How to Solve Your Network Problem
A Step-by-Step Roadmap to Network Nirvana
Do you have a network problem and don't know what to do next? This article will help you use PingPlotter (and other tools) to identify the issue, isolate the source and effectively communicate with your network or hardware provider.
Whether you're a gamer, VoIP subscriber, secret agent, or just a general network user - the results of sporadic network trouble can be insanely frustrating. You may have already encountered this in the following symptoms:
- Opponents spawning out of thin air during online games
- Video suddenly pausing during the climax of your movie
- Constantly interrupting people (accidentally, of course) during phone calls
- Missing a business opportunity because you were not aware of it in time
- Blown cover, being disavowed, and becoming imprisoned in a foreign country
When this happens, it often seems like there's no solution - and it can be difficult to even know where to look for answers. Don't concede defeat, or give those prison guards the intel they've been torturing you for just yet* - network nirvana is within reach!
*If you're actually being held as a prisoner/being tortured - we actually can't help out much here, and you should probably reach out to your nation's nearest embassy at this point. Good luck!
Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept it:
...is to identify your problem, isolate it, and solve it as quickly as possible - without all the nastiness of the Spanish Inquisition. The following steps, and worksheet will help aid you along your journey:
Identify Your Enemy
Before you sit down and start formulating attack strategies - you need to determine where to attack. At this phase, you know you have a problem to solve - but the culprit could be any number of different things. You need to narrow it down. Grab a pen and a copy of our worksheet, and write down the problem you've been encountering - as well as its impact to you. For example:
- My online game is lagging / I can't keep up with my competitors
- My VoIP line has a noticeable echo / Having a conversation is difficult - both parties talk over and interrupt each other
- My connection to a streaming video service is very bad / poor quality makes it impossible to watch my favorite TV show
- My mission plans keep prematurely self-destructing / I've been gathering intelligence on all the wrong targets
Having a clear problem, as well as it's impact, will help to focus your efforts in the right direction; as well as creating a message that can be easily understood by others.
Sporadic network issues are often very difficult to troubleshoot if the only evidence of these issues is subjective. Your goal here is to gather objective data; which will make your issue easier to communicate to others, and thus easier to troubleshoot.
The key to this process is to gather data while you're experiencing problems, as well as problem free times. By doing this, you can identify the patterns that take place when your problem occurs.
You'll need some sort of tool to help assist you in gathering data. PingPlotter (Standard or Pro) can provide a great way to capture any patterns that occur, as well as display them in easy to understand, detailed graphs. Furthermore, it can also act as your surrogate in your testing process - it can monitor connections 24/7, so you'll have a record of all instances of your issue, even when you're not experiencing it first hand. You can download PingPlotter here. The manual, as well as our Getting Started Guide both provide great information on all of the features the tool has to offer, as well as how to use them.
Once you have PingPlotter (Standard or Pro) installed and running - the ideal method to start your testing is as follows:
- Set the "# of times to trace" to "Unlimited"
- Set your trace interval to 2.5 seconds
- Enter the website/server you've been having trouble with in the "address to trace"
- Click the "Trace" button (or push enter on your keyboard)
PingPlotter will begin to populate route information on the target you've selected in both the upper trace graph, and the lower timeline graph. At this point it's also a good time to configure PingPlotter to automatically save your data.
Once everything is up and running - keep things running continuously, and go about your business as usual. Play your game, make some phone calls, or marathon the latest season of your favorite show. When issues arise, make notes as to what symptoms you experienced (as well as any pattern you noticed) in the issue log of the worksheet, as well as in PingPlotter itself (a topic covered in the time graph annotation of our manual). This information will be crucial in later steps of this process.
Continue this testing process until you've got at least 30 minutes worth of data collected. Ideally, you should continue this process until you've gathered enough data to capture the times you experience problems, and times you do not. This will give you a more in-depth view of your situation, and help you identify any patterns that occur.
Using your notes (and worksheet) - go back over your PingPlotter graphs, and see if you can discover any reoccurring patterns. We have some great resources on interpreting graph results in the understanding output section of our product manual, as well as some very useful information (and a variety of examples) in the VoIP troubleshooting section section. Our "How do I pinpoint the problem" article is also a great source to reference here.
Your goal is to find a recognizable pattern in your graph(s) that is affecting performance at your final destination (problems that occur at intermediate hops, but not the final destination aren't necessarily something to worry about here - see our "One poorly responding router" router article). From here, you can go back and review the hops leading up to your final destination, and establish where this pattern begins. Once you've identified the point where your issue seems to be originating from, you can create a theory as to what may be causing it, and run further tests to prove (or disprove) that theory.
