WiFi for "lots" of devices?
May 13, 2020 2:07 PM   Subscribe

Customer support folks are telling me I have too many devices for my wifi to handle and are recommending setting up my own wifi, rather than use their router's wifi. Should I purchase a new wifi router, or push for them to fix this somehow?

Last month, I switched my house over from a ~20Mb/sec connection (via Sonic) to a 150Mb/sec connection (Comcast Business). The new "business class" connection's been... suboptimal. In the last couple of weeks, we've had instances where one of the two wifi channels just disappears, and I have to log into the router and restart the wifi service to get it to accept connections. One of the devices (two walls and 20 feet away from the router) has bursts of lag that make online gaming difficult. Called into support, the tech logged into my router and exclaimed at the number of connected devices. We're in Silicon Valley, my roommates and I are techies, and, yeah, there are a lot of devices. Phones, computers, gaming devices, some IoT stuff in the house. I see 14 devices online right now, and another 20+ that are currently offline but reserving IPs.

The tech is saying that the number of devices is the problem, that they're competing for bandwidth and IPs and that's overwhelming the router. He's suggesting disabling the onboard WiFi and moving to a third-party WiFi router.

Techies - is he right, or just trying to push the problem elsewhere? If he's right, is this where a mesh router system comes in handy?
posted by hanov3r to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
How many devices are we talking? You can plug just another router via Ethernet in the first router, this will fix this. (Somehow you can experience problems if you plug a router in a router in a router. Trust me, I have done it. So don't do this)
posted by yoyo_nyc at 2:10 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]

I am a tech person and you could not pay me enough to use shitty equipment provided by Comcast, especially not an integrated modem/router.

I run a Ubiquiti EdgeRouter-X ($50) and an AC-PRO wifi access point ($150 I think). They’re both powered by a single POE injector that plugs in between my cable modem and the router, which is pretty slick. The ER-X lives on a shelf next to my cable modem, and the AP, which looks like a little white frisbee, is connected only by an Ethernet cord and sits on top of the book case.

I went through I-don’t-even-know-how-many consumer wifi routers failing in frustrating and inconsistent ways before I got annoyed and went to this setup. Have had exactly zero problems in about five years since (and run.. about 10 wifi devices regularly between my partner’s personal and work laptops, my personal and work laptops, my desktop, two raspberry pis, kindles, phones, etc, maybe a few more I’m not thinking of).
posted by Alterscape at 2:16 PM on May 13 [6 favorites]

It’s very possible he’s right. The broadband connection devices are not known for their massive capacity.

Offloading your wireless connections to a separate device is a reasonable option. You don’t need a mesh or anything, just a dedicated WiFi router.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:17 PM on May 13 [3 favorites]

They just don't want to fix it. They should -- your requirements are not crazy, your previous wi-fi router worked with that number of connected devices, and a good device should handle scaling up by slowing down, not by crashing.

In your shoes, I'd try for a replacement unit from Comcast, see what happens with that, and if that doesn't resolve your issues, then go it alone .. I suspect your problem is not due to a bum unit but due to Comcast using cheapass hardware to pump their margins up, but it can't hurt to confirm that with another trial before you splash out for your own kit.
posted by Sauce Trough at 2:19 PM on May 13

We're in Silicon Valley, my roommates and I are techies

I think you probably should just buy some wifi router that The Wirecutter likes. Because the alternative is to spend a ton of time talking to Comcast, and nobody likes talking to Comcast, plus there's a good chance that they won't wind up being able to do anything.
posted by aubilenon at 2:34 PM on May 13 [9 favorites]

and I have to log into the router and restart the wifi service to get it to accept connections.

This sounds like the router just runs shoddy software, in which case getting a separate access point would quite likely solve that part of the problems you have.

