripples moving outwards. That’s your Wi-Fi signal.
Now, throw in another rock at a different spot. That’s your neighbor’s Wi-Fi signal. Toss a shoe in! That’s your microwave. See what happens when the ripples collide? That’s signal distortion — it’s when your Wi-Fi drops.
What you might not have seen is the fact the pond was never entirely serene in the first place. And there were other things, like wind, insects, fish, the liquid’s viscosity, etc., that already affected the ripples created by the original pebble.
The point is, at any given time, there are more things that don’t help your Wi-Fi work as intended than those that do. And the fact it ends up working at all — delivering hundreds of megabits of data per second 24/7 — is already quite amazing.
But it’s human nature to take things for granted. As Wi-Fi improves over the years, we’ve come to expect more out of it. But like all things tech, there’s also more to Wi-Fi than what we can see. And we can’t even see it, to begin with.
So set your expectations right. There’s no magic! Your Wi-Fi is never as fast as the vendor claims, and its speeds are always going to fluctuate. And that’s partly because your home is not ideal for it in the first place.
Wi-Fi dropping, disconnections, and failure to connect: The general causes
To have good Wi-Fi, you first and foremost need the right hardware. So get a router (or mesh system) that’s suitable for your place and set it up properly. Hint: When possible, use network cables to link the pieces of your network together.
Considering you’re on this website, though, I’d assume that you already got one of the best routers, which leaves us with three other common reasons that cause your Wi-Fi signal to drop or impossible for some devices to connect to.
This is likely the most common cause. As mentioned in perspective above, Wi-Fi is very complicated.
There are so many hardware vendors with lots and lots of devices. It’s tough to keep all of them interoperate well in all scenarios. That’s to mention hardware and software quality and different Wi-Fi standards and tier.
But at the core of it, this issue derives from the fact your broadcaster (router) and the client, like your laptop or IoT device, don’t work well together due to incompatible hardware or software driver.
Signal saturation or interferences
This is also common, especially in urban environments. Just look at your phone’s Wi-Fi scan, and chances are you’ll see a ton of available networks. Even though you have no access to most, they all are in your airspace, taking up precious spectrum allocation.
So, the more broadcasters of different types in the vicinity, the more likely you’ll have to deal with interferences. That’s not to mention other types of devices (like microwaves, cordless phones, etc.) that might also use the same frequecies.
Extra: The curious case of Bluetooth
The popular Bluetooth connection method also uses the 2.4GHz band. However, it’s very different and generally won’t cause (much) interference.
That’s because Bluetooth is mostly for peer-to-peer connections which don’t require a fixed channel. As a result, it can “channel hop,” meaning it actively pick and choose the most unoccupied channel to use in real-time. And it does that 1600 times per second.
As a result, generally, Bluetooth doesn’t affect Wi-Fi. Except in two instances, I think of:
- The 2.4GHz band is fully saturated: Now, no hopping can help, but well, chances are non-Bluetooth devices saturate it.
- Hardware sharing: This only applies to a client. Many (older) Wi-Fi/Bluetooth combo chips don’t work well when both wireless functions are used simultaneously. This is rare, if at all, with newer chips, however.
There are other factors, too. Some of them you have no control over.
Examples are hardware issues, radar activities, thick walls, or even a jammer near your home. Or the fact your home is made of materials that block radio waves.
Now that we have identified the issues let’s find out how to fix them.
How to fix Wi-Fi dropping and connection issues
We can only fix what we have control over. Specifically, we can make changes to our hardware to deal with signal saturation, radars, and incompatibility.
Again, there are two sides of a wireless connection, the broadcaster and the receiver. Each might have issues of its own.
Wi-Fi dropping, failure to connect, and disconnection: What to do at the broadcaster (router) side
Your router is the center of your Wi-Fi network. If something is wrong with it, all devices in the house will suffer. So it’s a good idea to ensure it’s in good shape.
(Note: In case it’s not obvious, don’t cover your router — any broadcaster for that matter — with anything. Don’t fall for rip-off stuff like Wi-Fi router protective cages! It’s best to leave it out in the open.)
So, before continuing, make sure you’ve taken care of the common stuff, including:
- Restart your router: You should do this once in a while, like once a month. Many routers allow you to schedule an automatic restart. In this case, don’t make the router restart more than once a week.
- Upgrade the router to the latest firmware: This generally helps with security, compatibility, and performance.
