Networking

Troubleshooting tips for wireless connectivity issues

Troubleshooting wireless connectivity issues is a common problem, and often a very pesky one when supporting remote users. Jack Wallen takes you through his approach for getting to the root of the issue as quickly as possible.

Wireless connectivity is quickly becoming a must-have for companies across the globe. And end users must be able to make these wireless connections quickly and easily. But when a problem arises, the troubleshooting of the connection (especially when it's done remotely) can be a real challenge. Where do you start? How do you help remote users who have no idea what the Control Panel is or where to find it? This task can drive even the most patient administrator or support specialist crazy.

So, what is the best method of troubleshooting wireless connections? Using Occam's Razor as a springboard, you will most likely head off your problem before it gets the best of you. Let's take a look at the method I have successfully used to troubleshoot a wireless connectivity issue. You will be surprised how well this technique will help.

Start with the obvious

The first thing I always ask of the client is if anyone else has connectivity to the wireless access device at their location. If anyone else can make the connection, then you know the issue is isolated with either the user or the users' machine. You can now forget about the router being the issue.

Once you have ruled out the router, the next question you should ask the end user is if they were previously able to connect to that wireless router. If so, then your next step is to figure out why the connection has been lost. If they haven't ever connected to that router then your task is simple - walk them through the process of making the initial connection.

Okay, so they once had a connection and now they do not. What is the first thing you should do? If you said look into the connection properties, you are wrong. The first thing you should ALWAYS do is make sure wireless is actually turned on. On most laptops there is either a slider or a button that turns wireless on or off. This feature is there to preserve much-needed battery life. The problem is, most users have no idea it's there and inadvertently turn wireless off. When this happens, guess what? No wireless connection. I would say nearly half of the time this is the problem. Turn wireless on and, voila!, instant connection.

On to the less-than-obvious

I would say the next most popular reason a wireless device can not connect is a forgotten (or changed) password. This hurdle can often be a big problem, but it's not insurmountable. Worst case scenario (when no one can remember the wireless password) is to reset the password by logging into the router and making the change. This plan of attack can be blocked if no one knows the admin password to the router. If that is the case, your attack now has a secondary layer which is to "paperclip" the router and reset it to factory settings. Make sure, before you do this, that you can locate the default credentials for logging into the router. You will also want to make sure you know the details of the wireless information so the end users aren't confused. Give the router the same SSID it had and make sure if there were any special configurations applied to the router that you apply the same options.

Once you have reset the router to factory settings, log in, and set it up.

But what happens when the user knows the password but still can't connect? The first thing you should do is double-check the password. The user could be wrong. If they aren't, then the task has become a bit more challenging....but not impossible.

If it's a Windows machine, the first thing you can try is to restart the WZC service (Wireless Zero Cfg). To do this click Start | Run and then type services.msc. When the services window opens, scroll down until you see WZC. Right-click the WZC entry and select restart. Once the service has restarted, check to see if the connection comes up.

If none of the above has worked, the next step I take is to check to see if the machine is using a third party connection manager. These tools are, at best, spotty. I do not trust them. Of course if they are the only way your machine can connect you will have to leave it installed and try to make it work. If, however, the built-in connection manager can detect and use the wireless device, your best bet is to ditch that third-party manager and use the built-in tool. The built-in tool may not have all of the bells and whistles and pretty user interface, but it will, hands down, blow away that third-party tool in terms of reliability.

But what if you've tried the third-party tool and the built-in tool and neither work? You still do not get a connection. It's not impossible to think that the wireless card (or chipset) on the machine has gone bad. If I suspect this, I will do two things:

1. Test the suspected connection with a wireless device KNOWN to work. Thankfully most smart phones are Wi-Fi enabled, so you can do the test with your mobile. If the connection works with a known device then the hardware COULD be suspect.

2. The next step would be to take the hardware to a known working wireless network and see if you can get the machine to connect. If you are still unable to get the wireless device to work, your next step involves attaching a known working (probably external) wireless device. This can be in the form of a USB wireless adapter. If this works, then you know the internal wireless device is not functioning. If this is the case - your user has a few choices:

  • Replace the laptop.
  • Have the wireless chipset replaced.
  • Use an external wireless adapter.

Obviously the last option is going to be more appealing to most users. But at least you have options to get them back up and running.

Final thoughts

Troubleshooting wireless connectivity doesn't have to be a horrible nightmare. If you follow the above outline, going from most to least simple, you will more than likely find the issue at hand. Hopefully that issue will not result in the user having to replace hardware.