The best methods of testing isolate variables in order to better, and more accurately narrow things down. What can you add or remove from your testing to try and prove where your problem may be?
- If your trouble could be something hardware related in your network - plug straight into the first provider owned piece of equipment in your home or business, and test from there (most providers begin their troubleshooting with this tactic).
- If you're using a wireless connection between your computer and your provider's equipment - move to a wired connection.
- If your issue may be with the target you're tracing to - are there similar targets you can try (different game or VoIP servers)?
- Can you test from a different provider to see if results are similar (from a friends house, coffee shop, or mobile hotspot)?
If changing a variable changes your results (and PingPlotter can capture those results!) then you know to focus on that point for a possible solution. Be sure to keep track of any tests and their results in the "Testing Log" portion of the worksheet - as it can expedite getting help from another party, and will remind you in the future if your issue happens to resurface.
Now that you've managed to narrow things down - there are two categories that your issue will fall into: problems you can directly fix yourself - and problems you'll need to get outside assistance with (such as contacting an internet or equipment provider).
If you're fortunate enough to have an easily fixable problem (we're using the terms 'fortunate' and 'easily' very loosely here), a solution may be as simple as switching out a faulty cable. Once you know the root cause of the issue, you can create a plan to go about attacking the problem at it's source, and finally get things resolved. Some possible solutions at this point may include:
- Replacing an old/outdated router
- Moving from a wireless connection to a wired one
- Switching the router's power source
- Replacing a network switch
This phase in the process may have to be repeated - once you've implemented a potential fix, go back and test to make sure that you've truly resolved your issue. If you find that your issue persists after you've attempted to fix it, then you've crossed one possibility off the list, and you can move on to testing the next one. PingPlotter can be a great help here, as you can use it to see if your pattern persists after you've implemented a potential fix.
If your issue falls into the latter category, and you find yourself in need of assistance - then it may be time to get in touch with a customer service representative. This can often be one of the more daunting tasks in the troubleshooting process - but luckily, you've been taking steps to prepare for this stage - and the rest of this article will help guide you through what can sometimes be a very frustrating territory.
Assembling the Team
Before you reach out to anyone, there are a few things you'll want to keep in mind:
- Depending on the severity of your issue, it could potentially take a few days to a few weeks to get a resolution to erratic problems. Be patient!
- You can preemptively complete some basic troubleshooting steps. Odds are, your ISP will have you try things like rebooting your router. If you've been following the steps here so far - you're ready to go!
- Research your issue (sites like DSLReports.com have lots of great info and guidance).
- Have all of your info ready BEFORE you initiate any contact - including your test results,worksheet, account number, and a description of your problem.
- Show as much information about the problem as possible. PingPlotter share pages are useful for this because they include a screenshot plus a downloadable data file that someone else can open and analyze with their copy of PingPlotter.
- Be concise - explain your issue in detail, but don't go overboard.
- Be polite (but not a push-over). Be friendly, be clear, and stay persistent. Try to avoid getting upset - as this usually won't help your case.
- Use our included worksheet to keep track of employee ID numbers, names, dates, and the outcomes of any conversations you may have (you may need to reference them later on!).
As tempting as it may be; don't only provide the "worst-case scenario" examples of your data; results like this are too easy to dismiss as something that wouldn't normally happen. Provide consistent data; show them the things you've been seeing on a regular basis. Be concise about the tests you ran, and how you ran them.
Now that you're ready to reach out for assistance, where do you start? Most providers will have three options:
- Email/Online support ticket: This is a great way to keep track of all of your correspondence, and it provides an easy way to submit your data. Keep in mind, however, that emails and support tickets usually have more of an extended turn time - meaning that it may take a few days to get a response.
- Phone: If you're looking for a fast way to get your issue known, this is it. Phone calls usually take top priority, and with a live person on the other end, it can be a bit easier to explain what you've been seeing. You also have the opportunity to build a connection with the agent(s) that you work with, which may aid in creating a sense of urgency that can help get your issue addressed in a more timely fashion. The downside? You need a way to submit your data to them, multiple phone calls may been needed, and other than your worksheet notes - you have no record of your conversations.
- Online chat: A great option if it's available. You can get a real person, and easily convey your point/share your data. Essentially, you get the best qualities of both email and phone call. It is, however, very hard to build the same rapport that you get with making a phone call - so your problem may become less urgent to them.