- You’re not blocking a client via its MAC address. (Doh!)
- Backup the router’s settings to a file: You can reset and restore it to a previous state if you mess up. That happens.
- You have a router with a web user interface and are comfortable with the interface itself.
(If you’re using a router that only uses a mobile app and no web interface, your chance of getting things fixed is minimal.)
With that out of the way, let’s take a look at more specific things you can do.
1. General settings against Wi-Fi dropping signals: Pick the best channel
To avoid signal saturation and the interferences it brings, you need to pick the most available channels in the airspace. The easiest way, also the default in most routers, is to use the “Auto” setting. (If you use a single router, that’s likely all you need to do.)
This means the router itself will pick the best channel based on the real-world condition. And most of the time, that works.
However, a router can only detect the signal at its location, not throughout the entire home. As a result, all might be fine when you’re near, but as you move farther out, your device may start disconnecting intermittently.
This often happens when you use a mesh system — there are multiple broadcasters at different places around your home. To improve the situation, pick a channel that’s used the least, on average, throughout your area of desired Wi-Fi coverage.
Here’s how: Get a Wi-Fi analyzer app to site-survey the airspace as you walk around.
My favorite is the Wi-Fi Analyzer app (a free version will do), but you can also use others. You’ll note that a channel might be completely free at one spot, wholly used at another, and lightly use at another.
Pick the one that’s used the least on average. Do that for all the router’s bands involved.
(By the way, to understand the Wi-Fi signal strength and usage, you need to know the value of dBm. I explained dBm in detail in this post, but the gist is you’re dealing with a negative number, so the lower the value, the better the signal is.)
2. Many (legacy) devices can’t connect to Wi-Fi? Change the settings to favor compatibility.
This tends to happen when you upgrade your router to a newer standard. Existing clients might not be ready for it. So it’s a good idea to make the (new) router friendly with older clients. (More on how to improve this on a client below).
Generally, you can do this in the Wi-Fi or Wireless section of the router’s interface. There are many settings, but you only need to focus on the following:
(Note: Any of the following items alone might be enough to fix the problem. Try them out one at a time.)
- Wireless Mode: Use Mixed or Auto. If you pick a specific standard like 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5) or 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6), clients of different standards won’t be supported.
- Channel width: Choose the value that allows for all available bandwidths, including 20MHz, 40MHz, 80MHz, and 160MHz. If you pick just one value, the higher the number you select here, the fewer clients are supported. (More on the 160MHz and DFS channel below.)
- Security level: The level that’s balanced between security and compatibility, for now, is WPA2/WPA3. If you use WPA3 only, many clients won’t be able to connect. But if you pick WPA or lower level, your network is susceptible to being hacked. It would be best if you stopped using clients that require even less secure methods (WEP).
- Smart Connect (when available): This setting combines the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands into a single Wi-Fi network. It doesn’t necessarily improve compatibility, but it helps keep your connection consistent since clients can automatically switch between the two.
- 802.11ax HE frame support: Available in some routers; this setting favors performance for Wi-Fi 6 clients. If you have a lot of Wi-Fi 5 and older devices, you should turn it off.
- Turn on Extended NSS: Not available in all routers, but if yours supports it, it’s in the advanced/professional area. Also, it’s likely already turned on by default.
If you use a tri-band router, you can name one of the 5GHz band as a separate network and use it exclusively for high-speed clients leaving the other 5GHz band in the compatibility mode. Also, some routers allow for multiple virtual network names (SSIDs). In this case, you can make one specifically for legacy clients.
By the way, if you use a tri-band wireless mesh, set the backhaul band to be the fastest supported by the satellites. After that, there’s no need to worry about compatibility with this band — it works exclusively for the satellites.
3. Intermittent Wi-Fi disconnections on high-end/new devices? Avoid Dynamic Frequency Selection (DFS) channels
If you live close to a radar station — within tens of miles — it’s a good idea not to use DFS channels. Note that all airports have radar, and almost every city has a weather radar station.
DFS shares its airspace with radar and, by regulations, takes the back seat. Consequently, when radar signals are detected, a router automatically switches its DFS channels to one that the other party is not using.
When this happens, clients will experience a brief disconnection, from a few seconds to even a minute. It’s a dilemma since DFS channels are necessary for top Wi-Fi 6 speeds.
