We tend to only care about our home Wi-Fi network when there’s no Internet. Ironically, it’s also when we can’t go online to search for solutions. So it’s a good thing you’re reading this now when you’re still connected.
You’ll find in this post the common networking terms you should know, simple troubleshooting steps for any Wi-Fi network, and the most effective way to get help.
And I’ll also explain the practice to keep your network running well. Before continue, though, you might want to check out this post to refresh your memory on Wi-Fi’s basics.
Troubleshooting a Wi-Fi network: Understanding the lingoes
When it comes to home networking repair, it’s vital to find out exactly what goes wrong, and where. Else, you might waste a lot of time trying to fix what that’s not broken. Knowing the differences between common hardware parts save you time and frustration.
The following are a few that often get mistaken for one another.
Wi-Fi vs. the Internet
Wi-Fi is generally synonymous with Internet access because it’s the most popular way to deliver the Internet. But they are two different things.
Wi-Fi: The wireless alternative to network cables
That’s correct. Before Wi-Fi, network cables were the only way to connect devices within a local network (LAN). So, in a way, you can see Wi-Fi as invisible network cables. Well, you can’t see it, but you know what I mean.
A Wi-Fi broadcaster (a router or access point) broadcasts wireless signals for Wi-Fi clients (smartphones, tablets, laptops, etc.) to catch on to create connections. It’s like you’re throwing an invisible network cable from the router to each client.
In a local network (like your home), the Wi-Fi router (or router for short) is responsible for creating the entire local system and keeping devices connected. As long as your router works, your local services are available.
As a result, you can print to your network printer, make Time Machine backups, play music to your Wi-Fi speakers, or stream content from your home server, and so on, even when there’s no Internet access.
The takeaway on Wi-Fi: You can have strong Wi-Fi yet can’t get online at all. Also, if your router is down — like unplugged — then you can’t get online at all even when the Internet is fine.
Internet: Stuff outside of your home
The Internet is the connection between many local networks (including yours), big and small, which is why the Internet is also called a wide area network (WAN).
Generally, in a home, the Internet connection is the job of a modem. A modem allows only one device to connect to the Internet.
For this reason, we need a router, which hooks to the modem and redistributes that single Internet connection to multiple devices within the home network simultaneously. This distribution takes place via regular network cables or Wi-Fi. You can read more about this in my post about IP addresses.
That said, as you’re reading this right now, chances are the device you’re using currently connects to the router of your local network. That router connects to a modem, and that modem connects to the Internet.
The takeaway on the Internet: You can have the Internet without Wi-Fi. In this case, your computer needs to connect to the modem via a network cable.
Modem vs. Router vs. Gateway
Now that you understand the role of modems and routers let’s find out how to distinguish between the two.
One thing to note right out of the bat: a modem and a router are two different things entirely. You can’t use one in the place of the other, yet folks call one as the other all the time.
A modem always has one service port — depending on the service, it can be a phone jack (DSL) or a coaxial receiver (Cable) — and one network port (Ethernet port). The service port is to connect with the service wire (phone or cable) that comes into your home from the utility pole outside.
The network port is to connect to the WAN port of a router. Some cable modems also have a phone jack for phone service, but generally, if you see one network port and one service port, it is a modem.
A router always has one WAN (Internet) port, to be connected to the modem or any other Internet source, and a few (usually four) LAN ports. All these ports are network ports, but the WAN port tends to have a different color and placement from the LAN ports.
The LAN ports are to connect wired devices, like desktop computers or printers, or a switch, which adds more network ports to the network. Many routers have external antennas while others use internal ones. If you look at a router’s label, you will see the word “router” on it.
A gateway is a combo box that includes a router and a modem in a single hardware piece. That said, a gateway will generally have a service port plus a few (usually four) LAN ports. It tends not to have a WAN port.
If you use equipment provided by the service provider, chances are it’s a gateway. In this case, the company technician might call it a “modem”, which contributes even more to the confusion.
But you can also buy a retail gateway. The Netgear Orbi CBK40 is an example — it’s a cable gateway. Considering nobody bothers to use the correct terminology, Netgear actually calls it a Cable Modem Router.
