ISP Incompetence –  Why It Matters To You (And Your Home Network)

Today I am about to explore a uniquely first world problem. Normally, I don’t like to delve much into my first world problems anymore, viewing such hindrances to my existence as more of a privilege than a huge burden (not to mention the whole peanuts to what REALLY matters argument).But in this case, being that we have a situation that overlaps into a long neglected area of interest of mine (IT and technology), its a welcome distraction. Not to mention that having the  fix to the issue be fairly transparent certainty does not help.

Without further ado, the problem. How it came to matter to me. And how I fixed it, as well as how it can be fixed on a larger scale.

For years now, I have had a wifi network in my house. First, my own router tethered to a modem (be it cable or DSL), then an ISP prescribed modem slash router as part of an all in 1 unit (common in many homes today). And for years, I have never had any problems with connectivity.

Until around 6 months to a year ago.

Starting then at some point, I would see my connection slow to a crawl inexplicably. Though I pay for (and generally had gotten previously!) very close to  12 Mbps down/3 Mbps up (you will almost never reach those speeds EXACTLY, but upper 11’s and 2’s is more than acceptable). Seemingly out of nowhere, my whole connection would slow to a crawl. If I was watching YouTube, it would stop dead in the buffering stage. If I grabbed another device and ran a speed test, I would get pebbles in both directions (eg. 0.8 down/0.3 up). This issue could occur at literally any time (4am or 4pm!), and it happened frequently enough to finally warrant a call my ISP. Being that I was also having problems with TV channels pixelating (at times, all at the same time), I guessed that maybe my gateway box was not getting the incoming signal strength it required for proper function.
This based on the case of a friend that lived on the edge of town who was having similar problems with the very same setup as me (we also shared the same ISP). For my friend, the only way he could resolve the issue was by switching to the competing DSL ISP at my recommendation.

So I called tech support.

Slightly off-topic, if you (like me) are bored enough to find yourself looking up the dynamics of how many of these IT systems work, do not mention this to the techs. I don’t know if it’s because of the technical degree they had to pay for to qualify for the job, or because they spend most of their time these days dealing with old people that have WAY more complex technology than they even know how to fathom, but they generally aren’t at all receptive to explaining technical details of these systems. They don’t even like helping steer you in the right direction (“Actually, no sir, what is more common. . .”). They will often simply read you a prescribed script, often with a slightly annoyed tone (be it deliberate or not).

– an older friend of the family was having a landline installed, to which he plugged an old 5ghz cordless phone into as the primary receiver. Knowing that many modern wifi installations also utilize that spectrum, I asked if there would be a problem if either of his neighbors were to install 5ghz wifi systems (being 2016, it’s a very real possibility!). The technician somewhat condescendingly replied “No. They are 2 different things”.

A later Google search revealed that such a collision could occur, but I determined that the effects would likely be minimal to everyone involved (neighboring wifi would simply park on a less noisy channel). Though that 5ghz cordless has now been retired, both neighbors now have dual band wifi AND my friend has a 5ghz television sharing device operating in the house.

Imagine that.

Though I had initially assumed my pixilation slash internet dropout problems were related, it took a 2ed call before I was actually told otherwise. Though there was another issue entirely happening on the TV side that the first tech SHOULD have known about, he didn’t pass it on for whatever reason. Maybe I annoyed him?  

Anyway, after a few calls, I at some point discovered the potential problem that is wifi interference (be it mentioned by a tech, or discovered in my online research, I don’t recall). I found an app called Wifi Analyzer (android) which displays every detectable network in the area along with the channel(s) its using.

My network is Arris-4EB1, MTS 799 being my downstairs neighbor. When I first ran this app, I was on channel 1 (likely the equipment default). Here I had connectivity, but it at times slowed to a crawl. We’re talking 15 minutes to open a basic web page!

My ISP then (as noted above) changed me to channel 11. However, there was so much interference caused by the networks stepping on one another, that my connection vaporized barely 20 feet away.

I solved this problem by figuring out how to change these settings myself in the gateway (saves a phone call!) and went to channel 6. Which seemed to smooth everything out.

However, I realized that the real solution to my problem was likely getting off of 2.5GHZ entirely. Something that my cable provider said was possible with my equipment (dual-band, but only 1 at a time, not both). And like magic, this solved all my connection issues. In no small part due to this:

But, as in most areas of life (or tech support!), solving one problem creates a whole new one. While my fairly new phone was more than happy to utilize the new 5GHZ network,  my tablet (apparently a relic of the past) was not so compatible. Which meant that I could either accept a newly mono connected device lifestyle, or shift back to 2.5GHZ.

