Direct from I.T.: Why is my Wireless Internet Slow?

We in IT have been getting some questions about the speed of network access on campus, specifically on the wireless network, and would like to take a little bit of time to explain some of the technical challenges that we encounter, what we have been doing to try to address the problems, and what you as a network user can do to help yourself and others.

One of the biggest challenges that we face is the sheer number of wireless devices that are present on campus. On a home network, there may be a dozen wireless devices throughout the house, but on campus we have in excess of 3000 which may be trying to access the network at any given time. If you consider that a typical resident may have any combination of devices including phones, laptops, tablets, printers, gaming systems and TVs, all with wireless capabilities, the numbers can grow rather quickly. That is why when a device is relatively stationary, such as a gaming system or TV, we require a wired connection if it is available on the system. Even for systems that don’t have wired capability built in, many times there are inexpensive adapters that you can purchase to allow a wired connection. Wireless is definitely convenient for mobility, but a wired connection will always provide better, faster and more reliable service.

Radio frequency (RF) interference is another fairly large problem that is helpful to understand. Wireless network devices operate on RF, but there are other devices that use those same frequencies and can compete for the airspace that they use. Wireless game controllers, cordless phones, and certain wireless keyboards and mice all use RF to communicate and add to the RF “noise” that may inhibit other wireless device communication. Some other unexpected environmental interference can come from fluorescent lights, microwave ovens, and large metal objects that all can have a negative impact on wireless performance.

Aside from the potential security risks, the use of routers on the network is prohibited in order to prevent speed and connectivity issues as well. We have a large central router that handles all of the network communication on campus, and introducing other small routers in the residential spaces can cause great network disruption. Basically, when one of these “rogue” routers pops up, other devices that are close to it begin to send network communication to it, and since the router has not been configured to know about the rest of the network, nor is it in the right physical location to be able to properly relay the signal, then the data get dropped with a result of not being able to access anything on the network. In addition, a router’s wireless capability can add to the aforementioned RF noise and disrupt the campus network’s wireless signal.

What have we been doing to help with these issues? We have been seeking out rogue routers and requiring them to be shut down, encouraging people to use wired connections instead of wireless when possible, and looking for sources of interference that we can eliminate.

What can you do? Help us to help you. Plug in when you can, get rid of your routers, and be aware of environmental interference. Tell your friends, and encourage them to do the same. If you still have issues, please make use of our help desk on the first floor of Hoover Library and be ready with as much information as you can about the problem including time(s) it is occurring, type of device you are using, and whether others in your area are having similar problems.

Hopefully this has helped to provide some understanding of our wireless network and how, together, we can make it better.