Why Does Your Internet Connection Randomly Stop Working? (Guest Blog)

Why Does Your Internet Connection Randomly Stop Working? (Guest Blog)

By Vasco Costa On 03/14/2022

During recent times, with videoconference classes or meetings and most of us working from home, few situations cause more sense of urgency than hearing a "Dad, the Wi-Fi is down!" cry, maybe only topped by "Honey, the Wi-Fi is down!". Having problems with your internet connection is no longer a minor inconvenience and it's now a major impediment to our daily life.

We immediately start investigating the problem and most of us will begin with the usual suspect, switching on and off the router, but much of the time it won't solve the issue. There are a lot of reasons why your internet connection may stop. So where to begin?

There's a guide in the networking world, "start troubleshooting from Layer 1", which means that you start with the hardware:

  • Are all the units powered on?
  • Are all the cables properly connected?
  • Is the cabling functioning properly?
  • If your router or access point has external antennas, are they securely fastened?

Sometimes the issue might be as simple as a cable that, for some reason, is disconnected or, even worse, a "strangled" cable. While a disconnected cable is fairly easy to detect and solve, a strangled cable might be harder. For instance, a cable might have a few centimeters under a TV cabinet leg or smashed against a wall or even with a cable strap much to tighten, or your house pet chewed something that it shouldn't. All of these might cause your network to have a random behavior, depending on the pressure that is done to the cable.

If your equipment has external antennas, check if they are properly attached.

So, if everything is powered correctly and the cabling is ok, let's look into the wireless signal. It's best to start near the wireless router or access point and verify that the signal is being broadcasted. Grab your network equipment and try to connect to the Wi-Fi:

  • Is your network being broadcast?
  • Can you associate with your network?

If not, the problem is most likely with your wireless source. You might try to reset the power of your equipment. If the equipment is leased from the Internet provider, you may need to call them to see if they can solve it remotely or if you have to replace your equipment. However, if the answer to both questions was positive, check the status of the signal in all areas that are required.

Ideally, your Wi-Fi signal should be above the -68 dBm mark, you may have fairly decent communication at -72 dBm for common Internet access and if you are not using it for voice or real-time video. Below that level, you'll probably get signal coverage issues and need to consider alternatives, like adding another access point or extender (mesh extender, for example). Signal extenders should only be used as the very last resort and be avoided at all costs because those solutions may use significant portions of the bandwidth just to keep their wireless links with each other (the extenders and the main wireless router). However, if you have a tri-radio router and implement multi-radio extenders or mesh nodes, they may be able to use one channel for the "network" and another for end device access.

So, how can we measure the Wi-Fi signal and check if you have enough coverage?

If you have a laptop, you can check the stats of your wireless interface, or install a wireless measuring tool, like WinFi Lite. If you have an android smartphone, you can install a wireless signal measuring app, like "WiFiman", or if you have an Apple device, you can install the "Airport" app and use it to scan the signal strength.

While you are measuring your network, you will also be able to measure neighboring networks and see if they can affect your network. It's almost impossible not to be affected by an external 2.,4 GHz so you should try to use the 5 GHz spectrum as much as possible. There are more channels to use and a lot fewer interfering networks in most residential locations (though this is far less true in apartment complexes – even still, 5 GHz is usually better and 6 GHz is even better, though your end devices will not likely support it in the near term).

If everything is ok with the coverage, how about network usage? When you had network problems, how many users were connected to your Wi-Fi and what are they using it for?

As a personal experience, four different videoconferences, plus two VPN connections and an iPad playing YouTube videos will probably make the communications on your ISP router choppy because that router wasn't built for such traffic processing demand. If you have high traffic demand you should check with your ISP if you can upgrade your wireless router, like upgrading for one that supports Wi-Fi 6, or better yet, install an additional access point to take the burden of the Wi-Fi traffic and leave your ISP router to handle other aspects of your home network. Or even better still, don't use the ISP wireless component at all, simply connect a far superior Wi-Fi router to the Ethernet port on the ISP's router.

So, the wired is fine, the coverage is there, not many users are connected, but sometimes there are still network problems. What else could be affecting your network? Maybe you're having wireless interference problems.

