Broadband is the lifeblood of the modern household and it’s incredibly frustrating when your Internet connection is flaky. Read on as we walk you through our tried and true troubleshooting techniques so you can pin down exactly where your connectivity problems are coming from.
Why Do I Want To Do This?
The obvious answer to why you want to do this is to fix your network problems but actually fixing things in a permanent way involves a bit more troubleshooting than the typical plug and unplug routine. Everyone out there with connectivity/Internet issues wants to fix those issues and they often do so by plugging and unplugging things, turning the power to their devices and networking equipment on and off, and so forth.
In most instances those things fix your problems because you force the device software to reload, dump potential errors in the memory, and get (or give) new network assignments but not because you’ve really isolated what is wrong with your connection. The purpose of this guide is to help you narrow down exactly what is causing the problem so that you have the ability to monitor it in the future and be proactive in keeping your network running smoothly (and, most importantly, so that every time your Wi-Fi gets flaky you aren’t stuck in the reboot-everything-in-the-house loop). By narrowing things down you know whether to complain to your ISP to fix a problem beyond your control, troubleshoot your own router, tinker at the device level, or otherwise focus your attention.
“Help me fix my flaky Internet connection” is, by far and away, the most frequent call for help we get here at How-To Geek as well as the top number one request we get from friends and family. As much as we’d love to be able to precisely troubleshoot each of your specific network problems (because we do love fixing geeky problems big and small) that’s not something we can, alas, do on a reasonable scale.
What we can do, however, is distill the basics of Internet connection troubleshooting down to a simple workflow that can help anyone, no matter how inexperienced they might be, figure out where the weakest link in their home Internet connection is. The best way to find the weakest link is to start from the biggest of the links in the chain and work from there. Read on as we work from the largest and most critical components of the network down to the individual devices, offering troubleshooting insight as we go.
In addition to working from the biggest link to the smallest link, each section of the tutorial include a “Short Term Fix” and “Long Term Fix” section focused on what to do right now to fix your problem (potentially only temporarily depending on the severity) and what to do to ensure the problem doesn’t return (which might include calling the cable guy out to run line tests or replacing your router). In each section we’ll list the immediate steps near the top of the section and then further explain why we’re performing each step.
Troubleshooting Your Modem
Whether your broadband connection is fiber optic, cable, or DSL, the first stop is at the most critical point: the modem. This is the point where your home network is directly linked to the outside world and the last thing within your home you can manage and diagnose before you get into the territory of things that can only be fixed by your ISP (like weak signal strength on the line coming off the utility pole).
If you have no connectivity at the modem level then you’re effectively dead in the water until you (or your ISP) resolve it. As such the very first step in any connectivity troubleshooting routine is to establish that the proverbial tap is on and Internet access is flowing into your home.
It Helps to Understand What Your Modem’s Lights Mean
One of the most useful troubleshooting tricks, as it requires no particular skill or hassle of connecting or disconnecting equipment, is to simply have documentation on hand that tells you what the diagnostic lights on your modem mean. Whether you look up the modem model number yourself and print the relevant pages from the manual or look it up on your ISP’s website and print it from there, having a diagnostic sheet on hand is extremely valuable. It’s the difference between “What does the blinking globe mean?” and “The blinking globe means the modem has an established link with my ISP” or what have you.
Diagnostic lights only go so far though and to establish if your modem really is functioning properly it is very useful to directly connect an Ethernet-based device directly to the Ethernet port on your modem. While we would never recommend connecting your computer directly to the modem without some sort of firewall (such as the firewalls built into nearly every commercial router under the sun) for normal use, in this case we’re expressly trying to establish that the modem is functioning. You can use your regular computer or laptop, an old beater laptop you keep around just for testing purposes, or even a media device with a network adapter like an Amazon Fire TV, Apple TV, or even a Raspberry Pi.
The goal is to plug your device directly into the modem via the hardline of an Ethernet cable and establish a connection to the greater Internet. If you’re using an actual computer, be it a laptop or desktop, it’s best to use a very basic connectivity test such as pinging Google’s DNS servers. You can do so by opening up a command prompt, “cmd” in the run box, and typing “ping 126.96.36.199”. If you get a response then you know your modem is communicating with the outside world. For devices that you can’t easily send out a ping request, try performing a simple network connectivity test like prompting the device to check for software updates or loading a streaming video file. While performing the most basic test possible, like a ping, is ideal any method available to you is worthwhile.
The Short Term Fix
If you find that there is no connection between your modem and your ISP (because the connectivity test yields no positive result) the easiest short term solution is to fully disconnect your modem from the power source, the network cables, and the coax/fiber/cable that connects it to the actual utility line or drop attached to your house.
Step 1: Disconnect your modem entirely from the power and network cables (or at least just the power).