No, I thought. I can have my cake AND eat it too! I still had an older 2.5Ghz Dlink router lying around, so why not make use of it!

As with any journey, trial and error were at first, fruitless. From day 1, I had issues with getting this damned router to actually pass on the internet. And this time was no different. Keep in mind, this was after figuring out how to get into a locked router that I had long forgotten/discarded the passcode to (Hint: hold reset for 10 seconds).

So, back on the line with oh so helpful tech support. To be fair, they did explain my problem this time, more or less. You can not connect a router to a router since routers generally all default to the IP Address 192.168.0.1 . Having 2 routers connected means 2 different devices are claiming that IP, causing a conflict. A bit like assigning the same telephone number to 2 different lines.

At this point, the tech went into a long spiel about being unfamiliar with Dlink hardware, saying I would have to call Dlink and go through the advanced process of changing the router’s IP address. But, if I want, the company rents a dual-band unit that will solve my problem for only $4.95 a month.

I will think about it, I told him.

I did some more web searching. Which was when I learned the term wifi access point. Such devices (sometimes old routers!) can be used to extend a home or organization’s wifi network beyond the reach of its main node. But then comes the question of, can I configure that myself?

Yes . And it’s so simple that anyone can do it!

A method typically used to extend a networks range, I used it to extend to another band. And saved myself around $60 bucks a year in the process.

And so, the 2.5GHZ map of my area now looks like this. Jaynet is me.

Though the good channel used to be 6, most of the crowding has shifted, making the new preferable channel 11. Since this will no doubt change with time due to automatic switching and even more new networks, I will keep my eye on it. Both for the sake of my network, and everyone around me.

This is where one might ask the question “What does my network have to do with anyone else but those who use it?“. For this, one needs to look at how this technology works.

Governments worldwide have allocated a small amount from both the 2.5 and the 5GhZ spectrum for unlicensed use. For 2.5GHZ, 11 channels are available in North America (up to 14 elsewhere). For 5GHZ, about 20 are technically available for use, but some within the spectrum (52-116, 132-140) also share usage with military/weather radar. Since such get primary access to that given channel, a router on this frequency is required to shift all traffic to another when a conflict is detected. But this still leaves 8 non-overlapping channels to choose from.

Why does it matter?

I have seen the effects of both extremes. If you are sitting on a channel utilized by many networks around you (channel 1, where I live), everyone’s performance will be affected by every single device within range trafficking one another for bandwidth. Most notable for me in the evening hours (likely when many are streaming or gaming!), the internet becomes worse than dial-up. However, shift a channel or 2 either way, and instead of problem solved, you lose performance entirely. It may be an open channel, but it’s being stepped on by those around it. Which is why “non-overlapping” is so important.

In this respect, the telecom industry as a whole has failed. From Telcos to manufacturers, no one seems to have considered the potential problems of assigning wifi channels in a largely uncoordinated fashion in densely populated areas. And the most insidious part about this problem is that many (most?) consumers likely have no idea that this problem even exists.

In an old forum post I once read, a writer was complaining about some carelessly setting up home networks without taking all factors into consideration (for example, putting a network on channel 4, which will add interference on channels 1 and 6). That was some years ago, and involving private networks. Let’s look at how techs are programming  (or at very least, LEAVING) many networks today.

It’s a recycled image from before, but still good for the purpose. Alike most areas by now (I would guess), few user deployed networks remain (maybe 4). Everything else is Telco. Many of which are stomping all over one another.

As for the 5ghz side, my slice is good.

But what’s happening on the reverse side of the spectrum is just stupid.

I have no idea why some of these network footprints on both bands are so wide (using multiple channels?).

I’ve since learned that this new standard is called channel bonding. The principal being that bonding 2 or more wifi channels into 1 large one increases ones data throughput. Since channels are 20mhz wide, bonding 2 gives you 40mhz, 4 gives you 80mhz (examples of this can be seen above), and 5 gives you a huge 100mhz tunnel. Though I have never seen implemented (nor been presented the option for, thank goodness!) a 100mhz wifi tunnel, 40 and 80mhz defaults are common for many telco routers. I’ve even seen 40mhz tunnels implemented on the already crowded 2.4ghz spectrum. Whilst it is questionable if this was the default behavior, it still makes one shake their head in annoyance. As if routers parking on cross channels wasn’t bad enough.

Bonding is not bad when there is lot of room for movement (the 5 GHZ band), but not so much on 2.4. But overall, its a bit hilarious that all the networks depicted above effectively cancel out the whole point the 5GHZ band, by being on the exact same channel.

