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Learn How to Dissect Home Wi-Fi Issues

3:01 PM, Sep 24, 2012   |    comments
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Written by Rob Pegoraro, Special for USA Today

Possible disconnects with a new Wi-Fi router

Question: I just plugged in a new wireless router, and now I have no Internet connection, even though the Wi-Fi itself seems to work as it should.

Answer: I've run across this twice this summer: once in a relative's home, once in my own. The latter was the simpler case, so I'll tackle that first.

My problem was one of mistaken Internet identity.

It began when Verizon automatically assigned my old wireless router a numerical Internet Protocol address, without which data could not travel to or from the device. This process of putting a device on the map goes by the term "Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol," and, most of the time, everybody benefits: The Internet provider makes more efficient use of its limited pool of IP addresses and its customers don't have to do any special configuration.

But when I unplugged the old router and connected its replacement, Verizon didn't know that; it still had an IP address bound to the device I'd just taken offline. So, I had to force it to assign a new IP to the new router -- a process called ending a DHCP lease. I did that by plugging the old router back in, logging into its settings page through my Web browser and clicking on a link to tell it to release the old IP right before unplugging it once again.

I could have taken a simpler, lazier approach: Simply waiting for the old DHCP lease to expire would also work, although you can't count on only having to wait a few minutes. You can also call your Internet provider and ask a support rep to break the DHCP lease -- hopefully without your being asked to restart your modem, router and computer.

That was at my own home -- the problem involving my relative's Wi-Fi involved a digital subscriber line modem that used an old connection routine that goes by the unlovable name of "Point-to-Point Protocol over Ethernet." In so-called PPPoE, your computer -- or any router between your computer and the DSL modem -- has to provide a username and password before the usual DHCP magic can happen.

(The "PPPoE" abbreviation may look familiar: Most dial-up connections use Point-to-Point Protocol to handle logging in. I apologize if that mention brings up traumatic memories of decades-old dialup software like Trumpet Winsock or MacTCP.)

You can't count on a router that you just plugged into your DSL modem to tell you that it needs a PPPoE configuration; your connection may simply fail without any explanation. To fix it, you'll need to check your Internet provider's site for the right settings, assuming you have a smartphone handy; see, for example, AT&T and Verizon's instructions for their DSL customers. Or you'll have to call for help -- hopefully, again, without your being asked to restart your modem, router and computer.

This can all seem like a lot of work, but upgrading a router can bring serious, long-term benefits: better range, faster speed and options like setting up a guest network for visitors that allows Internet use but not access to files or printers shared between your own computers.

Tip: Test your connection's speed

Are you getting the download and upload speeds you're paying for? A few apps and sites can give you an independent ruling on that.

My usual go-to is Speedtest.net, a free site run by the Kalispell, Mont., network services firm Ookla. Go to that page -- it requires Adobe Flash, although the company also provides free iPhone and Android apps -- and click the big "Test Now" button to see your download and upload speeds, plus your "ping time" (that's how quickly data bounces from your computer to a remote server; a low ping time means interactive services like online games and Skype should suffer fewer hiccups).

I have, however, found that Speedtest gets confused by exceptionally fast connections (i.e.100 million bits per second or above). If you are lucky enough to have a connection like that, try a higher-end app like M-Lab's Network Diagnostic Tool.

The Federal Communications Commission provides a separate testing tool (which I wish didn't require the insecure Java plug-in); the FCC has used data collected with that to grade the state of broadband access across the country.

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Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C

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