Step 2: Let the device sit for at least 30-60 seconds.
Step 3: Hook up all the network/utility cables and then the power cable.
These are very common directions when you call tech support — they always want you to leave the device unplugged for at least half a minute. But why?
The short of it is this: devices like modems, routers, and so on, have two types of memory: volatile and non-volatile RAM. The non-volatile RAM (usually referred to a NVRAM) is like a tiny little flash drive inside that stores important stuff like the device operating system and settings. The volatile memory is just like the memory on your computer: used for holding data while the device is in operation but it can’t hold data when the power is off. The reason you are told to keep the device off for at least half a minute is because the charge that keeps the little bits of data in the RAM can take that long to full dissipate and the goal is to have the memory totally clean when the device reboots.
When the modem is fully powered up, repeat the above test with your laptop or other Ethernet-enable device to establish that a direct connection between the modem and the greater Internet is possible. If it stays up and active, great. If it loses connectivity make a note of how long it stayed up as this information can be helpful for later troubleshooting.
The Long Term Fix
What if power cycling your modem doesn’t immediately solve your problem or the problem quickly returns? There’s a good chance something is wrong with your modem or the wiring leading up to the modem. You’ll need to contact your ISP and rule out problems on their side.
Step 1: Contact your ISP to determine if your modem needs to be remotely reset/reprovisioned.
Step 2: If using a cable modem, determine if the line is split excessively before entering the cable modem.
Step 3: Call a support rep out to test the signal strength at your home to determine if the problem is a weak signal or damaged cable.
Step 4: Barring any of the aforementioned problems, replace the modem.
They may need to remotely provision your modem, reset it, or make other adjustments (we once had a cable modem for three years that we later found out the cable company had never even formally linked to our account; tech support calls are full of mysteries).
One thing you can do on the street-to-modem side of things that will help is remove extra splitters if you have a cable modem; every time the line is split via splitter the signal strength is diminished by both the number of splitters and the number of splits within the splitter.
If your house was wired for cable in the late 20th century there’s a good chance they linked all the cable drops in the house to a monstrous 9-way splitter that is killing the strength of your signal. If you must use such a box to keep the TV signal flowing to various rooms, then we’d recommend using a simple 2-way splitter to branch the cable modem line off before then splitting it with the larger splitting for distribution throughout the house.
If neither you nor the remote support offered by your ISP can put your modem back between the navigational beacons then the next step is to have an ISP representative sent out to check on the actual line and ensure the connection has adequate signal strength at the point it enters your home and, potentially, to replace the modem. If you own your modem (and you should!) the replacement cost is on you but at least you know you’re getting a superior modem and not paying monthly rental fees. Replacing a modem isn’t fun (or cheap) but when our 7 year old cable modem finally bit the dust and we replaced it with a newer one the speed improvements and stability were worth every penny.
How to Troubleshoot Your Router
If your modem checks out OK but you’re still having connectivity issues the next suspect to investigate is your router. You can have the most stable modem in the world but if your router is constant freezing up or rebooting you’ll have a very difficult time with any modern broadband applications like gaming, streaming video, and so on.
Router problems are, by far and away, the most frustrating home network problems. Unlike your modem, which is almost always either fully functional or totally offline, routers can be like old cars with a myriad of problems and ghosts in the machine you have to hunt down.
The biggest thing to focus on when troubleshooting your router is to establish what works (starting with the basics like Ethernet-connected computers and working up to Wi-Fi connected devices) and how long they work before issues arise.
The Short Term Fix
Can you guess the first step? Grab an Ethernet-enabled device and connect it directly to your router. If you don’t have a single Ethernet-capable device in your household, you’ll need to conduct the test with Wi-Fi (but we strongly recommend using an Ethernet-based device). Why Ethernet? Wi-Fi is notoriously unstable compared to hardline connections and it’s very useful to see if the issue isn’t as much your entire router but the Wi-Fi related elements. We’ve owned and tested many a router over the years where the hardline side of stuff worked just fine but the Wi-Fi was flaky as could be.
Step 1: Connect a device directly to the router via Ethernet.
Step 2: Test for connectivity by pinging a common address like Google’s 188.8.131.52 DNS server or loading a web page.
Step 3: Power cycle router if necessary.
If you can’t get a hardline Ethernet connection and/or a wireless Wi-Fi connection, it’s time to restart it. Just like the broadband modem your router has volatile and non-volatile RAM. You need to disconnect your device from the power source (not just using the power switch if your router has one) for at least 30 seconds in order to allow all energy in the device to fully dissipate and the volatile memory to completely empty.
Power things back up and see if that restored connectivity. Again, like with your modem, if it loses connectivity after a period of time make a note of how long it was up.
The Long Term Fix
If your router seems to be giving you consistent problems that a simple power cycle didn’t iron out, it’s time to dig in a little deeper.