Do you have a better outline for solving wireless connectivity issues? If so, what is your plan of attack? Share with your fellow TechRepublic readers.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

32 comments
sysabod
sysabod

agree on the 'starting from the obvious' part,most cases we met result from all those 'simple' reasons.

rdevereux
rdevereux

Nice idea but sadly I suspect the issue that most of us have is random wireless connectivity produced by unknown factors affecting the signal. these things are much less easy to troubleshoot and much less easy to fix and there aren't fantastic tools to remedy them

danpluso
danpluso

Before getting them to run around and try a new wireless device (PCI NIC or external USB NIC) why not first get them to try "Ping 127.0.0.1" in the command prompt. 127.0.0.1 is the loopback address and should be able to pass ping without being connected to a wireless access point. If the NIC fails to ping 127.0.0.1 (itself) then that should tell you that the NIC is at fault. Try getting them to reinstalling the NIC drivers before suggesting their NIC is no longer working.

pdeering
pdeering

Uninstall the wireless adapter in Device Manager, then click on the Action menu and select the Scan for hardware changes option, this will reload the drvers for your internal wireless card. This has worked for me several times and is an easy process to walk a user through.

matthew.moeller
matthew.moeller

I have two users that could connect with their Blackberry Curve, one upgraded to a Blackberry Curve 9300 3G, the other, to a new BBerry Torch and now neither can connect. I've tried to manually set up their connection to no avail, any suggestions? I have a MAC filter but added their MACs, am I missing something?

crobertson.ca
crobertson.ca

I recently ran accross an issue with Netgear routers and Acer netbooks which was caused by a firmware incompatability in the wpa/wpa2 encription. Other laptops and wireless devices connected without problem. The acer netbook wireless worked fine with other routers or on the Netgear with no encription or with WEP. Upgrading router firmware did not help. The fix was finding and upgrading the laptop wireless firmware from the card manufacturer. Acer did not have it. Netgear support did find it for me. I was quite impressed.

rainmaker_68
rainmaker_68

Working as a Technical Support Engineer for ASUS.. I have found out a critical question to ask customers before troubleshooting is '' do you have a wireless router in home or are you connecting to the neighbors router'' this is a 60% probability which tuns out most times to be positive.

m.sullivan
m.sullivan

You are incorrect in excluding the router so fast. Just becasue one laptop can connect and another cannot does not exclude the router. I just helped a user who had this issue and it was becasue an IT friend setup the MAC addresses in the router. Adding a new laptop without the MAC address did not let it connect. I had another user that could not connect a laptop because the DHCP range was only setup for 5 connections.

arunmahender
arunmahender

let me try later this week..once i go on live calls.. many thanks..

Barry Latham
Barry Latham

I have seen some other issues, such as bad profiles or so many profiles that the device becomes confused or bogged down. I delete them all and start fresh. Malware can cause connection issues. Sometime malware will set proxies and appears there is no connection. Also, in our case we have 60 laptops in the same area trying to auto connect to the router or multiple routers. Sometimes, the routers need to be isolated from each other. Change channels and SSID names. One thing i found is that with so many in proximity and connecting to the same source, some units will be booted off due to router load. It appears not many routers handle over 30 devices well. I enjoy reading the posts and comments. Keep them coming.

jayja1
jayja1

But what if it is the router?

Netweezurd
Netweezurd

Hey, Day in day out I tshoot connection all day long. I work for DataValet : WiFi in hotels, hospitals and what not. It's over the phone and just getting a "Code 18"... uhmmm... a User to type CMD in the run bar is troublesome... typing "services.msc" and finding WZC in the lot... I'm going to be liable for hart attacks. Does just disabling and re-enabling the Wireless Connection do that ?

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

"If this works, then you know the internal wireless device is not functioning." And if it doesn't? Windows networking can be very hard to troubleshoot. I had a cable connectivity problem (I wager a LAN issue should be, if anything, easier to handle than a WLAN issue) where the "solution" (after going through the manual and book of ineffable wisdom both backwards and forwards) turned out to be to connect the modem to a different machine, copy the network addresses provided by the modem to that machine to paper and then insert them manually into the non-connecting computer. Presto, problem gone, no trace, never returned. A solution as baffling as the problem.

Jaytmoon
Jaytmoon

You should include power cycling the pc/laptop and the AP.

danpluso
danpluso

Right click on the wireless network connection and click on repair. That seems like an easy step that most users should be able to do so why not start with that before getting them to run around in services.msc

kyle
kyle

Have you doubled checked the MAC addresses? I am sure you did. How about resetting your network connections on your client phone(s)? I had a similar problem with a user upgrading to iPhone4.

k.kopplik
k.kopplik

What about going beyond the router situation? I am seeing more problems with Win7 connection to Wifi. These are personal Laptops trying to connect to Wifi. I can see they can connect to the router but they are not able to get out past the firewall. We do have a password page but sometimes for some reason they are not able to connect to that page or other internal web pages.(not PW issue) Network troubleshooter is not help. I have done ipconfig to check IP and MAC. I have pinged outside source (timed out) I have done /release and /renew I have done the flush of DNS I am leery to do: netsh int ip reset This seems drastic. One person we found they were being routed somewhere (they had no knowledge of it)R-clicked on Network and TCP/IP to see if DNS and TCP/IP are obtainable. Outside of that I don't know what else to do. (Any suggestions?) How do I trouble shoot/eliminate the Mono Wall? (I am not the network person in charge of the Mono Wall)

pgit
pgit

The whole process should start off with an overview of the setup and it's usage. How long has this system been here? Is the router restarted periodically? How many stations connect to it? Has the station in question connected to this network before? Jack does hit that last. But I agree with M.sullivan wholeheartedly. If this is a first time connection for the device the first thing I do is log in to the router and check to see if MAC pairing is set up and if there's a limit to the number of DHCP leases allowed. It's embarrassing to say the least to get to the point of suggesting to the user their hardware could be faulty, only to find this is the 6th device attempting to connect to a network limited to 5.

