Is it time to get a new wifi router?
October 10, 2017 12:22 PM   Subscribe

What is the life expectancy of a (home use) wifi router? Are our issues something that we need to discuss with AT&T (shudder), or do we cut to the chase and just order a new router?

Please be gentle, we are average tech users at best. The router that we currently have is from AT&T, and is about five years old.

The devices we use to access the network are two Acer laptops (one new and one new-ish), two Android phones (old and probably one will get replaced by year's end), two Roku devices, and a Kindle. Oh and sometimes a Vizio TV; it's not currently in use but probably will be within the month. At any given time in our house at least three of these devices are accessing the network, and maybe once a week all or almost all of the devices are accessing the network at the same time.

That being said, most often we have connectivity issues late at night, when only one or two devices are on. Generally I notice it because I can't get connection on my Android, and then when I go and look at the router there is a red light and the other lights are flashing. We only occasionally have connection issues during the day.

These incidents have been increasing in frequency probably all summer. I am loathe to contact AT&T, because the last time I had a router issue (ie the last time the router was replaced) their "superior" customer service left me without internet access for thirteen days. Entertainment is one thing, but we work from home so we can't afford to be without a good connection. I can't put my head in the sand anymore, I need to address it before it becomes a true problem.

So my main question is, do I need to contact AT&T for help diagnosing any issues, or do I skip that part and just order a new router?

We are in Los Angeles. I don't think we want to switch services, as I haven't heard good/better things about any of the other services available locally. With that in mind, if we need a new router, do we have to use AT&T equipment, or is there something we can buy independently and plug into their network?
posted by vignettist to Technology (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Meant to include, average use includes watching TV (Netflix, Youtube, a couple of new channels) and reading or doing whitepaper research. We're not gamers.
posted by vignettist at 12:24 PM on October 10


I would, if it's 5 years old already. Routers have gotten much faster and more reliable. I recently replaced our router and our connection went from flaky and unreliable to solid pretty much overnight (Xfinity, not AT&T). I bought one of the runner ups from the The Wirecutter's Best Wireless Router review, the Netgear R6400. You will need to call your internet provider and provide them with the MAC address of the new router (printed on the label on the device). This may take several hours or overnight for the connection to get established so try to do it on a Friday afternoon or something when you can do without internet for a little while. Check your AT&T bill and see if they are charging you a monthly router rental fee so you can make sure to get that removed when you turn in the old router.
posted by impishoptimist at 12:40 PM on October 10 [3 favorites]


Some questions:

What's the make and model number of your wireless router? (this should be on the back/bottom of the unit)

Do you also have a modem, or is it a modem + router combo unit?

Do you rent the router from AT&T or did they sell it to you (often for 1 cent as a part of a promotion)?

Do you have a password set to access your internet upon joining the network?

Do you know if you have DSL, cable, or fiber optic (Fios) internet?
posted by bluecore at 12:42 PM on October 10


If you are leasing the router from AT&T, you would see "Equipment charge" on your bill. Might be $5/month. In that case, you are entitled to equipment replacement. Find an AT&T store in your area, not an "authorized re-seller" but an actual AT&T owned & operated. Call them to see if you can bring the router in and swap for replacement.

The red lights and other flashing lights indicate communication traffic. So the red light itself is not a "danger indicator."

The most basic "reset" for a router is to unplug the power cable, let it sit for 1 minute to clear the buffer, and then re-plug.
posted by ohshenandoah at 12:48 PM on October 10 [2 favorites]


To stay current, I think you should upgrade your router about as often (or maybe slightly less often) as you upgrade your phone. To my threshold of "staying current," this means upgrading it about every three years. I also use the Wirecutter's recommendations.
posted by samthemander at 12:59 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


If AT&T is your internet service provider, you don't even have to go into a store. Call their 800 # and tell them the difficulties you have been having, and that your router is five years old. The dificulties may or may not be related to the router, but they will dispatch a technician and(based on my own experience) swap your old router for a new one.
I have called for assistance a number of times and they have always been prompt and eager to please.
posted by elf27 at 2:50 PM on October 10


What is the life expectancy of a (home use) wifi router?

Generally, this sort of thing does not wear out in any sort of predictable way. It will keep working until it doesn't. Flaky operation can come from more than just hardware failure - interference could be a major factor.

use includes watching TV (Netflix, Youtube, a couple of new channels)

Are you doing this over wifi? Keep in mind that wifi is a shared medium, and that means shared not only with all the users on your network, but all users on nearby networks and all interference sources as well.

Wired ethernet is preferable for high-bandwidth stuff like video streaming.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 6:30 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


Some questions:

What's the make and model number of your wireless router? (this should be on the back/bottom of the unit)

Do you also have a modem, or is it a modem + router combo unit?

Do you rent the router from AT&T or did they sell it to you (often for 1 cent as a part of a promotion)?

Do you have a password set to access your internet upon joining the network?

Do you know if you have DSL, cable, or fiber optic (Fios) internet?


Thank you for asking; 2Wire Gateway 3800HGV-B (with an AT&T brand on the unit), combo unit, we own the unit, password - yes, DSL.
posted by vignettist at 7:19 PM on October 10


If AT&T is your internet service provider, you don't even have to go into a store. Call their 800 # and tell them the difficulties you have been having, and that your router is five years old. The dificulties may or may not be related to the router, but they will dispatch a technician and(based on my own experience) swap your old router for a new one.