With the shortened range of 5ghz wifi, I may indeed be wrong here (particularly since this reading was taken from a 2ed floor balcony. They may not have been able to detect one another, despite my ability to detect them).

Yet, its not hilarious, really. Not if one considers the technical ignorance of likely a majority of users. It is entirely possible that all 4 network owners above are not even aware that they are in conflict with one another. 3 can be attributed to telco techs. Though the 4th is likely a home installed unit, it could also be a default installation by a novice user. Or an old customized setting that was good at one time, but has since unknowingly become inadequate due to changes in channel saturation.

When it comes to 2.5GHZ in my area, most of the private (as opposed to telco supplied) networks are legacy, the majority of those being on non-overlapping channels (typically 1 or 6). While not always the rule of thumb, it’s typically telco units that not only completely saturate selected non-overlapping channels but also set up in between non-overlapping channels. At times as close as a single channel apart.

One example of this from my area is many networks being on both 6 and 1 (likely factory defaults in many cases),  but also a few single networks running on channels 2, 4 and 5. These telco units (big surprise!) are not just being stepped on by the noise from 1 and 6 (and of course, each other!), but they add to the noise in general. So not only are 1 and 6 crowded, but they are also noisy too. 11 used to be as noisy (uncrowded, but stomped on), but those networks have either vanished or moved. Good riddance (at least for now).

How we got to this point, is not much different from what drives the ever-increasing problem of lack of available bandwidth online. Poor planning in the early stages.

In the case of bandwidth, the number of bandwidth intense platforms increased over time, but the size of the broadband pipes available to consumers often didn’t keep up. Similarly, as wifi proliferation expanded, those charged with its deployment were obviously more focused on profitability than on ensuring continuous reliability for all users of the technology. Rather than training techs on good wifi deployment techniques, or designing a partially (or fully!) automated system of frequency separation, these entities just continue to dump units onto the market. And now, because of all this 2.5GHZ wifi interference, ISP’s are now pushing both duel band and 5GHZ routers.

With current-generation equipment likely to be around for many years to come, things will only get worse. We do have the 5GHZ band (and possibly more bands being opened up in the future), but if they are treated in the same way as 2.5GHZ has been, they will also become unusable in NO time.

An obvious answer to this problem would be manual (or more likely, automatic) coordination of all wifi networks within line of sight of one another. A great example of this type of coordination of a limited spectrum would be cellular networks. As illustrated by the following graphic.

As is depicted, the carrier can easily work with a small amount of spectrum, with some coordination. There are likely more than 4 frequencies available in reality, but you get the idea.

Now,  could this concept help solve the wifi crisis?

I think the answer is yes. In the same way that smart grids will streamline electricity usage at all levels, Smart routers could streamline channel separation on all bands.  When activated, units would no longer just jump to some preset default, or scan for an empty channel. They would (must!)  communicate and coordinate with others in the area. If all routers in a given area (even in an EXTREMELY crowded area, like an apartment building) were to work around one another’s networks, it may be possible to not just smooth out the ride for everyone, but also to make all 11 2.5GHZ channels non-overlapping.

Other factors may also have to be self-regulated (such as broadcast power levels). And such coordination may require the creation of an outside database that all units are guided by initially, and continuously. But the plus side is that it’s not just left up to often novice humans to manage (or as often is the case, mismanage) precious spectrum.

Until then, however, there is not a whole lot you can do other than managing as best you can.

If you’re having wifi problems, first, know your channel and that of those in your area. For Android, use Wifi Analyzer. For PC, use inSSIDer. Using such, try and find a channel that is both non-overlapping and fairly unsaturated. If that is hardly an option, consider if 5GHZ is a good alternative. However, remember that not all your devices may be compatible (though that is easy enough to remedy), and that 5GHZ has a shorter range than 2.5GHZ.

And lastly, as seemingly backwards as this advice may sound (from a tech perspective) if it can be wired in, do it. Though Ethernet is not always the handy option (and possibly may even be considered unsightly), nothing beats its reliability (or security, as a bonus).

Since I switched to 5Ghz back in 2016 (when this was initially published, before I retracted it in July 2020 to make some long-awaited edits), I have not had an issue with wifi connectivity since. Though I now run a dual-band ISP supplied router that defaults to an 80 MHz channel on 5ghz (imagine that!), I’ve since switched back to a smaller 20mhz  channel (since my internet speed couldn’t utilize 80mhz, to begin with!). This is beneficial since it opens up more channels for use than any of the bonded options.

My new unencumbered 5ghz channel of choice?

165.

Since it is at the uppermost edge of the 5ghz spectrum, I’ve yet to have anyone else’s 80mhz monstrosities step on my toes again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.