Why Your Internet Is Slow
Is your Internet performing below its advertised speed? Is it unusually sluggish when it comes to watching Netflix or uploading your latest videos to YouTube? Before you start blaming your ISP for some nefarious blocking or throttling scheme, there are a few steps you should take to ensure that your computers or networking gear are not at fault.
My first step when I experience any slowdown in my bandwidth is to test the speed on another device to see if there’s a problem on my network or the device itself. This isn’t a definitive test, but it’s a good starting point. I pull up Speedtest.net on my computer browser and run a speed test for my home network to see if my bandwidth is close to what I should be experiencing on my network. For optimal results you should connect your computer directly to your modem via an Ethernet cable. We’ll get to why in a moment, and if you have a MacBook Air or don’t have an Ethernet cable (or laptop), don’t worry.
Once you determine that your Internet speed is below what you currently pay for there are several reasons (and some solutions). The first response to any and all slow network problems is that your packets have gotten backed up and your download or upload is stuck without your program letting you know. So kill your download and if you’re feeling extra fancy, reboot your Wi-Fi radio on the device at a minimum or your device at best. Then try it all again.
What’s Up with Your Wi-Fi?
But sometimes, your home network is to blame. So if you’re ready to point fingers at your wireless network, it’s often the biggest culprit behind a persistently slow network. This is why it’s best to try to plug into your modem for a speed test, because then you can see if your problem goes away with a direct link to the network.
When it comes to Wi-Fi, the easiest problem to solve is one of older gear. (This is after you reboot your router and modem of course!) Like phones or computers, Wi-Fi routers (the machines that convert the signals from your modem into a Wi-Fi signal) grow obsolete after a few years. Current Wi-Fi routers are using a radio standard called 802.11a/c, which can handle gigabit network speeds. You may not need these speeds, but if your router is operating at anything other than 802.11a/c or the previous generation’s 802.11n, which can handle network speeds of 300 Mbps, then you might want to spring for an upgrade.
It’s not just the radio standard that matters. Newer beam-forming technology inside modern routers mean that multiple devices can share limited capacity more efficiently from a single router. Additionally, your router should offer the ability to seamlessly switch between the 2.4GHz and 5GHz channels inside your home. These are the two frequency bands that we use for Wi-Fi devices in the U.S., and for the most part, the 2.4 GHz band is pretty crowded with devices talking to one another.
So in many homes, the 5GHz band is still relatively uncluttered, which makes it a good channel for many high bandwidth applications where losing packets results in a noticeable degradation in quality. Things like streaming video, video calls, and even gaming are good candidates for the 5GHz channel, although as more devices come on the market that can switch between the frequencies, this band will likely see more clutter.
Finally on the Wi-Fi front, even if you have a modern router with all the bells and whistles, you may be placing it in a terrible location, which means that while the closet where you keep your router has a speedy connection, the rest of your home does not. To solve that problem, you may have to move your router or invest in access points.
Of course, maybe your Internet isn’t slower than the advertised speed. Maybe it’s just generally slow. If that’s the case it could be a function of where you live. In February 2015, the FCC released the findings of its Broadband Progress Report, which noted a grim divide between rural and urban Americans and their ability to get broadband. For purposes of the report, the agency had just upgraded the definition of broadband to 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up, and had realized that at those speeds, 17 percent of all Americans (55 million people) don’t have access to broadband. When broken down into rural and urban differences, only 47 percent of rural Americans have access to those speeds, while 92 percent of urban Americans do.
Of course, when the FCC is counting households with access to broadband it is using the National Broadband Map, which only tracks availability of broadband at the ZIP code level. This is notoriously inaccurate given that DSL speed can be different depending on a distance of meters not miles, and because a cable provider might serve one office park, but not another across a highway. For a galling example of how ridiculous this can be, go read the Consumerist story of this man who purchased a home in Kitsap County, Washington, and discovered that of the 10 available providers listed on the National Broadband Map, his new home had none.
Still, for anyone who has lived in an area where their only broadband options are slow DSL or satellite, it’s clear that sometimes, your broadband Internet is slow because you live in an area where competition and investment has passed you by. If that’s the case, then all the new routers or rebooting in the world will not help. That’s when you have to move.