Home Internet Issues
If you're experiencing slowness or lag using your home internet, this page attempts to help you understand how home internet works and give you some things to try in order to make it better.
How home internet works
There are several "flavors" of home internet technology, with the most common being Cable, DSL, and Satellite. Each of those have their own pros and cons, but in general Cable is the best (and most expensive), followed by DSL (usually a good medium option), and trailed by Satellite (use only if it's the only option in your area).
Regardless of which technology you use, you will pay for a certain amount of bandwidth, which basically just means how much data can you pull down from the internet at once and how much can you upload to the internet at once. Bandwidth is usually represented by Mbps (mega bits per second), and download is usually much higher than upload. For example, your contract may be for 40 Mbps download and 5 Mbps upload.
Activities you regularly do online mostly use the download bandwidth (watching netflix, reading email, surfing websites or social media, etc.), but some activities utilize a significant amount of both download and upload bandwidth (video conferencing in Zoom or Webex, for example).
It's important to know that your actual bandwidth at any given time will fluctuate more than you might think. This is because internet service provider's (ISP) quote you an "up to" amount, meaning that in ideal conditions you will receive a maximum amount equal to the number on your contract. However, the actual amount you get at any given time depends on a lot of factors, not least of which is how much bandwidth are your neighbors using, what sections of your ISPs infrastructure might be down, etc.
You can check your current internet bandwidth by making sure no other device in the house is actively using internet, and then pointing a device (preferably one plugged into ethernet if possible) to https://speedtest.net. This will give you a snapshot of your bandwidth at that moment. So, for example, you are likely to get a different number in the morning (when most people are at work) than you are at night (when everyone is home and netflixing). As long as you're seeing 50% of your quoted maximum or higher, it's probably just normal fluctuation.
One last point - all the devices connected to your network share this same "pipe" of bandwidth. So if you are watching netflix, your partner is on a skype call, and your children are playing an online game, whatever bandwidth you're getting at that moment from your ISP is getting split between all of those functions.
Now that we've explained how that works, here's a list of how much bandwidth common functions take in order to be done as intended and not slowed down or laggy:
- Less than 1 Mbps: email, surfing websites / social media, streaming music
- 1-4 Mbps: streaming standard definition video, skype call with audio only, average online game
- 4-6 Mbps: facetime or skype call with video and audio, video conferencing like Zoom or Webex with video and audio
- 6-8 Mbps: streaming high definition video
- 20+ Mbps: streaming 4k video
So, in our example above, the family would need 21-25 Mbps of bandwidth capacity at that moment in time for all these activities happening simultaneously to feel good / normal speed. If it dipped down to 15 Mbps for a few minutes, the family will start to feel it as slowness / lag / pixelated images because the demand is higher than the capacity.
- 6 Mbps for you streaming high definition netflix
- 3 Mbps for your partner on a skype audio call
- 4 Mbps for one of your children playing an online game
- 3 Mbps for said child also on a separate audio chat service with her friends to talk while playing
- 4 Mbps for your other child playing a different online game
- 1-5 Mbps for wiggle room (higher is obviously better here - the bigger your buffer, the less often bandwidth fluctuations will cause things to feel slow)
The difference between Wifi and Internet
It's important to note that if your device is connected directly to your internet router with an ethernet cable, you pretty much only have to worry about internet bandwidth. However, you likely have many devices connecting to your internet router over wireless, which has its own bandwidth limitations and interference issues. It's entirely possible that internet feels slow to you on a device not because of an internet bandwidth issue, but because of a wireless signal issue instead.
Similarly, your wireless signal icon might indicate "full bars" but things still feel slow because your connection over wireless to your internet router is wonderful, but your internet bandwidth is very low at that moment.
Alright, with all this in mind, what can you do to make your internet faster if it feels slow?
Much like healthcare, it's best to diagnose the problem before treating it. Use https://speedtest.net to help you out with these steps.
- Check your WiFi signal icon first - if the signal is poor, we need to solve that before worrying about internet bandwidth
- If possible, do a speedtest from a device that is plugged into ethernet to see how different it is
- If not possible, move to a different area of the house (as close to your internet router as possible) and run the speed test in various areas
- Try it on a different device, even on the same WiFi to make sure the issue isn't with the device itself
If you determine the issue is WiFi
- Restart the router (or device broadcasting WiFi if separate). Usually this means pulling the power plug and plugging it back in. Just like restarting a computer, this can often fix many issues.
- Disconnect your device from your WiFi and reconnect it
- Restart your device
If none of those have an effect, you likely have a larger issue such as interference or simply a worn out router that is too many years old and needs to be replaced. You may be tempted to buy a "signal booster", but unless you have a very large house, this isn't likely to help you as much as you think.
If you determine the issue is internet bandwidth
- Restart the router. Usually this means pulling the power plug and plugging it back in. Just like restarting a computer, this can often fix many issues.
- Make sure only one device is being used, and run https://speedtest.net. If the result is less than 50% of your contract internet speed, contact your ISP and ask them to take a look. The best way to do this is record the results with date / time stamps so you have facts to give them about your internet speed over time in a given day.
- If the result is between 50-100% of your contract internet speed, it's likely normal fluctuation so you can:
- ask a family member doing a relatively high bandwidth activity to take a break to free up some capacity (or agree on a family schedule, of sorts)
- modify your activities to use less bandwidth (switch from high definition netflix to standard, toggle your webcam off and do audio only, call into the conference with your phone instead of your computer)
- contact your ISP and upgrade your bandwidth to a higher amount (only recommended if this happens frequently)
- 30 people in a zoom or webex takes 30 times as much bandwidth!
- False - more people does increase the requirement, but only marginally - even with a lot of people, the bandwidth requirement should still be in the same range listed above.
- More bandwidth always means faster internet!
- False - remember that bandwidth is more a measure of capacity than speed. If your demand is lower than your capacity, more bandwidth won't be faster, it just gives you more of a buffer. The exception to this is downloading large files - in that case, more bandwidth does equate to more speed.
- I paid for 40 Mbps and my speedtest says I'm only getting 32 Mbps - my ISP is screwing me over!
- False - bandwidth fluctuations are normal. It's a similar idea to airlines always overselling planes because they know there will be no-shows, cancellations, etc.
- I paid for 40 Mbps and my speedtest says I'm only getting 4 Mbps - my ISP is screwing me over!
- Possibly true, but probably false. Make sure there aren't wild bandwidth hogs loose in your house streaming 4k video all over the place when you're doing your test, make sure the problem isn't actually just your WiFi connection, and make sure to reset your router before blaming your ISP.
- Wifi is just as good as ethernet
- False - WiFi has come a long way, but it is still not as good as an ethernet cable plugged in directly from your computer into your router.
- Satellite internet sounds fancy so it must be the best!
- False - satellite internet is always very high latency, so even with lots of bandwidth it will still feel slow and laggy for online games, video conferencing, and skype calls. Plus, it's susceptible to weather and behaves poorly in very cloudy / rainy / snowy situations.