When the Home's Most Important Internet Device Fails

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- It doesn't matter if you have the latest and greatest tablet, smartphone or laptop if your home's Internet hub is not up to speed.

If your wireless router dies, your iPad will feel its pain.

The unsung hero of a home's Internet has for years helped people get online, check email and "like" stuff on Facebook ( FB) by connecting everyone's computer to the Internet.

But when your Internet starts crawling, the wireless signal weakens or your connection drops (again), your router's lifespan may be nearing an end -- and it's not necessarily due to hardware failure.

"You set it up, you're happy with it. You only start worrying about it when it stops working," said Sandeep Harpalani, Netgear's ( NTGR) senior product line manager of wireless networking. "Typically that happens when people have more devices."

Home wireless router sales are strong and growing, coming in at $1.3 billion in revenue last year, nearly double from the $700 million in 2005, according to the Dell'Oro Group, a market research firm specializing in communications equipment.

There's also no sign that products are now built to have shorter lifespan, said Chris DePuy, a Dell'Oro wireless analyst. "We really don't see much evidence that the upgrade cycle is accelerating or decelerating particularly," he said.

Rather, router lifespan issues point to what people expect of a router these days. With reports, such as NPD's showing teenagers are the fastest-growing smartphone converts, yesterday's router may still be physically fit but it just can't handle the family load anymore. When it comes to routers, failure doesn't always mean hardware failure.

Routers R.I.P.

Routers do die, some within 30 days -- in which case, it's probably a lemon so return it. Others can last 10 years or longer. But signs that a router lifespan is near the end include:

  • The wireless signal keeps dropping.
  • Internet access is excruciatingly slow.
  • The router resets itself daily.
  • It's unusually hot.
  • The lights went out.
  • Of course, this doesn't mean all the above reasons point to death. Sluggish Internet can be caused by a variety of reasons -- too many users, viruses and spyware, or even squirrels chewing the lines outside.

    According to Time Warner Cable ( TWC), the top two causes of slow Internet beyond a service outage are router malfunction and computer viruses and spyware, with the latter being more common, said James Manchester, a senior vice president in Time Warner's advanced technology group.

    The router might be configured incorrectly or it really may be giving a last gasp. An easy way to check whether to blame the Internet service or the router is to take a laptop and plug straight into the modem, Manchester said. If speeds are fine, then you can rule out the Internet service and modem.

    "We can discern (an isolated Internet issue) from one where we have several households calling, which would point to a problem in our network," said Manchester. "But these routers, they are consumer electronic devices. They're mass-manufactured and they have a certain failure rate and life expectancy."

    SquareTrade, which offers warranties for consumer electronics, said its claims on routers are statistically insignificant. The few claims the company has received include water damage, drops and malfunction.

    "Routers, as devices, are meant to be stationary and are likely to have more malfunction problem than ADH," or accidental damage and handling, said Ty Shay, SquareTrade's chief marketing officer. "Since connected devices such as laptops, tablets and phones are updating their hardware faster than routers, this alone could cause connectivity issues."

    There are ways to prolong a router's life. Keep it in a cool spot, vacuum dust from its vents and update its firmware, to name a few.

    "The good thing about a router is it's a passive piece of equipment with no moving parts and no spinning hard drive," said Ken Loyd, director of consumer product marketing for D-Link, a large seller of wireless routers. "The router has a fairly long lifespan, at least maybe longer than sensitive electronic equipment."

    Failure by Obsolescence

    Most likely, the router is just outdated. If you're having connection issues with an iPhone 4, Amazon Kindle and smart TV, a Wireless G router may be the issue.

    Wireless G, for example, operates on a single band on the radio spectrum of 2.4 GHz, a crowded band used by microwave ovens, garage remotes, baby monitors and Bluetooth devices. The newer Wireless N technology found in most new products adds a second, less-crowded 5 GHz. Using a G router is counterproductive.

    Additionally, there are more Wi-Fi devices in every home, from Blu-ray players and smart TVs to home thermostats and refrigerators.

    Add in heavier wireless-data requirements -- streaming high-definition video, walking around the home while watching a streamed video on a tablet -- and it's no wonder the faster, more reliable wireless AC standard is starting to show up in routers.

    "It wasn't long ago that we had three tofive5 devices in the home. But the research we have now is that it is climbing to eight to 10 devices. They're all placing demands on the home router," said Dan Albertson, Linksys' manager of product development.

    "The real question is how is a router responding to the needs that consumers are throwing at it today," he said. "Historically, we've seen customers moving to a new router every two to four years but not because it was dead, but because of what they were connecting to it -- streaming devices, back up services. The router technology itself has evolved over the last several years to keep pace with the demand."

    Today, not only can we stream high-definition videos (and Netflix ( NFLX) will tell you if your Internet is subpar) to living room TVs, we want to walk around our house with our iPad and get a good quality Internet connection.

    "Consumer needs are changing faster than routers are dying," said Anoop Mohan, Linksys' manager of product management. "Today, you're bringing in (Internet TV) and Netflix, and that's when you can see it breaking and not performing."

    The promise of 802.11ac, Linksys first wireless AC router, which goes on sale this week, targets video users who want to stream high-definition movies sputter-free to their giant TV. D-Link, Netgear and others released AC routers earlier this year.

    But regardless of new data-heavy applications and services, even basic users would benefit from a router upgrade, said Harpalani, with Netgear.

    "Even if you're just browsing the Internet, you'll see a lot more rich media and video content," he said. "If you find that you have to sit in a particular place for your (laptop or tablet or smartphone) to work, then you know you have a problem.

    "You'll find that suddenly, things are slowing down. My behavior hasn't changed but really, your behavior -- and the richer content you're viewing -- has changed."

    This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

    Tamara Chuang is an outside contributor to TheStreet. Her opinions are her own.

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