Depending on how frequent radar signals are present, you might not even notice the disconnection at all. But if that happens when you’re in the middle of a real-time communication app, like video conferencing, or online gaming, it sure is a pain.
How to not use DFS channels
This depends on the router — some don’t support DFS at all. Generally, you can make the router ignore all DFS channels, or manually pick one that’s not part of the DFS spectrum.
Before you can do that, though, note that DFS is only available in the 5GHz frequency band. So first, you might need to separate it from the 2.4GHz — turn off Smart Connect, that is — before you can make specific changes.
After that, keep in mind that the 160MHz channel width requires DFS, so don’t use it.
Finally, DFS ranges from channel 52 to 144. That means channels outside of this range, including 36, 40, 44, 48, 149, 153, 157, 161, and 165, are not part of this special spectrum. Ensure your router (as well as the backhaul link if you have a wireless mesh system) uses one of those.
4. Network printers, IP cameras, etc., get disconnected sporadically? Time to make some IP reservations
This is quite common. Your devices might work for a while and then stop. This often happens with network printers or IP cameras but generally can happen to almost any device that requires a fixed local IP address.
Specifically, the device identifies itself via the IP address given to it by your router. When its IP changes — often when you restart the router or the device itself — the device now appears as new, causing the rest of the network to no longer see it as what it used to be.
To keep this from happening, you need to reserve an IP address for the device in question to make sure it has the same IP at all times.
Extra: Stop using extender
On this IP reservation topic, note you can’t do that with most, if not all, Wi-Fi extenders. That’s because extenders give out virtual MAC addresses to their clients.
That said, if you need IP reservations, stop using extenders in your home or connect the device in question directly to the router.
5. Internet of Things (IoT) or legacy devices can’t connect to Wi-Fi? Use simple SSID (Wi-Fi name) and password
While this trick doesn’t seem to make sense, it has helped many situations in my experience. As it turns out, the complexity of a Wi-Fi network’s name (SSID) can be the reason why some clients — especially IoT devices — can’t connect to it.
That said, make your network name as simple as possible by following these rules:
- Use plain English letters
- Avoid using special characters or spaces
- Keep it short
That said, instead of using a name like “Dong Knows Tech”, or even worse, “Đông Knows Tech ⚡”, pick “Dong-Knows-Tech” or, better yet, just “DKT”. (Needless to say, the quotes are not part of the names.)
As for the password, it’s best to use a long string of numbers. You can make it long and random, so it’s hard to guess. A Wi-Fi password that includes letters, numbers, and special characters, can be a pain when you need to enter it into an IoT device anyway.
Tip: When it comes to passwords, don’t associate complexity with security. The goal is to make your password hard to guess and, most importantly, to keep it a secret. Your password shouldn’t be as hard (for you) to use as possible.
If you need to use a fancy name and password for your Wi-Fi for one reason or another, you can create a separate simple Wi-Fi network just for the devices that can’t connect to the fancy one.
In this case, you can make a Guest network for this purpose — make sure you turn on the intranet access for it. By the way, many IoT devices only work with the 2.4GHz band, so you only need to worry about this band.
6. A (new) device can’t re/connect to Wi-Fi? Make sure the IP address pool is large enough
By default, most routers (or mesh system) limit their IP address pool to accept no more than a certain number of clients, like 25, 30, or 50 — much lower than the total number of IP addresses any router can give out, which is 253.
While it’s a good idea to have fewer active clients, it’s fine to make the address pool much larger than the number of devices a router can handle. That’s because not all clients are active at all times.
Also, sometimes, one device might use more than one IP address for a variety of reasons. So the pool limit can run out earlier than you expect, causing new or returning clients to fail to connect.
That said, it’s generally a good idea to set the IP pool limit significantly larger than the number of devices you want to use. For more on IP pool and the detailed steps on how to change that, check out this post on all things router-related.
Extra: IP lease time and you
As you can see on the screenshot above (below the IP pool), the IP lease time is the window of time the router will keep an IP for a particular device. During this period, the IP will not be available to any other client.
This period starts when the device first connects and won’t change until it runs out unless you restart the router before that, which will cause all devices to re-connect with a new lease.
The lease time is used in second, and by default, most routers use the 86400 value (24 hours). And that’s fine for most home use. But if you have an environment where you want the IP to become available immediately, you can reduce that to an hour or two.
