Friday, March 14, 2014

WiFi Woes

Wi-Fi problems lead my list of computer complaints from seniors. I cannot begin to address all of them and but offer some guidance here, having found it scarce elsewhere.


Why are these problems occurring and increasing so fast, and what can we do about them?

The problems are increasing as growing use of tablets has greatly expanded the need for reliable internet service and WiFi, inasmuch as tablets are mostly useless without WiFi.

Cheap Chromebook laptops are also now getting used widely in place of Windows for ease of use and low cost but are crippled without WiFi. With decent WiFi they work beautifully. Businesses and schools are now adopting them. None of this equipment can work unless WiFi is well maintained by technically competent people.   Wi-Fi MUST have strong support to work well.

Meanwhile the discontinuance of XP is sending many more users to tablets and Chromebooks. Those with laptops may find their Wifi performance limited without add on external antennas. For me it took a plugin USB antenna with a new Windows 8.1 laptop, plus a repeater, to work.

Those with older tower computers often find it necessary to use WiFi so as to place them conveniently away from cable outlets.

What Goes Wrong

 Senior users frequently have very limited ability to deal with the intricacies.

WiFi is often unreliable. Often it is performing poorly or slow, sometimes without their awareness. Web pages need to snap up quickly, even in a brand new under $300 Windows 8.1 touch laptop. The provider often is just not buying enough "pipeline" capability to handle its users and its service slows down to a crawl.  If your computer works fine in the middle of the night and slow during the day, this is the case.  Or it may be that your laptop has a weak internal Wi-Fi antenna and needs an external antenna.  If your tablet works well, that is probably the case.

It is no wonder that seniors are put off from learning to use computers. This denies them important capabilities, such as access to medical records, banking, shopping, and communications with the outside world, especially as mobility decreases.  It disconnects them with the world.

WiFi is variable in public places. Often it is not well maintained. Sometimes it is turned off at some point daily and turned on later . It may be very slow. It may not be able to handle too many users. It may work well in one part of a larger room and poorly in another. The further you are from it, the slower it is, of course.

In your own home WiFi needs to be set up properly. Here the setup of equipment requires a technical expert. It is NOT acceptable just to plug in equipment and expect it to work safely or well. Who is checking signal strength with a signal strength meter?  Who is checking channel and other RF interference with a professional spectrum analyzer? Need dual band?  Who certified the installer and hardware?    (Note: Comcast does it all. )

The failures occur along a long pipeline to Internet dependent upon competency all along the way. All it takes is for one person to cripple access. It is all too typical for such a someone to deny responsibility and pass the buck to the senior. Also, you may need such hardware as a repeater and or other equipment such as a USB external antenna for a laptop with an internal antenna. I needed both. (On the other hand, my smartphone/tablet required no support and no such equipment, being linked to the cell phone data network.)

What to do?

In public places there are several options. In built up areas where there are many cell towers you may be able to access internet through a hot box or a combined cell phone/ hotbox capability in one of the newer phones. Some new plans offer inexpensive capabilities. The smartphone should be unlocked so that if one service fails you can use another. You will want a provider which offers good cell phone data service. Here I have used FreedomPop or T-Mobile data service with a phone which can also access and deliver internet service almost anywhere locally.

 Such services can handle most senior needs exclusive of internet video such as Netflix. I should mention that I had no problems at all with either of the above. Service is available wherever I am, including at home. No hardware nor support is required. For those shedding PCs for the convenience of a tablet for most of their computer needs this is ideal.

As I do more and more internet access wherever I am, the T-Mobile solution is good. My phone looks for nearby WiFi wherever available and shifts to cell data where not. Remember that there are not always cell towers nearby.

At home you will probably need a provider which offers support. Here we have Windstream and Comcast. It may be well to have a service contract from Comcast which covers everything.

If you use another service, you are on your own and you will need to determine what you will need for support. Ideally you will want one place to go for it. It may be expensive. It may be unreliable or slow, anyway.

Your job is to know what to expect, understand how to find and use or avoid hardware, understand enough about security, program a router safely or find a pro who can do it for you. Typically that runs about $90 just to set you up. It requires setting of security and of channels to avoid conflicts.

When things go wrong you will also need someone to troubleshoot the problem so that the provider cannot deny responsibility and leave you holding the bag. Major problems are all almost always with the provider. It is best to have one place to go.  Sometimes turning off your router for 1-10 minutes will correct the problem, but if that is needed too often, your WiFi provider has some work to do at the DNS server.

If one party is providing Internet service and another your hardware support, it is up to you to determine which one you need for any given problem. Either may ascribe responsibility to the other anyway.

Over time, hopefully things will get better as indeed they already have for cell phone based data service. I would rather have seniors learning to use the vast resources of Internet than have them constantly fighting to get a good connection.

Oh, use the fastest browser, Firefox (or Opera), whenever you can, even if your primary browser has been IE Explorer or Chrome.

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