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Why Your Wi-Fi Router Might Lock Out Your Older Devices

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Upgrading your home router can be anything from a simple, almost automated process to a tremendous pain. But things tend to go off the deep end of the annoyance scale when you notice your old devices won’t connect no matter what you try.

This can sometimes happen when WPA3, the latest Wi-Fi security standard, doesn’t support your old device. The good news is, there are a few ways around this problem. The bad news is, you’re probably better off just buying a brand new laptop or tablet.

WPA3 Is a Pretty Vital Upgrade

Someone plugging an Ethernet cable into the back of a Wi-Fi router.
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WPA3, or Wi-Fi Protected Access 3, is the successor to WPA2. It is also the security protocol that keeps modern Wi-Fi networks safe. WPA3 was introduced in 2018, 12 years after WPA2 made its debut.

The tech world advances at an almost lightning pace, so 12 years is a long time for any standard to be around, let alone a common security one. The current standard includes four features its predecessor doesn’t have: public network privacy, brute-force attack protection; more accessible connection options for display-free devices; and higher security for government, defense, and industrial applications.

WPA3 also became mandatory for Wi-Fi-certified devices in July 2020. So if you bought your new router since then, you’re using WPA3 now, or your network is at least capable of supporting it.

But despite rolling out four years ago, not all devices and routers have moved over from WPA2. It’s also worth noting that WPA3 isn’t some impenetrable super-protocol either. No protocol or device is 100% safe; in fact, a security researcher discovered an exploit in 2021 that worked on every Wi-Fi protocol from WPA3 to its 1990s ancestor, WEP. While it’s the nature of this particular beast, WPA3 is still immensely superior to WPA2.

The Upgrade Could Lock Some Older Devices Out of Your Network

Devices manufactured around the time of WPA3’s debut and beyond should be okay, as companies saw the upgrade coming and prepared for it. Some devices from around that early period also have updates to enable them to connect to WPA3 networks.

Pile of old used laptop computers, digital tablets, smartphones for recycling on white table. Planned obsolescence, e-waste, electronic waste for reuse and recycle concept

However, go back a little further, and you’re likely to come into issues. You can’t build a device and guarantee it will work with a protocol that doesn’t exist yet. Older hardware may also be incapable of installing the update that included WPA3 compatibility.

Older devices running older software are also a security nightmare, so locking them out makes sense for a couple of reasons. The main one is, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If you’re upgrading your home network for the security benefits, that old phone or tablet is probably the easiest way through your defenses. So the inevitable complete withdrawal of support for WPA2 devices makes a lot of sense from a security perspective—and security is the main reason for the upgrade in the first place.

Downgrading to WPA2 Will Fix the Problem, but It’s a Bad Idea

If everything you own won’t work with a new WPA3 protocol, the obvious solution is to roll back to the one that functioned, right? Wrong. Although admitting a treasured tablet you’ve spent years prodding while sprawled on the couch is obsolete may sting a little, that’s just the way things work in technology; things either break or become outdated fast. You’re unlikely to be using most of the tech you currently own in five years, never mind being able to hand it down to your grandkids.

July 11, 2017: Entering password on smartphone close-up. Finger press number while entering code

Say you decide to cling to your old electronics no matter what; that loyalty comes at a heavy price. When a standard shifts, companies withdraw support for obsolete protocols and software. This support isn’t just there to fix apparent bugs—it also fends off the hoard of hackers continuously probing every bit of code available for exploits. Those exploits are regularly found, even in supported software.

The difference with supported software is the company that made its reaction to attacks. When a hacker finds a vulnerability, the company quickly becomes aware of this. That company then puts every effort into patching the exploit and rolling that patch out as soon as possible. This is well worth doing with your latest software.

It isn’t worth supporting the obsolete stuff a small fraction of your customer base insists on clinging to. The exploits will only worsen and become more numerous as modern computing becomes more powerful by comparison, and the number of people who benefit from that support is negligible.

Some Routers Allow for a Transitional Period

A Wi-Fi router in the dark.

If you’re desperate to cling to your WPA2 devices until they die a natural death, there is some good news. While it may have been impossible for device manufacturers to prepare for the standard switch, the company that made your router may have allowed for some backward compatibility.

A WPA2/WPA3 transitional mode is available on some routers. This will allow all of your devices to connect to your home network. The newer devices capable of using WPA3—more recent tablets, laptops, and phones—will connect using the more secure protocol, while devices limited to WPA2 will connect with that.

You’ll have to dig around your router’s settings to enable transitional mode. Although this may sound daunting, you’re more than likely just typing a string of numbers into your browser’s address bar and then clicking a setting from “off” to “on” or selecting an option from a drop-down menu.

Dumping Your Old Devices May Still Be The Best Idea

Closeup cropped portrait of someone tossing old notebook computer in trash can, isolated outdoors green trees background

Support is also withdrawn from older tech because letting an older device in would introduce security vulnerabilities. You wouldn’t spend a fortune turning your house into Fort Knox while leaving an old-fashioned single-pane window near the back door. There’s no point.

Even if you keep your Wi-Fi network open to a ten-year-old device, the company responsible for that device’s security has almost certainly withdrawn support by now. Plus, the chances are that it isn’t powerful enough to run the latest incarnations of their software, even if it was made available.

So, like the windowpane we mentioned, that old device is an easy way in for hackers. Even if the rest of your home security is solid, it’s only as strong as its weakest point—which is an old phone or laptop in this case.

This doesn’t apply to all devices equally. A five-year-old phone is more likely to struggle with 2022’s software than a five-year-old laptop, as smartphones have shorter lifespans. But either way, incompatibility with something like the current Wi-Fi standard is probably a sign you should move on.

Dave McQuilling Dave McQuilling
Dave McQuilling has spent over 10 years writing about almost everything, but technology has always been one of his main interests. He has previously worked for newspapers, magazines, radio stations, websites, and television stations in both the US and Europe. Read Full Bio »