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Troubleshooting Your Small-Business Computer Network

Keep your network running smoothly with these quick tips for business owners.

Running a small or medium-sized business can be a little like playing whack-a-mole: You’re constantly stamping out new problems. One of the most consistent sources of headaches for SBOs is the computer network— specifically, what happens when everything grinds to a halt due to a slow or lost Internet connection.

Sure, you may have mastered the art of delegation, but what do you do if the IT guy is on vacation? Or, a far more terrifying thought: What if you don’t have one?

In this column, we explore some easy troubleshooting tips that don’t require a computer science degree.

Check the Basics

Let’s start with the cables. Is everything plugged in? Turned on? Ethernet cables have a diabolical tendency to pull out halfway; make sure that each one is audibly clicked into place.

What about the LEDs on the side of your modem or router? Are you getting red lights, flashing greens, or a nice solid green? If your Internet connection is on the blink—literally—then try resetting the router before you move on to other steps.

Finally, make sure all the other devices’ connections are active. Turn on the Wi-Fi on every laptop, tablet, and smartphone you want to connect.

Ping the Network

“Ping” is one of those terms that everybody has heard but few really understand. At its simplest, the ping is a networking status check command: one computer sends a tiny packet of data to another computer’s IP address. If the other computer pings back in a timely manner, the network is up and running as it should.

However, if that ping sails unanswered into the void, or if it returns several seconds late, you have a problem somewhere with switching or configuration. Try pinging every device in your office to ensure the local network is working fine. (For a quick series of tips on how to ping a LAN, check out this brief article from eHow tech.)

Running Interference

Sometimes a networking problem is a matter of degree rather than a simple up-or-down proposition. What if your network is running, but it’s running slowly? The problem could be wireless interference.

Many routers use the 2.4 GHz bandwidth that is shared by other devices such as garage door openers, microwaves, and cordless phones. Move the router away from these gadgets and check for improvement. You may also want to consider changing the channel on your router between 1, 6, and 11 to eliminate interference from nearby hotspots. If all else fails, investing in a high-gain antenna could solve these problems for good.

Get the Password

Sadly, a great number of small-business networking problems can be attributed to incorrect passwords. One common source of confusion is that wireless networking includes not one, but three separate passwords: one for your ISP, one to get into the router’s control panel, and one for devices to get on the network.

Check to make sure everybody has these passwords straight and that proper sign-ons are being used across the board. If you’ve forgotten your router’s password, do a full reset and start over with something you can write down. Experts recommend a strong 10-digit password of random numbers and letters.

Protocols

Another common source of missed connections is bad protocols, specifically setting up devices that don’t use compatible wireless signals or security. Wireless networking standards have evolved from 802.11a to 802.11n, passing “b” and “g” along the way.

If your laptops or other devices are equipped with older networking cards, or the router is using a slower protocol than the devices, you’ll likely run into issues with speed and consistency. Check the options on every device on your network and confirm that each component is using the most advanced protocol possible.

Don’t worry if you have some “n’s” mixed in with some “g’s”; Wi-Fi is backward compatible, so opting for speed won’t shut out your legacy hardware.

Which Network?

Do you work in a building with other companies? Do your employees carry their own portable hotspots? Are you located in a loft space above a Starbucks? It’s possible the devices on your network are connecting to wireless access points other than your own.

To check out the situation, go into your router settings and change its broadcast ID (SSID) to something clear and memorable. Then make sure everyone is connecting to the home network—and avoiding the siren song of that free Wi-Fi down the hall.

Check the ISP

It’s possible that after taking all these steps, your network is still stalled. In that case, the problem may lie in the interface between you and your Internet service provider (ISP).

If your firewall settings are blocking access, disable them and check again. If that doesn’t resolve the problem, it’s possible your ISP is suffering an outage. Call and check.

One final possibility: Your ISP is “throttling” your data, or slowing your connection intentionally to impose invisible bandwidth limitations. Depending on where you live, this is either illegal or massively inconvenient. Either way, it’s probably time for a new ISP.

Network Nirvana

There’s no need to suffer with constant network interruptions. If your networking know-how isn’t quite great enough to handle the daily upkeep, you have two options: keep a clever young employee around to help, or get your network installed by a team of professionals.

Once everything is humming along as it should, you can put away the giant mole mallet and go back to running your business in the blissful flow of a ready data stream.

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