We tend to only care about the Internet or Wi-Fi troubleshooting when there’s no connection. 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.
In this post, you’ll find the common networking terms you should know, simple troubleshooting steps for any Wi-Fi network, and the most effective way to get help.
Before continue, if you think Wi-Fi and the Internet are the same things, make sure you check out the lingo section at the bottom of this page first.
Troubleshooting your Internet connection or Wi-Fi network: Four simple steps
Every Wi-Fi network is different. Most importantly, you need to know if yours consists of a modem and a router or a gateway. To find out which is which, you can consult this post on home networking hardware.
But with all of them, you can apply these steps when you don’t have a Wi-Fi connection or have no Internet access. Often, the issue is minor and requires as little as a restart of the router or modem.
1. Take care of the basics
These are basic things you should do first before anything else.
Try a different website or service
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, which has nothing to do with your home network or the Internet. Let’s say Netflix is not available, but you can still stream from YouTube. Well, you have to wait it out or call the service provider to find out more.
Your device’s Wi-Fi is turned on
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.
This applies to your media streamer, IoT devices, too. Basically, plug them in and turn them on. That helps.
Which Wi-Fi network you’re using?
That’s right. Ensure your device connects to 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. That’s not to mention, well, you’ll be troubleshooting something that’s not necessarily broken.
Check the cables
Indeed. Check to make sure all the cables and wires are plugged in properly and intact — not cut, broken, or chewed up by pets.
All hardware devices (router, modem, gateway, switches, etc.) need to be plugged into power and turned on. At the very least, you should 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.
- Can you connect to your Wi-Fi network? If you can’t, or your network is unavailable — you don’t see the Wi-Fi name on your phone — then the issue is the router.
- 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. Internet issue troubleshooting: What to check on the modem (or any terminal device)
Your terminal device — that is, the modem or gateway if you’re using cable Internet, or an ONT if you use a certain fiber-optic connection — is literally your connection to the Internet. It needs to be in good shape.
No matter what device you use, it always has a broadband status light. This light tends to have a shape or a label that suggests that it has something to do with the Internet. Often it resembles a little globe or the letter E.
But here is what you can do at the modem.
- Give the modem a restart, then wait a few minutes for it to boot up fully. Often that fixes the problem.
- Check the broadband status light. It needs to be solid (green, blue, or white). If it’s off, red, or flashing erratically, then make sure the service cable is intact and securely attached to the device.
If that doesn’t fix the issue, check to ensure there’s no outage in the area. 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. Wi-Fi issues: What to do at the router
There are a couple of things you can do with the router. There are simple and advanced steps.
Simple things you can do with a router
These are steps anyone can do.
- Give the router a restart — unplug it from power, wait for 10 seconds or so, then plug it back in. Now give it a few minutes to boot up fully. That might fix the issue.
- Make sure the router’s Wi-Fi function is not turned off — many routers have an on/off switch for Wi-Fi. Generally, the router has a status light for its bands (5GHz and 2.4GHz). These lights need to be on.
Advanced steps in working with a router
These are steps for advanced users or those who are comfortable with computers in general.
- Access 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.
- 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).
|Vendor||Friendly URL||Default IP||Username||Password|
|AT&T Gateway||n/a||192.168.1.254||n/a||Access code printed |
on the hardware unit
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.
Internet and Wi-Fi troubleshooting: How to get help
When you call for help, the person on the other end will try to troubleshoot the problem. It would help if you told them exactly what has happened instead of what you think has happened or how you feel about what 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.
Most importantly, keep in mind that Wi-Fi and the Internet are technical things that are completely agnostic to how you feel. Getting emotional only makes fixing any issue more time-consuming.
Extras in Wi-Fi troubleshooting: 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’s not broken.
Knowing the differences between common hardware parts saves 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 for mobile devices to get online. 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.
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 using 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 it 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 asks you to reset your router, make sure you clarify before you do anything.
Dong’s note: I first published this post on Jan 18, 2019, and updated it on February 17, 2021, to add more relevant information.