I appreciate the suggestion; unfortunately we did exactly as you've described the last time we contacted them, which was the situation that led to us being without service for an extended period of time. Nothing but failure to communicate the complete process to us, and a faulty replacement unit to boot. I had no idea it was an option but if it is I will walk into a store and get a replacement unit in person, rather than order one, wait for it to arrive, then wait for an installation appointment, then have a rep talk to me condescendingly while all the while the reason the unit can't be installed is due to their faulty equipment. .. gah! Still so bitter.
posted by vignettist at 7:25 PM on October 10


If the red light is on (many at&t DSL routers only have a red light on startup and loss of DSL sync), it's more likely a problem with your line rather than your router. There are reasons why a 5 year old router could pose a problem, but in this case probably not.

That said, at&t will likely swap it out if you call them.

If you go to http://192.168.1.254/ in your web browser (any at&t branded router since 2008 or so should use that IP) there should be a web interface with logs you can look at. It should tell you if it lost the DSL signal and when. If it's happening several times a day you should see messages about that repeated several times.

You should also be able to see what the sync rate, signal strength, and noise margin are. If the noise margin is low, that is also indicative of a problem with your line.

Almost every DSL modem I've seen fail quit working suddenly and entirely due to lightning or component failure. They very rarely only work intermittently or slowly get worse over time.
posted by wierdo at 8:28 PM on October 10 [1 favorite]


If the noise margin is low, that is also indicative of a problem with your line.

If the noise margin is much higher than 6dB, that can also reveal problems with your line.

ADSL modems work by negotiating with the DSLAM at the exchange to get the best speed they can over the copper between there and your house. Usually the DSLAM will be configured with a "best effort" profile that allows the modem to ask for the highest speed it can achieve, given its measurements of signal strength and allowing 5-6dB noise margin. However, if the DSLAM has recently been detecting bursts of connectivity loss to your modem, it might automatically flip to a "reliability profile" that limits the maximum connection speed in order to provide more noise margin.

When I had an ADSL service, this used to happen pretty regularly after rain ingress into the telco's cabling. While it was raining the line got noisy and crackly, which interrupted my ADSL service; the DSLAM would cut over to a reliability profile as a result, dropping my maximum connection speed from 23Mb/s to 7Mb/s; then the line would dry out again and stop crackling, leaving me with a slow connection and no crackles for the service people to listen to.

If the noise margin figure reported by your modem is down around 2 to 3dB or lower, that means your line got noisier since the modem and the DSLAM negotiated your current connection session. If it's way high, like 15dB or over, that probably means you've had a reliability profile imposed, your connection will be very slow as a result, and streaming video will probably not work well under those conditions.

You might want to try this ping test on your laptop to determine whether any actual connectivity losses you're having (as opposed to mere sloth) are happening between the laptop and the router - which would point to a Wifi problem - or between router and DSLAM, which would be shitty copper street wiring or other AT&T issue.
posted by flabdablet at 1:54 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]


Almost every DSL modem I've seen fail quit working suddenly and entirely due to lightning or component failure. They very rarely only work intermittently or slowly get worse over time.

Seconded.

One thing I have seen bring consumer-grade routers to their knees is BitTorrent. BT clients work by maintaining connections to large numbers of other BT clients simultaneously, and that can require a router to try to keep track of more network address translations than their tiny consumer-grade brains can remember; if you've recently started using BitTorrent you might want to try quitting it when you start seeing connectivity issues and see whether that fixes them.
posted by flabdablet at 2:05 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]


Depending on your distance from the VRAD/DSLAM/whatever and which speed tier you are subscribed to (especially if it is much lower than the maximum available), high noise margin may not actually be a problem. If the sync rate is at or above the speed you subscribe to, only a low margin matters.

If you aren't on Uverse video, your profile will be set to only sync at a few megabits above what you're paying for at most. My 24/2 line syncs at 25/2 and has a noise margin around 27dB. Last time I had Uverse, it was pretty similar, but in that case I was at most 100 wire feet from the VRAD. Here, it's 1500-2000 feet.
posted by wierdo at 8:03 AM on October 11


As you can see from the responses, there are so many different ways internet access can go wrong. Every thing from the lines outside your house, the inside wiring, the modem, the router, the wireless drivers on your devices, to wireless interference from cordless phones. Unfortunately, you have to check/change each step until you find the problem. I prefer to start with the stuff you can do yourself rather than rely upon AT&T and their workers, so...

What I would do (which might not necessarily be what you would do depending on how comfortable you feel with the tech) is this:

1) Consider moving to cable internet or fiber optic if you have access in your area. DSL just can't provide the same speeds as those other technologies. And if you have multiple devices and work at home, it might be worth it (as well as a tax write off for business!) Cable modems and DSL modems are completely different, which is why I mentioned this first before number 2...

2) Whatever you decide, I'd purchase my own devices. No rental fee and you have more control over administering them. Also, your current router can only do wireless G and not the newer N or AC, which can handle more bandwidth and are more immune to wireless interference. Despite what others are saying here, your wireless router is old tech, didn't get good reviews when it was new, and it appears the default encryption on it is WEP instead of WPA, so it's not secure.

3) I personally prefer to have a separate modem and wireless router. More to setup and costlier, but easier to diagnose problems or switch in a new modem or router if the old one is having trouble or a new technology comes out. Despite Apple not updating the hardware in a while, the Apple router I bought my parents is rock solid and never gives them issues. Other routers are more "fiddly" (you can tweak things in the settings, which techy people like) but I prefer rock solid stability over features and raw speed. In the mesh router category (multiple devices over the house to cover all areas), a lot of people like the Eero as a user-friendly system.

The only difference with 2 devices is you're just connecting the phone line (DSL) or coaxial cable (cable company) to the modem, then an ethernet cable (usually provided) from the modem to the wireless router.

4) If you go with separate devices, just call in to provision the modem with AT&T. Have the ethernet cable from the modem connected directly into your computer until they get it online, then you can connect the wireless router at your leisure when you're off the phone.

Good luck!
posted by bluecore at 9:16 AM on October 11 [1 favorite]


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