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Traffic Congestion

The Computer Corner

By Charles Miller

Recently I had the chance to enjoy the holidays by visiting with my family, and that always means I am going to be on the receiving end of some Information Technology questions. The first one came from my brother, who lives in a large apartment complex and noted that his Wi-Fi was not working as well as he thought it should. He explained that his desktop computer connected to the Internet without any problems; however, his tablet and smart TV just did not work well.

I went to work running some diagnostic tests on the status of the Wi-Fi and discovered there were 84 wireless access points broadcasting in the immediate vicinity. This is a bit of a problem and here is why: manufacturers of wireless-connected devices have agreed to use certain radio frequencies in the 2.4 GHz band and there are only three nonoverlapping frequencies allocated. When there are 84 wireless access points trying to share only three channels there is going to be some traffic congestion.

My brother wanted to know how the system handles such problems and the answer is found in the beautiful way the TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) was designed. Communications on the Internet are broken up into small packets rather than continuous connections. Imagine a photograph you want to send to somebody as being a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. You cannot send it all at once because the corner mailbox only accepts letter-sized packets. So you address a thousand envelopes and send one piece in each one. When you get to the mailbox there is another neighbor there dropping his or her 1,000 letters in the mail slot one by one. You take turns putting handfuls of letters in the mail slot and nobody worries about getting letters mixed up because each has its own address.

This scenario might work out okay with only a few neighbors and one mailbox, but if suddenly there are 84 people lined up and 1,000, 10,000, or more letters to mail, there will be some delays. When the mailbox fills to capacity, then some neighbors have to wait for the postman to come empty the box and hope the postman is driving a truck large enough to transport armfuls of letters. In this analogy, all the letters would eventually get delivered but some would necessarily be delayed a bit. So long as that delay is not too long then everything works okay.

In my brother’s case his smart TV was connected wirelessly to the Internet, or rather sometimes connected, through his wireless modem that was about eight feet away. There was so much radio traffic from his neighbors that, even being that close, the television was not able to consistently stream online videos. The latency amounted to fractions of a second, no problem for email but too much for streaming video. The solution to this problem: a 10-foot Ethernet cable. A hardwired Internet connection has none of the problems that make wireless so unreliable.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981 and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101 8528 or email FAQ8 (at)


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