Cellular vs. Wi-Fi vs. mobile hotspot
When you use your smartphone’s cellular connection (4G LTE or 5G), it’s similar to using a single device with a modem. Specifically, the phone itself is a computer that has a built-in cellular modem. In this case, the phone connects directly to the service provider’s network and hence, the Internet.
It’s important to note that all smartphones also support Wi-Fi. There are many instances your phone connects to both a cellular network and a Wi-Fi network at the same time.
In this case, you’ll see two signal indicators on its screen at the top right or top left corner, depending on the phone. The vertical signal indicator is that of the Wi-Fi network, and the horizontal is that of the cellular network.
By default, a phone generally chooses to use Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet before it uses its mobile signal. In other words, if Wi-Fi is available, you won’t use up your cellular data plan.
And a mobile hotspot, such as the Verizon Jetpack 8800L, is actually a mini gateway. Indeed, it’s a tiny Wi-Fi router that has a built-in cellular modem.
The hotspot connects to the Internet via its modem and then redistributes that connection to multiple devices via its integrated Wi-Fi broadcaster. By the way, most smartphones can also work as a mobile hotspot, in a mode called “Personal hotspot”.
That said, when you are using a mobile hotspot in an area without cell reception, you can still have strong Wi-Fi on your device, but yet can’t connect to the Internet. That’s a typical example of how Wi-Fi is different from the Internet.
And in this case, you shouldn’t blame Wi-Fi for the fact you can’t go online.
Restart vs. reset
Folks tend to mistake these two terms for each other, and that can be dangerous.
Restart (or reboot or re-power) means you turn your device off and then turn back on. You can do this via the power switch or by unplugging the power cable and then plugging it back in.
You generally don’t need a tool to perform a restart. Restarting the router and modem often helps fix some connection problems. Just like a computer, a router needs to restart once in a while.
Reset is a more complicated process that might require a pointy object to do and will erase all the settings of a networking device. Since a network needs specific settings to work, mistaking a restart for a reset can cause big problems.
The reason for the mix-up is because technicians often call a restart a soft reset. (And they use hard reset for a reset). Then “soft” is omitted, and that’s where the problem begins. That said when a support representative as you to reset your router, make sure you clarify before you do anything.
Now that we’re clear on the basic terms, let ‘s move on to the fun part of troubleshooting a home Wi-Fi network.
Steps to troubleshoot your Wi-Fi network
Every Wi-Fi network is different, but with all of them, you can apply these steps when you don’t have a Wi-Fi connection, or have no access to the Internet. A lot of times, the issue is minor and requires as little as a restart of the router, or modem.
1. Take care of the basics
- If you can’t go to a particular website, try a few different ones to see if they work. Sometimes, the specific site, or service, you want to use is down, and that has nothing to do with your home network or the Internet. You just have to wait it out, or call the service itself for status.
- Make sure you haven’t accidentally turned off the Wi-Fi on the device. This tends to happen with laptops where you can turn the Airplane mode on by accident. Then give the device a restart.
- Make sure your device connects the correct Wi-Fi network (and not one of your neighbors, for example.) Connecting to a wrong Wi-Fi network will cause local tasks, like printing or file sharing, to fail.
- Check the cables. They should be plugged-in correctly and are intact (not broken or chewed up by pets).
- All hardware devices (router, modem, gateway, switches, etc.), need to be plugged into power and turned on. You need to see some lights coming out of them.
2. Figure out where the issue is
When all the cables are in good shape, now it’s time to find out where the problem is.
a. Can you connect to your Wi-Fi network? If you can’t, or your network is unavailable — you don’t see its name appear on your phone — then the issue is the router.
b. If you can connect to your Wi-Fi network — your computer or phone indicated that there’s a Wi-Fi connection — but you cannot access the Internet to check email or Facebook — then the issue is likely at the modem.
In any case, you can always start with the modem.
3. What to check on the modem
The modem is literal your connection to the Internet and it needs to be in good shape. There’s one particular status light that you need to check on and here are what you should do at the modem.
a. Give the modem a restart, then wait a few minutes for the modem to fully boot up. That might fix the problem. If not go to the next step.
b. Find Internet status light. Every modem (or residential gateway) has one. This status light might be labeled differently (Internet, online, signal, or sync) but almost always has the icon of a little globe.
