Troubleshooting Random Disconnecting in Wireless Windows Networks

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Windows XP and Wireless Network Trouble

I had a Netgear wireless router for several years. It only handled 802.11b, but then again, my laptops only came with Intel Wireless built in that supported 802.11b (or so I thought). But, times change. My laptop is better and will support 802.11g and more. My desktop has always sat around wondering what that 54Mbps setting was for on the wireless adapter. So, when I started having trouble with my wireless networking dropping connections, I searched the Internet for answers.Pretty much every forum, board, and technical article I found via Google and other means all said the exact same thing.

  1. Send / Post all of your data so we can help troubleshoot
  2. We have ignored all posted data and suggest that you Change Your Channel - maybe your neighbor’s wireless is interfering with yours
  3. Update Your Drivers
  4. Blame Your Cordless Phone - they can use the same frequency as your wireless
  5. Blame Something Asinine - it might be your microwave
  6. Recommend Buying New Hardware

And so, I bought a new very nice wireless router. The problem? Well, my network still kept randomly disconnecting my computers.

Oh, Wireless router, from hell’s heart I stab at thee.

It’s Window’s Fault - I Knew It

The weird thing about my issue was that it wasn’t a real problem. On the computer that was disconnected all you had to do was Disable it and then Enable it and it worked like a champ. No settings needed changing, no tweaks were required- nothing. All that needed to happen was for the wireless network to be tried again. Was was really weird was that Windows thought the network was working just fine. It said Connected, the icon in the system tray never changed to have the red X on it, nothing. As far as it was concerned, the network was up and running.

Windows, till the end, I grapple with thee.

The main difficulty in troubleshooting computers is that people always think they have all the information when they usually don’t. I can’t count the number of times I got phone calls from users who just “suddenly” started having trouble with their computers when they hadn’t done “anything.” After hours, I’d find out that they had unplugged the network cable over the weekend to plug in their laptop. “Oh, I didn’t think that would matter.” And, I was high-end computer systems administration, I didn’t even deal with the real knucklehead stuff.

And, so it was with me. I didn’t “suddenly” start having trouble with my wireless network. I started having trouble with my wireless network when I started working from home on the same days my wife was working from home. More specifically, I started having trouble when one of our laptops was turned on when another was already on. I wouldn’t connect the dots for weeks, until one day while sitting on the couch with my laptop, my beautiful wife joined me and turned on her laptop, and my laptop promptly lost its network connection. Ah-hah!

The Browser

I won’t bore you with how many things I tried, but eventually I zeroed in on one thing. On the computers that disconnect (it was not constant which one got dropped) there was always an event in Event Viewer that proclaimed that the computer would be starting a browser election.

For those of you who are not familiar with the inner workings of Microsoft networking, let me fill in some details. Microsoft’s first attempt at networking was, of course, to ignore the established standards and build their own “simpler” networking. The result was something so simple that it was entirely worthless on anything but the smallest networks. But, it worked fabulously on those. In order to know what other computers were out there and how to reach them, one computer kept something called the browse list which is just a list of computers on the network and their addresses. The computer that kept the list was the Master Browser. Now, in order to make this all “easy” there was no user involvement. Instead, behind the scenes, the computers would “elect” a master browser. When a computer was turned on, it needed to know who the master browser was. So, it would broadcast a signal on the network. This is like the dad in your neighborhood who gets his kid to come home by shouting loud enough for everyone in three blocks to hear.

So, the master browser (and all the other computers) would get this broadcast and the master browser would respond to let the new computer know that he was the master browser. Sometimes, the new computer would think that it should be the Master Browser, so it would force an election to see who the new master browser would be.

And, so it begins.

This post is part of the series: Advanced Troubleshooting Wireless Random Wireless Disconnection on Windows Networks

If you’ve already done all of regular stuff like changing the channel, changing your WEP/WPA, relocating your router and PC, and updating drivers, then this might be what you are looking for.

  1. Random Wireless Networking Disconnect
  2. Wireless Windows Networks & Random Disconnects