Sticky Wi-Fi Problem: Why Your Phone Hangs Up on You

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It’s a problem we call “sticky Wi-Fi”: Our mobile inclination are reaching for Wi-Fi hotspots they can “see” though can’t unequivocally bond to, while ignoring dungeon towers all around. The outcome is that a always-on cloud-connected inclination unexpected aren’t. Apps hang, maps blank, downloads stall, calls drop, messages fail, exasperation ensues.

It happens when we’re pulling out of a driveway, flitting a store we’ve visited before, impending a home with a same wire provider or even boarding an airplane.

And it’s expected to continue as prolonged as mobile internet providers and handset makers pull us to use Wi-Fi to perform a ever-increasing need for bandwidth. As many as 80% of existent trade on mobile inclination is already carried over Wi-Fi, according to Michael Calabrese, a wireless consultant during a inactive consider tank New America.

Even a many simple duty of a cellphones—making a call—is being pushed onto Wi-Fi. Both iPhones and Android inclination embody a environment that enables calls to be routed over Wi-Fi, that is a bonus where dungeon use is singular inside buildings, though a problem when we travel out a doorway and your phone fails to palm off a call to a mobile network.

Solutions are available, though one reason they’re not some-more widespread is misaligned incentives: They need tech giants like Apple and Google to deposit in new systems—perhaps even redesign how a information moves around a internet—and they’re not indispensably in a position to distinction from that.

How we got here

The problem is secure in a elemental inlet of Wi-Fi and a internet, says Tony Werner, boss of record at

Comcast
.

The Wi-Fi standard’s pattern assumes a device perplexing to bond to a hotspot is something like a laptop, with a comparatively vast receiver and adequate appetite to energy it.

With their smaller, comparatively low-power antennas, a phones are stranded in a bind: They can “see” a Wi-Fi beacon, though they don’t have a oomph to promulgate with it. While your phone competence uncover a bar or dual of Wi-Fi connection, “the dispatcher trade can't utterly strech it,” says Mr. Werner. The technical name for this materialisation is “beacon overreach.”

The problem is compounded by networks that are on though not always available: a hotel network that requires a guest login, a aeroplane network that connects to a use during 10,000 feet. Devices can connect, though there competence not be any internet there.

Every time your device jumps from one network to another, there’s a cost in mislaid time and interrupted service. On a internet, connectors between your device and a several servers it talks to during any given time are brittle—the dual have a singular dedicated channel. If a tie is severed, it can’t usually collect adult where it left off, though contingency reinstate a tie once your device is behind online. Any switch from a serviceable network to an obsolete one, in other words, is a probable forsaken call or stalled download.

Comcast has blanketed a areas it serves with a possess customers’ Wi-Fi routers. By default, they’re manifest and open—and any other Comcast business can use them free, if they’re logged in. As we can attest, my phone mostly thatch onto them while I’m driving, heading to occasional interruptions.

The evident fix

Comcast is perplexing to solve this problem by obscure a energy of a Wi-Fi hotspot beacons, Mr. Werner says, creation it so that phones see them usually when they can promulgate with them. That rollout is still in swell and a association is being discreet so as not to reduce customers’ service.

Various Android phone makers have also attempted to solve a gummy Wi-Fi problem during a device level, by charity discretionary settings that make a phone quicker to switch to a phone’s mobile tie when Wi-Fi appears weak.

Since a introduction of iOS 9 in 2015, Apple has offering Wi-Fi Assist. The underline switches a iOS device to mobile anytime it detects a presumably bad Wi-Fi connection. It’s on by default but, as scarcely any iPhone user can tell you, it doesn’t seem to have solved a problem.

One of a reasons device-level solutions to a gummy Wi-Fi problem don’t seem to work is that inclination are confident if they find a Wi-Fi router’s guide signal. They’re not actively checking if a router is means to yield an internet connection, says Fraser Stirling, a comparison clamp boss during Comcast whose organisation is obliged for Wi-Fi routers. His team’s research of networkwide device opening is one reason a association motionless to change a inclination to solve a gummy Wi-Fi problem.

The Wi-Fi Alliance, an attention organisation that maintains a Wi-Fi standard, combined a opposite resolution called Wi-Fi Vantage. In theory, it can do all from handing off your device from one Wi-Fi network to another to gripping your device on mobile when a Wi-Fi tie isn’t good.

However, a record requires that device makers and use providers adopt it. It’s wholly discretionary and not partial of any of a stream or destiny Wi-Fi standards, says Kevin Robinson, a Alliance’s clamp boss of marketing. It’s not transparent because Wi-Fi Vantage hasn’t been some-more widely adopted, other than a common disaster to commend a problems it could solve.

Better ideas

Since integrated program fixes don’t seem to go distant enough, some developers have experimented with a somewhat some-more chief option.

A startup called Connectify built a service, Speedify, that tests—sometimes mixed times a second—whether a device’s tie to an existent or just-joined Wi-Fi network indeed works. If it doesn’t, a use switches to a mobile connection. The reason Speedify isn’t for everybody is that it requires users to bond by a practical private network, or VPN. That means trade going to and from a user device is routed by a company’s servers.

The VPN allows a use to be an surrogate between your device and all a ways it connects to a internet, either it’s Wi-Fi or cellular, says Connectify Chief Executive Alex Gizis.

But VPNs can have many issues, from speed to security. Naturally, Mr. Gizis says Connectify doesn’t view on a customers. The biggest emanate with a VPN resolution is scalability. “I think Apple doesn’t wish to have hundreds of thousands of servers around a web to do [this],” he adds.

Google also built a VPN complement many like this one, and it’s rolling it out to business of a Google Fi wireless service. Since Google Fi is designed to run on mixed networks that Google has engaged with—not usually Wi-Fi though also mobile networks from T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular—it creates clarity that a association would wish some approach to well-spoken out a handoffs.

Just don’t demeanour to a entrance 5G wireless rollout to make a problem go away. Unlike 3G and 4G, that were specific cellular-network upgrades, 5G is a patchwork of improvements to a network infrastructure. In fact, one early square of a 5G plan is even some-more Wi-Fi.

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Write to Christopher Mims during christopher.mims@wsj.com

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