Getting your home network rig ready for prime time.

What tech malady most terrified office workers over the years? In the 1990s it was the BSOD “blue screen of death” in Windows. In the 2000s it was the “spinning wheel of death.” Now it’s “Your internet connection is unstable.”

Talk about stressors in the workplace. What if we’re talking to a big customer? A prime prospect? An auditor? Yikes! Your new conference room is … everywhere. 

Welcome to the new era of meetings.

Zoom, WebEx, GoToMeeting, FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp, Slack, GoogleMeeting, Microsoft Teams… 

The platform doesn’t matter if your network connection isn’t up to the task. How many more people are streaming and communicating in your home these days? Is your network configured for family use, instead of “hardcore” meetings and streaming? What happens when Netflix or school Zoom battles your work Zoom?

Commercial grade or office WiFi is typically bulletproof and super strong, and the sudden shift away from it has been wild, unpredictable, challenging, frequently highly frustrating.

Here’s our path with online meetings in 2020:

Early Remote Meetings:  

Some level of embarrassment and apology when zooming with outsiders

“Can you hear me?”

Mid-Pandemic Meetings:  

Which quickly led to “don’t worry, it’s happening to all of us” 

“sorry, go ahead”

Current State Meetings: 

Now a general sense of surrender, fatigue, and annoyance at the crashes, caching, frozen images, space noise, and cutouts of online meetings.  

“hold on please while I switch to audio-only”

And our coping strategies:

(soon to appear as breakfast/diner dishes at grab-and-go company cafeterias and Instacart menus near you)

Do any of these sound familiar?

What would your recipes be for each of those dishes? 

Sweet? Sour? Savory? Spicy? Hemlock? Vodka?

Here are some simple strategies and tips to help you optimize your network rig, to make online meetings somewhat less painful. 

We cannot help you with the agenda, presenter/leader, absurd meeting start times, length of the meeting, or “death by PowerPoint” issues, however.

  1. Your data pipe (bandwidth) and how to measure it.
  2. Router & Modem: Quality, age, updated firmware, channel tuning, location(s), measurement
  3. Your location(s) and proximity to wireless endpoints, hacks, and other network options

We’ll go over these elements and technology in greater detail in future blog posts. For now, let’s review some of the practical basics, to get you on your way to a “less unsatisfactory” Web conference experience, and with luck, a great one.

A.  Bandwidth (aka the size of your data pipe; your “speed”)

For video calls, the standard these days is at least 3Mbps (“megs”) up and the same down. This may be a challenge, and it’s worth reviewing your cable or Internet Service Provider (vendor). The “down” speed is often 3 Mbps or better, while the “up” signal can be half that or less. 

How to measure:  With your laptop plugged into your router or modem (via an  Ethernet (network cable) plug), you can run a “speed” test to discover the “actual” strength of the signal coming in from your provider.

What to do: If it’s substantially less than the speed you’re paying for (a common occurrence), call the provider and ask. They may even send workers out to troubleshoot your cable lines or satellite link. It’s also possible that you may need to upgrade your package to a higher speed.  Key point: Make sure you’re receiving at least the signal speed you’re paying for.

B.  Router & Modem

Make sure you have the right modem for the speed that is coming in from your vendor. Old modems often lack enough data “channels” to process the high-speed data feed. The same is true of your router, and especially of your wireless router. It’s very common for the cable or Internet provider to “forget” to upgrade the modems when they sell you higher bandwidth packages. It’s up to you.

Tip: It’s worth the modest investment to buy your own high-quality modem or modem+router rather than rent theirs. Look on your cable bill to see how much you’re paying per month to rent their modem and/or router, and then see if the math works for you. The rule of thumb is payback by 24 months.

Make sure you have both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands working on your wireless router that gives your home WiFi.  2.4 is for longer distances across your house, and 5 is faster, but only reaches a few dozen meters. Some wireless routers require firmware updates and others update themselves automatically, as seen in the Netgear Nighthawk and similar routers (Asus, Linksys, D-Link, TP-Link, AmpliFi). Find out if you’re running the latest firmware update by logging into your router (more on that in a future post).

What to do: If you have outdated equipment, it may be time to buy new and more powerful dual-band equipment (or even upgrade to WiFi-6 from the current WiFi-5). Many combine modem and router in one box.  