The 'competing for bandwidth' may or may not be solved by the above. If your outside link is saturated, no amount of changing gear or tweaking settings is going to change one bit there. But I doubt it is; I'm on 100Mbit down, 30Mbit up, and it's rare to see usage graphs even hit half that in normal use, only when downloading fresh ISOs or something like that. And my list of active devices is not significantly smaller than yours, although most are using wired Ethernet. It can also be that your own outside link isn't clogged but the neighbourhood's uplink is; again, nothing you can do anything about.

But when the router's wireless is bad at finding unused channels, a better access point will improve things. Probably a lot.
posted by Stoneshop at 2:34 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]

They are probably charging you a monthly rental fee for their shitty modem and router, get your own and return theirs, they’ll pay for themselves in a year or two, and be of much higher quality. Make sure they actually take the monthly fee off your bill though.
posted by skewed at 2:42 PM on May 13 [8 favorites]

+1 for getting your own router. In addition to above, since it is a firewall, it keeps Comcast from snooping through your devices (not that they'd bother, but it's peace of mind).
Also suggest turning the Comcast device's wifi OFF to limit interference. OR alternatively you could leave just the 5G radio on and use it as a separate subnet for visitors outside of your firewall.
posted by cfraenkel at 3:01 PM on May 13 [2 favorites]

I agree with folks above:

Step 1: buy your own cable modem
Step 2: buy your own router

I'm in SV as well, and have Comcast residential (100Mb) service -- and would never in a hundred years use the Comcast-supplied equipment, it's universally terrible low-end crap.

FWIW, my "100Mb" service routinely sees 150Mb or higher -- my mesh tested itself earlier today and reported my cable at 202, so their actual wireline service is pretty decent (over the past 30 days my mesh hasn't reported anything below 130Mb).
posted by aramaic at 3:31 PM on May 13 [2 favorites]

What's your modem? Several of the cable providers make you use a specific modem for business-class service, and some of these are the notoriously bad Puma-based modems

The main problem with these Bad Modems is random, unpredictable latency, and it's a hardware-level issue in the router - and this is on top of WiFi issues you may be having, so even getting better WiFi won't totally fix it.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 4:31 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]

What's your modem? Several of the cable providers make you use a specific modem for business-class service, and some of these are the notoriously bad Puma-based modems

Oh, hey, look, my modem is on there (Cisco DPC3941B), which probably explains my girlfriend's complaint about lag spikes playing Brawlhalla.

I've ordered a new cable modem and triband wifi router from Amazon, and the new modem is Broadcom based, so not affected by the Puma suckage. Thanks, everyone.
posted by hanov3r at 5:26 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]

He could be right, not sure if he showed you any data to back up his claim or if it's just a hunch because he works in support and deals with issues like this all the time. If you had too many devices there might be monitoring metrics or logs that show symptoms to support this - perhaps transmit queues getting longer, perhaps connections getting dropped because # of connections is at max or something. So what i'm saying is that it's possible that your router is the issue, but without data it's just a hunch - you may end up buying new devices and still have connection problems because the underlying issue was the connection to your house or something else.

I have 3 devices:
- cable modem (my own, picked from a list of models my ISP says they support)
- router (ubiquiti security gateway)
- wifi access point (ubiquiti nano hd)

the router/modem/wifi box that the cable company gives you does all 3 of these things, but i find it helpful to split them out - each one does it's one job well and i can isolate issues. From the sound of it, the techie is saying that the wifi part of your current box is getting overloaded. Ok, so in theory you could attempt to continue to use the modem/router built into your existing box, turn off wifi, and buy an external wifi AP.

For wifi there are two major types - regular wifi access point, or mesh systems. regular wifi access point is used in regular sized homes/apartments where one single wireless access point can cover the entire space. You can buy range extenders for these, but i've never done that so i don't know how well they work in practice. Mesh systems make it easier to have multiple access points for larger spaces or spaces with a lot of interference. They're more expensive in general, and wirecutter has separate articles for recommendations for each type.

I personally like the ubiquiti unifi line of devices, but i'm a techie and their non-trivial setup isn't a problem for me. If i had to recommend one for a less technical friend then i'd probably say an eero system.
posted by escher at 7:51 AM on May 14

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