This light needs to be on solid (green, blue, or white). If it’s off or red, then make sure the service cable is intact and not loose. If that doesn’t fix the issue, check to make sure there’s no outage in the area.
c. If nothing works and there’s no outage, it’s time to call your provider, at this point, there’s nothing you can do. Tell the customer support agent that you have no Internet signal at the modem, they’ll know what to do.
4. What to do at the router
There are a couple of things you can do with the router.
a. First, give it a restart and wait a few minutes, that might fix the issue. If not, continue.
b. Check the network cable connecting the router’s WAN (Internet) port and the modem to make sure it’s plugged in securely at both ends. Also, make sure the Wi-Fi function is not turned off –many routers have an on/off switch for Wi-Fi. If that doesn’t fix the problem, continue.
c. At this point, you’ll need to do a bit more work. Try accessing the router’s web interface. Try updating its firmware to the latest. That will take a bit of time, and it might fix the problem. If not continue.
d. Access the router’s interface gain. This time, back up its settings, then reset it — yes, I do mean reset — and set up your network from scratch (or restore it from the backup file).
If you can’t access the interface or don’t know how to reset it using the interface, you can reset it via the reset button. If all that doesn’t solve the problem, it’s time to get a new router or professional help.
Wi-Fi troubleshooting: How to get help
When you call for help, the person on the other end will try to troubleshoot the problem. You should tell them exactly what has happened instead of what you think has happened. Also, describe the issue instead of its consequences.
For example, instead of saying, “I can’t get online,” explain what happens when you try to go to a website or check email. Give the person the error message. Or, instead of “My Wi-Fi is not working,” describe what happens when you try to connect, or if your Wi-Fi network is not available, etc.
It’s also helpful to take and share photos of the error messages, and the device’s status lights. Visual is always useful when it comes to troubleshooting.
Best practice for great home Wi-Fi
The following are what you should do to get the best Wi-Fi and Internet experience.
1. Get your own equipment
You generally have more control and better network when using your modem and router instead of using a provider-supplied one. If you use cable Internet, replacing the ISP-provided gateway with your own also saves yourself from having to pay for the monthly rental fee.
2. Hardware placement
If you use a single Wi-Fi router, place it in the open and as close to the center of your home as possible. A Wi-Fi signal is broadcast outwards like a sphere, with the router at the center. If you place the router at a side of your home, half of its coverage is on the other side of the wall.
Here are some examples of wrong places to put your Wi-Fi router:
- A closet
- Behind a large appliance like a fridge or a TV
- The laundry room
- A basement that has thick walls or below a thick concrete floor
If you use many Wi-Fi hardware broadcasters, such as when you use extenders or Wi-Fi systems, also make sure:
- The satellite unit is not too far away from the router unit, and there are not too many obstacles between them. Generally, the distance is about 30 ft (9 m) to 50 ft (13 m) away if there’s a wall in between, or up to 75 ft (23 m) if there’s a line of sight between the two.
- When there is more than one satellite unit, place them around the router so that each connects to the router directly.
3. Use network cables when possible
When you need to extend your network, it’s best to run network cables to connect hardware units. If you have a small home and the Internet drop is at a far corner, you can run a wire from the modem’s location to the middle of the house and place the router there.
If you have a large home, consider using multiple hardware units connected to the main router via network cables to make sure you get the best coverage and the fastest speed. Generally, a single router can cover about 1,800 ft² (170 m²). Each extender (or a mesh point) can extend another 1,500 ft² or so.
When running network cables is not an option, you can try Powerline adapters (which turn the electrical wiring of your home into network cables). Note that a Powerline’s performance varies a great deal depending on the wiring of your home, and will not work with power-strips or surge protectors. They are generally much less reliable than network cables.
4. Schedule a periodical restart
Just like a computer, a reboot helps the router refresh and work better. While most routers can work 24/7, it’s a good idea to give it a restart once or twice a month. Many routers, like those from Asus, have a reboot scheduler within their interface that you can use.
Dong’s note: I first published this post on Jan 18, 2019, and updated it on February 28, 2020, to add more relevant information.