When the lease runs out, the client will need to reconnect and might get a new IP. This process takes a brief second and requires the router and client to negotiate, so it’s not a good idea to keep the lease too short.
And that’s it. Now cross your finger and apply the changes to the router. Hopefully, things are all good. If not, it’s time to check on your clients.
Wi-Fi dropping or disconnection repair: What to do the client
There are two things about the clients, the client itself and the software driver.
Client’s Wi-Fi settings, physical condition, and protective case
That said, check the client. Is it physically intact? If you have dropped it, that could have caused some hardware parts to not functioning properly, and the Wi-Fi adapter might be among those.
Again, check to make sure you haven’t turned off the Wi-Fi (Airplane mode) or manually set its Wi-Fi to work in a certain way — leave the settings at default unless you know what you’re doing.
If you use a phone or tablet, keep in mind its case adversely affects the wireless reception. All cases do. It’s a matter of degrees. The more “protective” the case is, the worse it gets. Take the case out or get a thinner one.
You need the latest Wi-Fi driver on each client for it to work well. The driver is a piece of software that allows a hardware component to work with the operating system.
If you’re on a Mac, you’ll need to upgrade your computer to the latest version of macOS and also the latest of whatever offered via Mac Software Update. That’s how you can keep your Wi-Fi driver updated. There’s no other way.
On a Windows computer or a mobile device, there are a few other things you can do.
How to upgrade Wi-Fi driver on a Windows computer
In Windows 10, you can check on the driver of the Wi-Fi adapter the same way you do any other hardware components. Here’s how:
1. Right-click on the Start button (lower-left corner) to bring up the Windows X menu. (I call it the “Windows X” menu because you can also call it up by using the Windows + X keyboard combo.)
2. On the menu that pops up click on the Device Manager item to bring up its window.
3. On the Device Manager window, navigate to a hardware component in question, in this case, it’s one of the Network adapters. Pick the Wi-Fi adapter, and double click on it to bring up the Properties window of that device.
4 On the Properties window, click on the Driver tab to look at the Driver Date value.
For a Wi-Fi adapter, the driver’s release date shouldn’t be before 2019. If so, it’s too old, and you want to try updating the driver. To do that, just click on the Update Driver button, then on Search automatically for updated driver software.
If there’s a new driver available, it’ll be downloaded and installed automatically. Alternatively, or if the computer can’t access the Internet, you can also check the manufacturer’s website using a different computer to see if there is a new driver. Download it and install it manually.
If there’s no driver update and the computer’s Wi-Fi doesn’t work with your new router, even after you have done all the router-related tricks above, well, you’re out of luck. It’s time to think about replacing that Wi-Fi adapter or the host device entirely.
How to fix Wi-Fi dropping issue on a mobile device: Latest updates and reset
You can’t update just the Wi-Fi software driver on a mobile device. The only way to update anything is to wait for the update pushed out by the manufacturer.
However, there are ways to fix your mobile device, especially an iDevice, from Wi-Fi dropping issues, without getting any update.
Here are a few things to try. Note: In many cases, just one of these would fix the problem, so check after trying one. There’s no need to do all of them.
- Restart your device: When did you restart your phone? Exactly! It’s a good idea to close all open apps and perform a restart once in a while. That can solve a lot of issues, including those relating to Wi-Fi (and cellular) connection.
- Update your device to the latest OS version and patches: This is especially true with incremental updates, which tend to include the latest drivers. The update process will also restart your device, by the way.
- Reset the network setting: This will erase all saved Wi-Fi networks, and you will need to enter them again. However, it also removes all incorrect settings that might cause connection issues. You can find the Wi-Fi or Network reset in the device’s General Settings area, or you can search for it.
- Reset the device to default: This will erase everything you have on the device, so make a backup first. This drastic step helps refresh your equipment and make it work like new, at its optimal state, including the best possible Wi-Fi support.
Wi-Fi is a lot more complicated than wired networking. For one, it’s invisible. You can’t see the things that can cause interruptions in the radio waves. So knowing what has gone wrong could be a challenge.
That said, proper hardware setup on the router and using clients with the latest software are the key to a well-performing wireless network. Besides that, make sure you pick the best channel given your situation and use a simple SSID.
Most importantly, don’t expect magic! Take some time and appreciate how the technology has worked for you. A little Wi-Fi dropping and disconnection here and there is a small price to pay for so much gain you’ve gotten from it.