Dear Lifehacker, I have a fast internet connection, but it doesn't always earn the title. Sometimes, I get half the speed I pay for during certain times of the day. Other times, my upstream connection barely works. I've done all the usual modem resetting tech support always requires, but I still have the problem. Any ideas? Sincerely, Sporadically Sluggish
Yes, I have a lot of ideas! Internet connections slow down for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the fault belongs to your internet service provider (ISP) and sometimes the culprit is you. It may be a little bit of both. Let's take a look at some common causes of internet slowdown and get to the bottom of this.
It's Not Your Connection, It's Your Wi-Fi
You have a fast connection, but Wi-Fi can degrade that speed in all sorts of ways. Most people won't enjoy all their bandwidth, because Wi-Fi reception usually sucks. There are numerous ways to improve it, but they will only take you so far. When using the internet wirelessly, you often have to lower your expectations.
Let's take a look at what you can expect under ideal circumstances:
- Using 802.11ac: Around 50-80Mbps (downstream), depending on the quality of your reception. Unless you have an internet connection capable of exceeding those speeds (NBN or cable), you probably don't have to worry about slowness.
- Using 802.11n: Around 25-30Mbps (downstream), and much less if you have poor reception. Although 802.11n theoretically can handle faster speeds, and certain routers can boost your bandwidth a bit using technologies like MIMO, speeds in this range are pretty common.
- Using 802.11g: Around 5-15Mbps (downstream). It's probably time to upgrade your router if you have a faster connection.
Before you assume you aren't getting the best possible speed, make sure your expectations are correct. Try the same slow download or run a speed test from a computer that's hard-wired (via gigabit ethernet, preferably) and compare the results. If that machine provides the speeds you expect, you have a Wi-Fi problem. If that's happening in a part of your home prone to interference issues, move somewhere else if you can. If you want to improve your Wi-Fi reception to avoid these sorts of issues, however, try these tips.
It's Not Your Connection, It's Someone Else's
Just because a speed test reveals your connection is capable of certain data rates doesn't mean you'll always get them. For example, if your connection provides 25Mbps downstream, the server you're connecting to has to provide the same speed upstream in order for you to see the benefit. You're not the only one connecting, so that's a lot of bandwidth. Major sites do have crazy amounts of bandwidth and can match your speeds on numerous occasions, but many will not. This doesn't mean there's something wrong with your connection, but that the server you're connecting to cannot match your speeds.
How can you tell? If your speed test looks good, that's one sign. Personally, I like to have a reliable server I can connect to and download from at a specific rate. I test those speeds to find out if I can max out my connection or not. Web hosts tend to work well. So does Usenet. If you don't have a good place to check outside of a speed test, keep an eye out for generally reliable sites with downloadable content. When you come across one that provides consistently fast downloads, just give it a try when you think your connection isn't performing at its peak.
Um... You Left BitTorrent On
If you have multiple computers (or a NAS) in the house, you might forget you've left a bandwidth hog like BitTorrent running. BitTorrent seeds (uploads) files you've finished downloading to a potentially unlimited number of people for an indefinite amount of time. Downloading, at least, will stop when the file arrives. In the event you don't have files adding themselves regularly through automation, you don't have to worry about a drain on your downstream connection. Uploading, however, can take a big hit if you forget to turn BitTorrent off.
You can solve this problem simply by checking anytime your connection seems slow, but that won't help much if you regularly forget. Fortunately, most BitTorrent clients — like our favourites for Windows, Mac and Linux — provide bandwidth caps and scheduling. Using caps allow you to always limit the amount of your upstream and downstream connection that BitTorrent can use. Just give your client a number — say 100Kbps — and it won't exceed that amount. Scheduling takes that a step further by applying those caps or stopping all traffic at specific times during the day. If you only want BitTorrent running while you're at work, you can limit its activity (or stop it altogether) by setting a bandwidth schedule in your client's preferences. Using either method, you'll avoid surprise drains on your internet connection.
Of course, BitTorrent isn't the only thing that bogs down your connection. Lots of other apps can run in the background and slow things down, either briefly or for quite a while. Apps often automatically update themselves. App Stores and programs like Steam can causes a big bandwidth drain when downloading several updates, for example. Be sure to check on everything capable of utilising your connection in the event a slowdown occurs. And if you want to learn to impose some limits, read the next section.
Your Router Isn't Doing Its Job
Routers are tiny little computers that manage your network. Sometimes they require a bit too much of themselves and cause problems. That's why many routers require a regular restart. Sometimes, you can easily fix this problem, or you may just have a bad router. Unfortunately, routers often don't fail by completely dying. Rather, they will stop working well, and you won't notice immediately. If your router turns into a declining dud, you'll probably want to get a new one.
That said, sometimes you can fix issues with your router by adjusting its settings and learning how it works. Most (good) routers allow you to change the Wi-Fi channel to help avoid interference. In some cases, you can even boost its transmit power to reach a bit further (although this can cause more trouble than it's worth if you push it too far). You can read up on how to change either of those settings here. Often, a small adjustment to your channel can make a big difference.
A good router also has Quality of Service (QoS) settings, which can prevent bandwidth hogs from, well, hogging bandwidth. If people in your household tend to slow down a connection for any reason, you can cap their usage based on their IP address. You can also limit bandwidth based specific applications. To learn how to use QoS, read our networking night school lesson.
There's a Problem With Your Line or Modem
Issues with the line connecting to your house can cause a problem, as can you modem. If you've ruled out everything else, you should call your ISP.
Most providers won't want to send someone to your home until there has been extensive testing, so pick a time where you can spare 30 minutes to unplug your modem, wait with them on the phone while they ask you about the weather, plug it back in again, and repeat the process another six times. Once you've indulged them, make it clear you want someone to come to your home and look at the issue.
If the technician can't fix the problem outright, you want to ask to have the line monitored as well. If it's not offered, you should ask for it. This way, your ISP can see if anything strange happens over the next few days and come back to replace the line if it does. Of course, the problem could be so many different things. Just make sure you keep your ISP looking into the issue until it's resolved.
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