Is Your WiFi Unstable?

The most Frequently Asked Question from my Family, Friends, and FOAFs…

Laptop Buyer: What Kind of Laptop Should I buy?
Ben: Get one with an Intel Wireless card

WiFi Cards Matter

wifi_cardThe first piece of advice I have is make sure your wireless card is made by Intel.  Do not get anything else.  You might see other tempting wireless cards for so much less by Dell, Broadcom, Ralink, Killer, Realtek, etc.  These WiFi cards might work with most WiFi hotspots, they might work most of the time, but don’t get them.  The problem is they aren’t robust.  I’ve seen them drop connections randomly, not be able to connect to certain wireless APs, drop out the signal when the Microwave is running, etc.  At best case it works fine but later on a driver update might make it worse.  It is not worth saving a few bucks to deal with these issues.  Pay extra for an Intel branded WiFi Card.  It might cost you $20 more and save you months of frustration.  You’ll thank me later when your card isn’t disconnecting randomly.

This brings me to the 2nd most Frequently Asked Question….

My Wireless Keeps Disconnecting.  Help!

Laptop buyer: So, my wireless signal keeps dropping out.
Ben: Did you get an Intel Card like I told you?
Laptop buyer: No….
Ben: Were you trying to save money and went too cheap?
Laptop buyer: Yes…..

And the 3rd most Frequently Asked Question….

Can You Fix My WiFi Stability?

If Eli can fix it, you can fix it.

replacing_wireless

You will need to swap out your WiFi card.

If you’re in the situation where you bought a laptop with a flaky WiFi card, it’s easy to fix!  Grab an inexpensive Intel 7260 WiFi Card from Amazon.  On most laptops the WiFi card is easily accessible from behind the back cover, usually it’s not more work than a memory upgrade.  Unplug the antenna connectors from your unstable wireless card, pop it out, and put the new card in and hook it up.  Your WiFi connections will now be robust.

Back Story

I don’t say this because I’m an Intel fan.  I just want things to work.  Every couple of years I give another brand a try just to make sure my “only Intel” advice is relevant.  I’ve had the same experience with non-Intel brands the last 15 years!

Last year I decided to buy a cheap laptop to watch movies on (we don’t have a TV) and it came with a Dell DW 1704 / Broadcom 4314 Wireless Card.  I bought it just to see if things had gotten better.  They haven’t.  This wireless NIC can’t stream a full length movie from my media server without losing the wireless signal several times.

And it’s not just me, earlier this year several of my colleagues bought Dell XPS laptops with Killer Branded WiFi cards.  They just don’t work reliably in scenarios that Intel chips do.  In their case they couldn’t connect to several APs.  In my case the connection would drop several times a day.  This was both in Windows 10 and in Linux.  And yes, I tried disabling power saving mode on the WiFi adapter.

I’ve had friends and family not be able to even connect to certain APs at all until they swapped out their Broadcom, Killer, or Ralinks for an Intel card.  Now, you might get lucky and find another brand that works.  To me it’s not worth the hassle.

The next time you buy a computer, get one with an Intel WiFi card.

 

 

My Verizon 4G LTE Rural Internet Setup

I’ve had a few people ask for more details on my rural internet setup with Verizon, so here it is…

Wilson 4G LTE Antenna

I use a CradlePoint MBR95 3G/4G Router ($130, it’s expensive but I have tried several cheaper 3G/4G routers–CradlePoint is the one to get.  It’s well worth the extra money).  Since switching to this router a few months ago I have not had a single connection drop.  

cradlepoint_router

I bought a 4G Novatel 551L USB Modem ($25) which is plugged into the CradlePoint, and just recently I installed a Wilson 4G LTE Antenna kit ($80–the antenna adapter fits the external antenna port on Millenicom’s Novatel MiFi, the Novatel USB modem above, and my Samsung S3 / S4) to see if it would increase performance on my Verizon Wireless connection… and it did!  Signal went from -81 to -63 dBm (I think that’s quadrupling the signal strength?) and internet speed went from 12Mbps/3Mbps to 20Mbps/15Mbps!

signal_strength
Signal strength from -81 to -63 dBm after installing antenna
3276998117
12 down 3 up with no antenna

 

3277005073
20 down 15 up after installing Antenna

Verizon Wireless Data Options

 

Grandfathered Unlimited Data Plan

Verizon doesn’t offer unlimited data plans anymore, but if you had one you’re grandfathered into it.  It’s possible to transfer someone else’s grandfathered plan into your name.  So I bought a Verizon Wireless grandfathered unlimited 4G data plan from someone on Howard Forums Take over my plan forum (you can also buy them from eBay, they’re a little pricier there but the transaction will be safer).

Update: Verizon Wireless has made it difficult to transfer Unlimited Data Plans, however some sellers on are somehow still able to do it.  Make sure the seller grantees a successful transfer and check their eBay reputation and feedback.  If you purchase from Jason Mills I get a referral fee if you mention “b3n.org”.  But you should do your own price comparison and check the reputation of various sellers.

The process for me (before Verizon made it difficult to transfer the plans) went like this:  Ahead of time I bought a Verizon Samsung S3 phone with a clean ESN off eBay (you need an Android phone, you can’t activate the plan on a USB modem) and a Verizon SIM card off ebay.  After the seller and I agreed on $175 I sent the money to him via PayPal and gave him my name, he called Verizon’s Assumption of Liability (AOL) department to tell them I’d be taking over the line, then he gave me the number I would be taking over.  I called Verizon’s AOL department and told the rep the number, she verified the details on the plan and then transferred the line into my name…I didn’t have a Verizon account so I had to set one up over the phone and they will run a credit check–and Verizon does a hard pull so don’t do this before buying a house or taking out a loan.  During this process it’s very important not to switch to one of Verizon’s newer plan’s that will drop unlimited data.  I made sure the rep knew I wanted to keep unlimited data.  After it was switched into my name I gave the rep my phone’s MEID number and SIM card number and activated the phone… it took awhile, maybe 5 minutes.  I made a test call and tested data with the rep still on the line.  It all worked!  Once it was activated I moved the SIM card over to my USB modem (which Verizon allows).

The plan I got is the NationWide 450 (there’s no way to drop the voice part of the plan even if you don’t need voice) with unlimited data.  I was able to have the rep disable texting.  This runs me about $65/month including taxes with my 18% corporate discount.

The only thing I’ve been disappointed in is they give me an IP address behind a NAT so I can’t host this blog from my house any more.  Verizon does offer a static IP for a one time fee of $500.  If I knew that Verizon would allow me to keep unlimited data for at least 3-years or give me a refund on the static if they canceled my plan I’d do it…but without a guarantee I don’t want to take the risk.  I run a SoftEther VPN server in a VM on my Microserver which uses a UDP hole punching technique to get around the NAT so I can still get into my home network to access files on my ZFS server and such.

verizon_unlimited_data_bar

I’m grateful that Verizon is still allowing grandfathered plans on their network so while I’m no longer careful about internet usage I try not to abuse it.  I have all my data intensive processes like CrashPlan backups run only between 1am-4am when I figure Verizon has plenty of bandwidth and spectrum available.

Of course, Verizon may discontinue grandfathered unlimited plans in the future… but I hope it lasts until someone brings DSL, cable, or fiber to my house.