jred
jred

Replace it. As much as I hate to, if a wireless router is over a year old, it's suspect. Since it can usually be replaced for much less than $100 (my time is billed at $140/hr), it's almost a no-brainer. If our clients were using something other than off-the-shelf Linksys routers (say Cisco WAPs), I'd be more inclined to look deeper, but most of the time it's most cost-efficient to just replace them.

RichardA
RichardA

I have a constant problem with my Win7 laptop. Once I connect to an AP, it will continue to work each time I connect / disconnect. However, when I connect to a different AP, it will not reconnect to a previously working AP. Either I have to power cycle the laptop, or run the troubleshooting wizard, both of which always work. What doesn't work, and I'm surprised, is simply trying to reconnect, manually turning off and on the Wifi on the laptop, or disabling / enabling the wireless adapter. It makes no sense that it should have trouble connecting to a previously connected router. XP is far more reliable and simple to resolve.

pmshah
pmshah

I have a different approach. I always carry a USB to Ethernet and a USB wifi dongle with me along with necessary drivers. Usually the chip sets in these devices are Realtek ones which are included with windows and are properly recognized and configured. This will help in sorting out problems even when there is only 1 router and a single client involved. This of course will work only if a USB port is available !!!

rainmaker_68
rainmaker_68

When troubleshooting wireless .. using the windows diagnostic tool will help out a lot . The windows Troubleshooting tool can give some insight into what is happening to your wireless connection allowing you to probe the problem with more precession ..

DesD
DesD

on my wife's HP laptop. Having the Ethernet cable connected turned off the wireless interface. Kept me going for quite a while, until I finally dug out the manual! Not sure if this is still common practice.

ron
ron

dittos on updating firmware: an update enabled Hotmail to work recently on Linksys G router where everything else was working. Also check antenna clips on notebook mini-PCI adapters--sometimes fall off (not to mention loose antennas on desktop PCI cards.) I sometimes boot Ubuntu to check hardware (what used to be a pain in Linux is often a breeze these days.) Another recent problem I've had is malware screwing up the registry. I had a rash of Thinkpoint malware cases this week-- I was able to clean 2 PCs, but 2 more have to be re-installed. (I could connect to router but not Internet-- even hardcoding DNS entries failed. Malware had installed proxy server, and removing it left PC in "Bermuda triangle.")

nuosende
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robo_dev
robo_dev

To imply that all third-party connection managers are bad is untrue. While I agree that some of the Belkin and Netgear apps are horrible, there are other very good apps, such as the Cisco WLAN Client utilities, or apps like the Juniper Odyssey client. Those apps work much better than the WZC utils, and give you some useful capabilities, like being able to view both noise and signal strength, or manage multiple profiles easily. Another simple tip is just that people often fat finger things like WPA passphrases AND these are case-sensitive on some devices, such as the apple iPhone.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

windows settings. It tries to connect to a network other than the one available. You should try netsh (google for the right switches to put after it). If that works you can make a desktop shortcut for it, that'll save you lots of time, then you don't need to run a time-consuming wizard, but can skip straight to waht works. It's one of those half-second commands. Same goes for other commands (ipconfig perhaps)... find what works and make a shortcut; there's a blog on how to somewhere on TR, but it starts with right-clicking on the desktop, and selecting New > Shortcut.

sikkerhed
sikkerhed

Yes, but then you would need physical access. Many of "my" mobile users are not IT savy so in order to ease troubleshooting I have on occasion availed myself of a utility called ConChk from www.jupiternet.dk. It simply pings IP addresses you have specified in advance. That way you only need to ask the user about which "step" is failing to know what to do.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

The point is; if you let one connection method fail like this, not finding a way to fix it, it's just asking for a fall. The same problem can occur with your backup method. I agree with having alternative methods available for when an unexpected failure occurs at an inopportune moment, but it should then be hunted down and fixed later. If it's an OS problem it may occur in the alternatives too; and then you may be without the alternative connectivity you need to fix any of your methods.

warrenlj
warrenlj

We had this problem this week and resolved the internet connection problem using two small utilities to remove/rebuild the winsock files:LSPFix.exe to remove and winsockxpFix.to rebuild. This was on xp machine after Thinkpoint was removed using Hitman Pro and Malwarebytes. worked great.

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robb
robb

If it's been some time since the wireless (card or internal) has been used, that would seem to be the primary place to initially focus. I keep a log of the numbers and the associated wireless cards. The number associated with the card had (been) changed. Unless you have their number, you're stuck. We've had this happen a couple of times with our provicer.

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