There are a lot of home wireless routers that only support 2.,4 GHz communications. One of the problems with that range is that, since it's cheap and has a longer range than 5 GHz, most of the manufacturers use those channels in a variety of different types of equipment:

  • Do you have a baby monitor?
  • Do you have a wireless video camera?
  • Do communications fail when someone is using a microwave oven?
  • Is there any motion detector of an alarm system?

All the previous, and more, may have a large impact on the 2.,4 GHz signals but there are other sources of interference. Unfortunately, to fully identify the interference you need a spectrum analyzer.

You might have an access point that can analyze and report the radio frequency status. Usually, this is shown in cloud-based solution access points but keep in mind that the results of these reports are based on the place where the access point is installed. A little bit of interference near the access point doesn't mean that there isn't something severely affecting the signal near the user.

And then there's also passive interference:

Is your wireless source closed inside a cabinet? Or over the ceiling? Think of wireless propagation as sound. If you have a speaker over the ceiling or closed inside a cabinet would you hear it as well?

Metal is also a nuisance for Wi-Fi propagation:

Do you have mirrored windows?
Is there a lot of metal between the access point and the users? Like metal cabinets, large fridges, armored walls.

Are any of your walls are painted with magnetic or metallic paint? While rare, it could be an issue.

And then, there is also another possibility. You might have some naughty neighbor that is doing some nasty stuff to your Wi-Fi, like a deauthentication flood attack, which is having external wireless equipment pose as your network and starts sending de-authentication packets to your users. It would be like your neighbor sneaking into your house, disguised as you, and then saying to everybody to get out. Everyone will stop what they are doing, leave your house and ring your bell until you let them all in again. As soon as they are back into your house, your sneaky neighbor will again say to them to get out of "his" house. And everyone will be leaving again and ringing at your door, and so on, and so on.
These are very hard to catch if you don't have the proper tools or knowledge. Maybe you can be fortunate enough to have an access point that can detect and report these attacks. Again, cloud-based solution access points can usually detect and report those situations.

Ok, at this point, we checked the local infrastructure, checked the coverage and interferences so let's check the integrity of your internet connection. Use your network equipment to check if you're getting an IP address. (NOTE: You might do this first, but if you have a wired device that connects to the Internet, such as a desktop computer, and it is working fine, the main Internet connection is not likely the problem.)

  • Do you have an IP address?
  • Can you ping your gateway?
  • Do you have DNS?

Check your network stats and verify that you have a proper IP address. If you don't have a proper IP, try to register again to your home network (restart the ISP's router). If that also fails, try to reset your DHCP server, the vast majority of the time it's your home router so you will have done this in the previous step, but if you're using something different, restart it. If that also fails, check the DHCP configuration or call your ISP provider.

If you do have a proper IP address, try to ping a public site like nasa.com or google.com. If that fails, try ping a well-known public IP address like 8.8.8.8. If that works, then there may be an issue with the DNS that you have configured so you might try using public DNS servers, like 8.8.4.4 or 8.8.8.8. But if a ping to a public IP address fails, then it's either in the path between your home router and the ISP or something in the ISP itself.

Also, what exactly are you trying to connect to? Because not being able to post something on social media doesn't mean that the network is down.

It can also be an outage on the ISP service that you are trying to use.

When this happens, the common issue is a cut in the path to your ISP. Someone might have disconnected your connection in your street/building distribution panel or it can also be something in the street. There's a reason why backhoes are also called "cable finders" and if you work in networking you would probably already experience or hear of a situation where the network cable was cut by works done by heavy construction equipment.

The issue can also be with the ISP infrastructure. They can be experiencing some issues in their backbone network or their client management system. In the last few years, there have been several cases of ISPs being affected by malicious hacking events.

Just one more thing, be patient and helpful when you call your ISP. The first people that will take your call will most surely be working at a call center and, not only they are instructed to follow a script, they are evaluated on how well they follow it. Please keep this in mind and when they ask you a question, be as clear and short as possible in your answers.

Also, don't be an entitled person just because you think you might be more tech-savvy than the people on the other side of the call (particularly after reading this post). You might think that you have already checked all the buttons and knobs but you might have overlooked something during your troubleshooting process. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes might be all that was needed to identify the problem.

Tagged with: wireless, internet, connection, troubleshooting, wi-fi, network, IP address, ISP
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