Internet problems: Is it my Wi-Fi or my ISP?

3 minute read
| How-To

Routers have been getting a lot of attention lately and rightly so. Technology has evolved such that newer router offerings in both the standalone and mesh varieties can make your Wi-Fi and overall network performance quite blissful.

Sometimes, though, your router isn’t the problem, and it’s good to know that before you drop a few hundred bucks replacing it. Sometimes the issue lies upstream just past your router with your ISP and, if your service from your ISP is bad, a new router isn’t going to fix that. The question is: how do you tell? And we’re here with a few answers.

Trust Your Gut

I know it’s odd to start an explainy-piece by saying “use the Force, Luke, let go,” but chances are your daily experience with your network gives you some inkling of where the problem lies. As with all gut feelings, yours may well be wrong, but it at least gives you a place to start testing so that you’re working from what you believe to be most-likely to least-likely.

Test Your ISP Connection with a Ping Comparison

Packet loss is one type of connection issue. It can happen if you have a weak Wi-Fi signal or bad Ethernet cable, but it can also happen if your ISP’s connection is flaky. The tool ping is available from the Terminal of every build of macOS and OS X (and MacOS X before that!). To test your connection, open up the Terminal, type ping www.apple.com and press enter.

Terminal window showing `ping www.apple.com`

ping lets you see how reliable the connection to another device is.

This command will begin sending requests to www.apple.com and looking for replies from the same. By default these will happen once per second. You’ll see the display show them as they happen, and they should be consistent. The icmp_seq field should increment sequentially, and the time should be about the same (within 15ms). After 20 or 30 seconds of this, press Control-C to stop the output and get a summary. Packet loss should read 0.0%. If there is any packet loss or a wide variation in response time, that can be an indication that you have a connection problem.

Here’s the trick: it’s possible that this test might identify packet loss within your home so, if you do see packet loss, be sure to repeat the test with a Mac that is Ethernet-connected to your router. If that test shows packet loss, then you likely have an ISP problem. Similarly, if the Ethernet-connected Mac shows no packet loss but your Wi-Fi connected Mac at the other end of the house does, then you might need to beef up your Wi-Fi connection with a new router.

Test Your Internal Network with Ping

Now that you know how to use ping, you can also use it inside your network. Open up a Terminal window and simply type ping followed by the IP address of your router. If you don’t inherently know this address, don’t worry. You can open up System Preferences > Network, highlight your network connection (typically the one at the top of the list) and click TCP/IP. If you’re on a Wi-Fi connection, click the Advanced… button and then TCP/IP. In that screen you should see your Router address.

macOS Network System Preferences TCP/IP Window

By looking at the TCP/IP section of the Network prefpane, you can find your router address.

In my example, the router address is listed as 192.168.76.1, so I would type ping 192.168.76.1 and press enter. The same analysis as above applies. If you see any packet loss or wide variations in response time, you almost certainly have a Wi-Fi issue because these ping tests are only happening locally between your Mac and your router, not using the internet.

What Next?

It’s important to note that ping lets you test the reliability of a connection, not the speed or anything else. Still, generally ISP-related problems are going to result in some level of packet loss. You need to make sure you do these tests at the same time of day that you’re experiencing the symptoms that led you to decide to dig deeper. It’s possible your ISP has problems at the same time each day, but it’s also possible someone else in your house is doing something that causes issues, too.

If your testing points to your ISP as the problem, contact tech support either on the phone or via your provider’s online chat system (if you have Comcast we’ve found their online chat to be quite capable and helpful, assuming your connection lets you access it). Share your results with them to help expedite their troubleshooting process. Also, remember to be polite… they’re in a position to help you! 🙂

If it’s your router, there are a number of possible solutions, ranging from relocating things to completely replacing your router. The simple solution these days is, “go mesh yourself!” Mesh Wi-Fi networks are popular today for good reason: they solve Wi-Fi problems almost universally. Mesh also makes managing your network very simple. If you’re inclined to go that route and have the cash, do it. Our how-to choose the best mesh wireless system for your home piece will help you get started there.

Once you’ve sorted out the reliability of your connection, you can then use iperf to test your local network’s speed.

If you’re still not sure or have other questions, post in the comments below and we’ll help!

2 Comments Add a comment

  1. Adam Christianson

    Hey Dave, great piece. One question. When looking at the response time is it better to go with the stddev number in the summary (comparing to see if it’s under 15ms) or are the individual deviations more a sign of an issue? I tried this and while my stddev number in the summary is ALWAYS under 15ms I do get some individual results that are much higher (say 50-90ms) in the local PING test.

    • Dave Hamilton

      The sttdev should be less than 15ms. If the ping times are deviating by more than that, it’s indicative of some pretty significant congestion.

      What happens when you ping your router from one of your client devices? If that’s deviating by more than about 5ms then you’ve possibly got some local issues.

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