It can be a good practice to take a mixed approach (such as emailing first, and then calling in) to help ensure you're covering all of your preverbal bases.
Once your case is made, and you've provided your data - give the representative(s) a chance to work on your issue - keeping in mind that it may not be an easy fix. Odds are, they'll need to go through their processes - so you may be asked for more info, be subject to additional tests, and you'll probably have to wait on hold at some point. If they ask you to preform tests you've already done - calmly explain this, and provide them with your results. If they continue to insist you preform a test again - do so (within reason), as they may be attempting to monitor results from their end. They may ask that you attempt to isolate things by eliminating variables (which you've already done prior to contact, right?). As long as you're getting what seem to be helpful responses, and it seems like they're working diligently, let them continue to do so.
Upping the Ante
If your provider is no longer "participating" as a part of the solution, they may have become a part of your problem. The biggest sign that things may be taking a turn for the worse is when you start to notice pushback from the agent(s) you've been working with. If any of these statements cause deja vu:
- "We're not seeing any issues on our end."
- "Would it be possible for you to run some additional tests?" (which include tests you've already run)
- "We're not sure what's happening, but we'll keep looking into it and get back to you."
- "Unfortunately, there's nothing more we can do to help."
...stay calm, and start asking for clarification!
- If they aren't seeing any issues; what are they seeing, or expecting you to see?
- What tests are they running, and what results are they getting?
- If they need more tests; what's the difference between the first tests, and the ones they're presenting now?
- If they're telling you “we'll get back to you”, schedule specific dates/times for a callback.
If you're getting the dreaded “there's nothing more we can do”... you might need to step things up, and go over their head. It may be time to get your issue escalated.
A common misconception in escalating is that speaking to a manager/supervisor will get things “fast-tracked”, but this isn't always the case. Speaking to a manager is a great option if you've just had an unpleasant conversation with an agent; but if you're hoping to get your issue resolved, you may be speaking to the wrong person. These authority figures are there to oversee the employees, handle complaints, and approve timecards. Odds are, they have no idea what your problem even is, or how to fix it.
Your best bet is to get an idea of how the company is structured (and you can always ask!). Do they have a tier #1, #2, #3 style setup? Is there another agent/department that handles complex issues (like a help desk)? Can you speak to the network or product engineering team? (Note: this may be the ultimate goal, but in our experience, it's usually difficult to reach anyone in that department). Any of these options would be a step in the right direction.
The steps in the escalating process may have to be repeated a few times (depending on your provider's structure). It may even become necessary to escalate to a few different departments. When it gets to a point that it's obvious that the provider isn't going to take responsibility (whether they refuse to acknowledge the problem, decline to assist you in further troubleshooting, or if you notice you're in a never-ending loop of running the same tests), then you may only have one remaining option.
When All Else Fails... Go Nuclear
This stage in the process is relatively uncharted territory. There's really no right or wrong way to approach it (although, we don't recommend threats of violence, hunger strikes, arson, or other actions along this line of thought).
Some who have gotten this far have reported success trying to escalate straight to the top - writing letters or making phone calls to the company's executives or presidents (if you can hunt down the mailing addresses/phone numbers). If you can't make any progress here, it may be worth contacting the Better Business Bureau, or even FCC Consumer Complaints.
Social media is an excellent way to raise awareness to your issue. Companies will try to address any negative feedback on public platforms very quickly. They do not want a frustrated customer venting in a public forum - as these things have a tendency to go viral. It may prove beneficial to hop on your provider's Facebook/Twitter/etc and post about your frustrations. If you're planning to use social media, and you're still actively in contact with your provider, you may even bring this fact up to the agent(s) you're working with - as this can sometimes help apply some useful pressure.
If you've successfully navigated the course, and obtained that highly sought after solution to the problem that began this whole endeavor in the first place... then grab a drink, kick back, and relax! You could even hop back onto the internet, seeing as how you conquered a seemingly impossible mission, and achieved network nirvana!
Be sure to give kudos to anyone that may have helped you on the path to solving your problem (any helpful agents you worked with, or any coworkers/friends that may have helped). An appreciative word can make someone's day (and make you feel better too!). If you had to resort to social media, make sure to post about your success; spreading a little good karma to the world never hurts, right?
Finishing off the worksheet and documenting your findings is always a great step to take; if your problem ever reoccurs, you'll have a way to get to a solution much faster the next time around. You can also share your story, and your findings online. Other people with similar circumstances may be able to benefit from the information and expertise you're able to provide!
Be sure to let us know about your story so we can share it as well!