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How to boost your Wi-Fi performance when everyone's at home

The greater the distance and the more walls

The greater the distance and the more walls in between a router and end user, the weaker the Wi-Fi signal. Credit: Dreamstime/TNS

Mom is Zooming for a work meeting. Dad's on Netflix. And Junior is trying to help Super Mario on one screen while streaming his biology class on another. As the COVID era drags on, can there possibly be enough bandwidth for all?

In the videoconferencing era, with users receiving and transmitting video at the same time, a good upload speed becomes more important. How much capacity you need depends on how many household members are online at any one time, and what they are doing. With four devices running "high-demand" programs at once, a download speed of at least 25 megabits per second is recommended by the Federal Communications Commission.

To check your current speed, use an app or website that measures it in real time, such as speedtest.net. This can be done from a desktop that is directly wired to the Internet, in which case you are measuring the speed straight out of the cable. Or it can be done further "downstream" on a phone or tablet, meaning that you are measuring the rate of data transfer through the cable and the Wi-Fi signal.

If the speed is well below what the service provider advertises, the issue could be anywhere along the chain: provider, cables, router or even the device itself.

A router converts your incoming data stream into radio waves and beams them throughout the home, like a sprinkler distributing water from a hose. And like a sprinkler, the router should be in a good spot. The greater the distance and the more walls in between the router and end user, the weaker the signal.

Place the device in the middle of all possible spaces where you want people to have access. In a two-story dwelling, that could be on top of a high bookcase on the first floor, or maybe near the floor of the second story. In a three-story dwelling, experiment with different locations on the second floor.

If the device has adjustable antennas, try aiming them in different directions to improve performance. And never put your router on or next to a large metal object such as a filing cabinet. Metal is death to a Wi-Fi signal.

So how come you have poor Internet performance on a phone or other wireless device, despite what looks like a healthy Wi-Fi signal? Don't be fooled. The Wi-Fi icon — those little concentric arcs in the shape of a slice of pizza — reflects only how well the signal is traveling from the router to your device. It has little to do with the signal going into the device from Verizon or another provider.

It may seem almost too obvious to consider, but check that the cable is in good shape and is securely plugged into the back of the router. And make sure it is not pinched underneath a piece of furniture.

And don't forget software updates. Install the latest to get the most out of your phone, laptop. Routers need updates, too, though if it's the kind you rent from your internet service providers, updates may happen automatically.

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