Most likely you’ll just need to “tune” your wireless router to a radio station that is not being broadcast by too many other nearby users, and adjust your computer location. This requires logging into your router. We will cover that in a future post.

C.  Location, Location, Location

WiFi is just a radio, and not a very good radio at that. Location matters a great deal, especially if your bandwidth speed is flaky or weak, or if you have interference from your neighbors’ WiFi networks. If you have 2 floors in your home, you also have an immediate challenge. The maximum effective range for 2.4 GHz is about 150 feet inside, with walls and interference, and about 300 feet in a direct line, outdoors. 5 GHz is much faster but reaches only about 50 feet/100 feet or one-third the distance.

What to do: The ideal set-up is to have a direct line-of-sight between your wireless router and your computer. For most people, this is impossible or impractical, which means your “optimal” speed will be diminished by walls and other radio interference which could come from appliances, cordless phones, and even lights or metal or insulation in the walls.  

Rabbit Ears.  Notice if your router has those antennae sticking up. If it does, you can adjust and experiment with the angles on them.  Many have as many as 4 to 6 antennae. 

One easy way to “survey” your home (and the distance between your home office and the router, is to get one of the simple non-techie WiFi survey apps like “Speedtest” and run it multiple times, starting at the router and repeating it between the router and your workspace.

The simplest (and lowest-tech) quick fix for this would be to move your router and/or modem closer to your workspace. A one-time hassle of moving your router and modem closer to your workspace will reward you for years, at a nominal cost to you.  

Old School: Cable still works fine

Another common (and easy) hack for this is simply to run a network cable (CAT5 or CAT6) from your router to your computer. Problem solved! You don’t need the WiFi at all (in your office). 

The most common strategy for most people is to run more network cable to another spot in the house and plug in an additional wireless transmitter or wireless extender (“endpoint”). This helps the signal “see around corners” and manage around obstacles that diminish the signal. 

Also in this category are the range of plug-in “WiFi extenders” that wirelessly “grab” the signal and then re-transmit it. Some work, some don’t. It’s a mixed bag and depends on your home’s layout.

To Mesh Or Not To Mesh

The most elegant (technically speaking) and also the most expensive option is to install what is called a mesh network. You can find them everywhere, from Costco, to your cable provider who will rent you one. It’s a great technology — from Google (Nest), Apple, Netgear (Orbi), Amazon (eero), TP-Link, Samsung, and others. 

Mesh uses a base station that communicates with multiple satellite stations and creates a kind of net, or mesh of signal that has redundancy and thus is effectively stronger than a single point or even several endpoints that are not networked. It’s also pretty easy to set up. It is, however, more expensive. And like the “range extenders,” it may not give you very much improvement for the cost. So it is not necessarily a panacea even though it is elegant and very au-currant.

WiFi-6 

The next thing you’ll hear your techie friends talk about is the new generation of WiFi itself, called Wifi-6, or 6th generation WiFi. It holds great promise. It has better security (an important factor for work-at-home), boosts speed 25%-40% over the current standard of Wifi-5, and can handle the dozen or so (and more) simultaneous devices we find that we’re now connecting to WiFi, from TVs to Cable boxes, to phones, tablets, even refrigerators, irrigation systems, security cameras, and thermostats.  

Here’s the catch: To take full advantage of Wifi-6, the devices (phones, computers, tablets, etc.) must be wifi-6 enabled in their chip-set. As of Winter 2020, this has not been widely adopted by manufacturers, and it’s likely that most (if not all) of your devices are still using Wifi-5 unless they’re brand new, and even then it’s not yet universal. So this is a purchase for the near future. 

That said, most all mesh systems that come with Wifi-6 are backward compatible to WiFi-5, and many of the base station (non-mesh) systems now come standard with it. If you’re buying a new router, it’s worth the small premium over Wifi-5. 

In summary, if your needs are simple, and you don’t have a dozen devices on your network, you may be able to get along without Mesh, and by using some of these other tips and hacks you may be able to get your speed and signal to where you want them, without too many rounds out this installment of the WiFi blues.  

If you focus on the basics within those 3 main areas, you’ll be well on your way to avoiding that dreaded “Your Internet Connection is Unstable” message. 

May your Internet (and all of your) connections not be unstable.

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