Step 1: Check for firmware updates.
Step 2: Reset your router (be sure to record the settings first).
Step 3: If the previous steps fail to resolve your issue then replace the router.
Your first order of business should be to check the firmware. If you’ve had your router for years and it doesn’t have automatic firmware updating, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re firmware is years out of date.
Not only do you want to update to take advantage of security patches but you want all those missing bug fixes that patch things like memory leaks and instability in the router operating system. Check the control panel of your router and/or the manufacturer website to update the firmware. Most modern routers have a built in check-for-updates function that will download and install the update if you approve it but older routers will require you to download the file yourself and upload it, much like uploading a file to a web site, to the router.
If your problems are Wi-Fi related we’d strongly encourage you to change your Wi-Fi channel. 2.4GHz band Wi-Fi is very congested and if you live in a fairly dense urban area it’s quite possible (and outright likely) that your Wi-Fi channel is conflicting with one or more of your neighbors’ routers. You can read more about how to change the router’s channel here.
The second order of business is to reset your router. This is different from power cycling the device and actually resets it back to the factory settings. While resetting a router is typically not necessary we’ve run into plenty of situations over the years where a stubborn error was only eradicated via hard reset. Before you perform such a reset, it’s important you know what settings were on the router so you can restore them later on. See our guide Clone Your Current Router for a Headache Free Router Upgrade to see what settings you should take the time to write down before performing the reset.
Finally if you find yourself struggling with router problems week after week you might want to consider upgrading to a newer router. We have the privilege of testing a wide range of modern and top-tier routers here at How-To Geek and let us tell you, routers like the Netgear R7000 and the D-Link DIR-890L are astoundingly stable and powerful when compared to the old 2000s-era routers some people are still using.
How to Troubleshoot Your Devices
Here’s where things can get a little maddening. Generally speaking it is fairly easy to iron out a modem problem, sort of easy to iron out a router problem, and often quite frustrating to iron out a problem with one particular device on your network. We had an iPhone 6, for example, that hated a particular router we tested. No other device seemed to care one way or the other but that particular iPhone 6 wouldn’t stay connected to the Wi-Fi access point for more than a few minutes at a time. Sometimes you simply find particular device is not a fan of your home network.
We can’t provide detailed advice on your particular device but we can offer some times for wrangling wayward devices back into the networking pen.
The Short Term Fix
Like in our previous sections, if you can hook a device up via hardline (to avoid any Wi-Fi issues) that’s great. We strive to hook as many of our devices up via Ethernet as possible so when and if Wi-Fi issues crop up we can watch our movie in peace or finish our work and deal with the Wi-Fi later.
Step 1: Hook the device up, if possible, directly to the router.
Step 2: Restart the device or otherwise force a new address assignment.
Whether connected by Wi-Fi or Ethernet, the first simple step is to restart. The reason restarting a device almost always gets you a short (or even long term) bit of relief from networking problems is thanks almost entirely to DHCP, the dynamic address assignment service used by your router (and the cooperating devices) to get a unique local network IP address. When you reboot the device you force both the router and the device to go through the assignment process and often resolve any issues.
On computers you can force the networking component of the OS to request a new assignment without rebooting. The easiest way to do this in Windows, for example, is to open up the command prompt and enter the command “ipconfig /release” to dump the assigned address and then “ipconfig /renew” to force an update in which the computer will request a new address from the router.
Long Term Device Troubleshooting
Rebooting and forcing DHCP assignment is a short term trick but often times you need to tweak your network a little more permanently. If you’re having recurring problems with devices dropping off your network (and you’ve ruled out Wi-Fi congestion as the source of your headaches) you might find it useful to start assigning static IP addresses to your device. Select an address outside the pool used by the DHCP server (check your router to see what that pool is) and then assign it to the device using your router’s control panel.
Step 1: Assign static IP addresses.
Step 2: Change the Wi-Fi band the device uses.
Another trick that works well for Wi-Fi devices that can handle both 2.4GHz and 5Ghz bands is to switch the device permanently to the one band or the other (with a preference for the lest congested 5Ghz band). In order to do so you need to assign a unique SSID to each band so you can select one over the other (and force your device to forget the password for the band you don’t want it to use). For example if your current SSID is “StevesHouse”, leave it as “StevesHouse” for 2.4GHz and rename the 5GHz radio “StevesHouse5G” with a different password. All your devices will still be on the same network but you can segregate them between the two bands more easily.
Troubleshooting network gear isn’t exactly fun work but at least with our guide you’ve got a clear workflow and a clear outcome: stable and enjoyable internet access.
Have a network troubleshooting tip or trick? Jump to our discussion forum with the link below and share your wisdom. Have a question about home networking hardware? Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image courtesy of Chauncey Davis.