Over the years I’ve gone through a few wireless routers, but surprisingly not that many as most tend to stay working for at least 3 to 4 years at bare minimum before they conk out.
With Wi-Fi routers there are obvious and not-so obvious reasons as to why they fail with network connectivity.
Examples of obvious issues: On one router I had, it started making a high-pitched whining noise that was continually getting louder; that’s an easy thing to diagnose because it strongly indicates a capacitor is about to blow. For another, it got zapped by lightning and quit working (this was years ago before I started using a UPS).
For non-obvious issues, sometimes a Wi-Fi router will randomly stop working. The unit will stay powered on, but all network connections are dropped, forcing a manual router reboot (usually by physically turning off the thing and turning it back on again), and then start working again.
As for why this happens, this generally happens for two reasons.
1. A wired device has a bad network cable or bad network card
Most people who run wireless routers have at least one wired network device connected (usually a PC with no wireless card). I’m not referring to the WAN a.k.a. “Internet” port but rather port 1, 2, 3, 4 or above where you have an actual wired network device plugged in.
If the network cable is bad, the router will be blasted with “garbage” traffic. And if the router is bombarded with enough garbage, it will lock up.
If the network card that the network cable from the router is going to is bad or is starting to go bad, this can result in many connects/disconnects in rapid-fire succession, causing the router to eventually give up and lock up.
How to troubleshoot?
Replace the network cable first.
If that doesn’t work, switch ports on the router. If the device is plugged into port 1, try port 2. It is possible for individual ports on a router to go bad as they usually don’t do that “all or nothing” way of having port failure.
If that doesn’t work, unplug the device from the router and see if the problem clears up. If it does, replace the network card on the device as it’s probably going to fail completely relatively soon.
If after all that you still have random disconnects, see #2 below.
2. Other wireless routers randomly switch channels and “kick yours off”
If you have a bunch of other wireless routers in your area (like in an apartment complex), it’s probably true your router periodically gets “kicked off” and you absolutely can’t reconnect to it without performing a hard reset first.
When your wireless devices get abruptly booted from the network because of other routers that barge in on frequencies, the deciding factor on whether your router locks up or not depends how cheap or not cheap it is.
Basic cheap routers don’t handle wireless devices being abruptly disconnected very well. What typically happens is that when an abrupt disconnect occurs and you try to reconnect with a Windows machine, the status icon will be the all-too-familiar “limited connectivity” with the exclamation point next to it. The connection is established but can’t route anywhere, so you have no outside internet connectivity.
Better routers can handle abrupt disconnects and network crashes much more effectively, usually due to better-programmed firmware that has a self-correcting network feature built in. You don’t need a professional grade router to have this feature, but you do need one that wasn’t bought because it was on sale or in the bargin bin, so to speak.
And no, using third-party firmware like DD-WRT will usually not solve the problem of a router that can’t handle abrupt disconnects very well. You can try that if you wish (assuming your router is supported), but it’s hit-or-miss whether it will actually help or not. DD-WRT primarily exists to gain extra features and not necessarily improve network stability after a network crash.
In other words, if you have a crap (or old) router that requires a hard reset every few days or so just to work and the OEM firmware has been updated to the latest version, replacing that with DD-WRT is not the “magic pill” cure-all. Sometimes there’s nothing that can be done for a Wi-Fi router that bugs out on you, and it must be replaced.
As always, use inSSIDer to check for frequency channel use. For Windows, inSSIDer is the best free utility you can use. With this app you can easily see if another router barged in on the channel yours is using, letting you know quickly whether you need to change channels or not to one that’s open.
The PCMech.com weekly newsletter has been running strong for over 8 years. Sign up to get tech news, updates and exclusive content - right in your inbox. Also get (several) free gifts.