Home & Office

Slow Wi-Fi? 8 ways to speed up your home office network

If the coronavirus has you stuck at home for work or health reasons, your internet connection is your lifeline to the world. Here's how to get the most from your home network.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Now that you need your internet connection for work, video-conferencing, and Netflix, it's time to tune up your home network. 

No such thing as enough bandwidth

First things first, you're going to need all the bandwidth you can get. Sure, 20Mbps is enough for Hulu at night, but chances are while you're working, the kids are watching Disney+, your partner's also at work, and grandpa is in a hot online poker game. You'll need a faster internet connection. I recommend a minimum of 30Mbps for working from home. 

Also: The best Wi-Fi routers in 2020 CNET

You can often improve your speed just by calling your ISP and asking for a faster tier of service. Yes, it will cost more, but, trust me, you'll need all the speed you can get. In addition, you can try talking to your boss to see if corporate will spring for an increase -- or, since many of you are working from home for the first time, see if it can foot the entire bill. 

If you're using mobile data for your home office internet connection, you may be in for a pleasant surprise. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has asked ISPs to lift their data caps and open up their Wi-Fi hotspots to everyone.

How much internet broadband do you have? 

Let's see how much speed you have to work with, shall we? You can do this with the popular Speedtest. Try running it when everything else is idle on your computer you're using for the test and on your network. This gives you your download speed, upload speed, and ping to the closest test site. Armed with this information you can get a good grip on improving your connection.

Placing your Wi-Fi router

It's a little thing, but putting your router in the right place can make a big performance difference. Generally speaking, you want your Wi-Fi access point (AP) in a high, centralized location. That's why many offices place their routers in the ceiling. You'll also want to keep your AP away from walls.

Of course, that's a general rule. To know precisely where your AP should go, place your AP in a likely spot and then measure your signal strength where you'll be using your computers, tablets, Roku boxes, and so on to make sure these devices are getting the best possible signal.

To do that, I use Network Analyzer Pro on Android to survey my devices' locations. If your equipment is already in place, I recommend using NetSpot on Windows PCs and Macs and LinSSID for Linux. Armed with this information, you can then move your AP to where it provides the strongest signal to all your gadgets.

Disclosure: ZDNet may earn an affiliate commission from some of the products featured on this page. ZDNet and the author were not compensated for this independent review.

Notice how I'm focusing on standalone Wi-Fi APs instead of mesh Wi-Fi devices. That's because while mesh gear, such as Nest WiFiNetgear Orbi 6, or Netgear Orbi, are great for easily covering a large area in your home, in my experience a great standalone Wi-Fi router, such as a D-Link AC1750 or Linksys EA8500, will beat them when it comes to sheer speed. 

Wi-Fi alternatives

You can, of course, always use a standard ethernet switch and cables to connect your hardware. Unfortunately, it's never very pretty. On the other hand, it will also give you the fastest network connection. 

Another approach you might try rather than mesh in a large modern home is powerline networking. With powerline networking, you use your existing electrical wiring in place of traditional ethernet wiring. This doesn't work well in older homes, but in newer ones, you can often get faster than Wi-Fi speeds or use an easy way to place fast Wi-Fi APs on different levels of the house without paying the mesh performance penalty. If you want to give this approach a try, look at the TP-LINK Powerline AC TL-WPA8630 or the NetGear Powerline 2000

With my very large house, I use all these approaches. For most of you, just pick one and you'll be good to go. 

Picking the right channel

Sticking with Wi-Fi? In that case, you need to find the fastest channel. Wi-Fi sends and transmits its data via channels. On the 2.4Ghz range, there are 11 20Mhz channels, while 5GHz offers 23 20MHz channels. These channels overlap with each other. So, for example, on 2.4Ghz, the only channels that don't interfere with each other are 1, 6, and 11.

If the only Wi-Fi APs in range of your home or office are under your control, you can just pick out the ones you want. Unfortunately, that's seldom the case.

You must scan your local Wi-Fi with the tools I mentioned above to see which channels are free and which are occupied. To scan your local wireless space, you can also use WifiInfoView on Windows. On a Mac, it's built-in. To use it, hold the Option key and click the Wi-Fi icon on the menu bar at the top of your screen and select "Open Wireless Diagnostics." Then, select Utilities, open Wi-Fi Scan, and click Scan Now. With an Android phone, I like the simple Wifi Analyzer. It makes it very easy to see which channels have a traffic jam, and which don't.

Update your router's firmware

The good Wi-Fi hardware vendors are always updating and patching their firmware. Some of that is to block security problems, but many of them are also trying to squeeze a little more speed from their gear.

If your vendor is no longer upgrading their equipment's firmware, you may want to upgrade to an alternative open-source firmware. These tend to give you better performance and far more control of your Wi-Fi AP. Two I like are DD-WRT and OpenWRT. But, fair warning, you should be a power user before trying either option. Neither are for technology novices. 

Upgrade your router

Most people though will want to simply upgrade their network equipment. Your Wi-Fi network is only as fast as the standards it supports. So, for instance, if your laptops support 802.11ac, but your AP only supports 802.11n -- or vice-versa -- you won't see any performance boost. To get the most from Wi-Fi, you need all your equipment supporting the fastest practical standard. 

Note I said "practical." For example, while Wi-Fi 6 is the new high-speed wireless standard, a lot of machines still don't support it. Money spent on an expensive new Wi-Fi 6 router may be money wasted if none of your laptops support it. 

That said, our old 802.11n router may still be working fine, but it's likely to choke on the demands it's facing now. It's time to upgrade.

For today's best new gear, check out this recent ZDNet router list. For my money, I'd get the Netgear Nighthawk Smart Wi-Fi router (R7000) or D-Link EXO AC3000 Tri-band Wi-Fi router

Quality of Service

Today's routers come with Quality of Service (QoS) settings. This enables you to determine how much bandwidth a given class of application can use. Make use of these. 

For example, if you frequently use Google Hangouts for video-conferencing, you don't want your call hiccuping because someone else in the house is watching Altered Carbon on Netflix in 4K. 

QoS settings are usually found in the AP's network's administrator interface under advanced settings. Some APs, such as Apple's, offer a generic setting. Apple's is WMM (Wi-Fi Multimedia), which prioritizes network traffic according to four access categories: Voice, video, best effort, and background. Others offer a multimedia or gaming setting.

While you're better off with QoS controls that give you more precision, any control will help you make sure your high-bandwidth applications get the speed they need.

Put all these methods together and you'll find your network works better for you than ever -- which is a darn good thing because you'll need your home network to work better than it ever has before.

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