Changing the channel – why broadband providers need to pay more attention to wifi in the home

frustrated-business-ownerA few days ago I came home to find that I couldn’t get online. My wifi was on – but there was nobody home, so to speak. While my router was clearly on, a look at the wifi on my Mac showed that for some reason my broadband connection’s SSID had completely disappeared. In its place I noticed that there was another SSID that I hadn’t seen before and which judging from the name was from the same ISP. I quickly realised that this was in fact my router, which for some unfathomable reason had seemingly reset itself to its default settings. Connections something go down and reconnect, but resetting the router is a whole other level of inconvenience.

This meant that I had to log back in and set it all up again, which included things like re setting up the ports I’d forwarded for my NAS Bit torrent client, the sort of thing I haven’t had to do for years – it almost made my head hurt.

Once I was up and running all seemed fine initially, but after a short time I noticed that wireless performance seemed to have dropped off a cliff. Netflix streaming performance to my iPad was simply not happening, yet testing with the app showed that the speeds I was getting on my connection should have been more than adequate to handle several such streams. Something was clearly amiss.

Then I had a brain wave. Wifi channels. I took out my Windows laptop and fired up insider – inSSIDer – a very useful utility that runs a scan on your wifi connection and discovers all the local connections around you and shows you, via a handy live graph what wifi channels they are running on. It’s free on Windows, but for some reason is charged for on Mac. There is an Android version, but no iOS version – Apple restriction to the wifi API are apparently to blame.


The tool is brilliant as one of the problems with wifi is that in most areas it’s as crowded as the train I take to work at rush hour – lots of networks looking to use the same airways, but all elbowing each other in the face. And when your data is trying to move around those elbows slow it down.

Wifi routers operate at one of 11 channels around 2.4GHz and by default most wifi routers default to channel 6 – in the middle. The insider utility showed that all my neighbours routers were operating at either channel 6 or 11. Most use the middle or either extremes as using either 8 or 9 will still spill over into channel 11. The good news is that channel 1 was entirely fallow. Excellent news. Switching to this entirely empty channel delivered immediate dividends – I could stream Netflix to my iPad from the kitchen with no issues at all, proving that it wasn’t my broadband connection, it was the wifi.

This shows that while most routers claim to select the best channel available, but this doesn’t seem to have happened for me, when channel 6 was selected when 1 was entirely free.

When Gigabit Ethernet and Wireless ‘N’ was the norm it took too long for ISPs to offer these in the routers that they supplied, so with the new 802.11ac wifi standard waiting in the wings (Apple is rumoured to introduce it in their Macs this year) ISPs have an opportunity to do better this time round.

For the clued up, many routers do offer the ability to operate at 5GHz, which offers far less interference, but all your devices need to support it, and many don’t (the not-that-old iPhone 4S does not support 5GHz wifi).

With so many devices now connecting wirelessly to the router, it will literally pay for broadband providers to ensure that the wireless performance of the router than they are offering to their customers (usually given away ‘free’) is up to scratch. There’s little point in an ISP spending large amounts on improving infrastructure, only to have performance hamstrung once it gets inside the house by poor wireless. It’s detrimental to the customer and it could prove costly in terms of technical support and even churn, as frustrated customers jump ship over problems that could actually be easily resolved.

They say the devil is in the detail and if broadband providers are going to succeed in retaining customers they need to realise this.


The Broadband World Forum is taking place on the 22nd – 24th October 2013 at the RAI Exhibition and Convention Centre, Amsterdam. Click here to pre-register for the event.



One thought on “Changing the channel – why broadband providers need to pay more attention to wifi in the home

  1. Some providers have already recognized this problem and taking action. At least 2 ISPs (Swisscom, KPN) provide their customers with WiFi optimisation tools, that calculate the optimal channel and set it on the CPE.

    A good mobile application, that’s easy to use for those who are not very tech savvy, now that would be great! inSSIDer is a good tool – for those who know how to access their modems, change channels and for those who can make educated guesses about the best channel (not a trivial problem, when there are more than 6 networks of various signal strengths). For the rest (90% or so of end users) inSSIDer is way to complex. IMHO.

    Swisscom’s solution:

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