Cars speeding on highway at nightI must admit that I’ve gotten a bit obsessed with speed lately, download and upload speed to be specific. It started a few years ago when I was researching whether to move from my reliable DSL ISP (Fairpoint) to something faster. I had done everything I could to tweak the system in my house – updated the modem/router with the latest firmware, changed wires and even moved furniture. The problem was almost always with the wireless router side of things.

I’ve got the website speedtest.net bookmarked on all of my devices and whenever I get the sense that things are slowing down, I test the connection to see what’s happening. Speedtest, is a free service which will “test” your connection and give you a measurement of download and upload speed. It is not perfect and many question its accuracy, but it does provide some means of measuring.

When you use Speedtest you should always compare this with the advertised speed your ISP says it will provide. Be aware that you will rarely get this actual speed, but you should get close. Generally speaking download speeds will be greater than upload speed. With cable, the difference may be dramatic. My Time Warner Turbo account advertises up to 30Mbs download and up to a mere 2Mbs upload – close to what I currently get (See PC World article for more information about using Speedtest).

There will always be a difference in speed between devices that are directly, physically connected via a wire versus a wireless connect – that’s plan physics. But, sometimes the differences in speed are enormous – as much as 50-75% slower on the wireless side. In my case, this drove me to seek answers and this is what I found.

Okay, a little geeky stuff here: Wireless routers use simple radio waves to communicate with your wireless device (laptop, tablets, handheld devices, etc.). The further you are from the transmitter (your wireless router), the weaker the signal – the slower the connection; again, basic physics. The signals are FM (frequency modulated) and are affected by thick walls and large metallic structures. These devices use very low levels of power so their range is measured in meters, not miles. Generally, a moderately priced wireless router will have a range of about 30-40 meters, roughly 100-130 feet.

The wireless routers in use today have been assigned a very specific frequency by the FCC so they should not be getting interference from other wireless devices like cell phones, cordless phones or “baby monitors.” But your wireless device could be experiencing interference from other wireless routers!

Enter inSSIDer – a free application that simply shows you what other wireless routers are “in the neighborhood.” Under the full disclosure principle, I live in congregate living, a small apartment house with several single family homes and other small apartment houses nearby. When I installed inSSIDer I was amazed to see five other wireless routers competing on the same frequency (2.4 GHz) as me. The application shows the device’s SSID and I recognize some of the names as being neighbors – but I am not sure where all of the devices are located. More importantly, several of these other devices were on the same channel and “overlapping” each other, including me. I quickly used the login function to my router and changed the channel to one no one else was using (read your modem/router’s owner’s manual for directions on how to do this). Presto-change-o! My signal and download speed improved dramatically.

Word of caution: this not a case of “set it and forget it.” It is possible the little old 80 year old lady down the hall is also re-tuning her wireless router on a daily basis, but I doubt it. In any case, I have noticed that the channels my neighbors are using have changed over the months. It could be they had someone come in and change this for them, but more likely it was due to a simple reset (unplug the modem/router and replug) and the channel may change.

So if you live in close proximity to neighbors who have wireless devices – use inSSIDer to check the channels and change yours to improve signal/download speed.

BTW, there is a good article on PC World this week which provides other ideas to improve download speed if the ideas here don’t work for you.

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Photo credit: Image licensed by Creative Commons by tobias.munich