By John Carter

Hi Net Neighbors! Welcome to Tech Tuesday, where we take deep dives into the issues plaguing you. This week we continue our Basic Computer Troubleshooting series with a common issue…

My Internet is Slowing Down

It’s 7 PM. You’re settling down on your couch to relax and stream some Netflix. Then, it happens. The dreaded ring. Circling over and over, denying you your streaming goodness. You look up at the roof, curse the universe, and the stresses of the day pile up.

Why now? Why does it have to be slow now?! It was fine all day. That week you had off and did nothing but binge watch all seven seasons of Deep Space Nine? The internet was great then. So why is it slow now?

That’s a Good Question, Why is it Slow at Certain Times?

The internet is, vast. Epically, amazingly vast. It wraps around the planet a dozen times. Packets of information travel through it at the speed of light. So why does it slow down at 7 PM on Friday night?

Well I hate to tell you this, but you’re not the only person using the internet. Think of the internet, at least in how it is delivered to you, in terms of water. The vast ocean of the internet collects in local pools represented by huge data centers. These data centers are why a part of the internet ocean can ‘run dry’—perhaps due to a power outage—and the rest of the world can still have internet.

Now, when we connect to the internet we each are connecting to one of the data centers with the digital equivalent of a straw. If we are the only person using the straw then we get all the water we want whenever we want it. This state represents the maximum speed at which your internet consumption can occur. But remember, we aren’t the only ones with a straw. There are other straws. Also, some of us pay for bigger straws giving those people an advantage.

Still on this straw metaphor, imagine if half the city all decided at the same time to use their straw. The water, the data, would have to flow to multiple people at once. That’s why if, for instance, you and everyone you know stream the big game, the game can become jittery and pixelated. There are too many straws in use at the same time.

The good news is that, thanks to the unprecedented turn to work from home initiatives due to the COVID-19 crisis, Internet service providers have increased both the straws people use and the overall water pressure.

Is the problem in the home?

Sometimes the sudden slowness in your internet connection has nothing to do with your neighbors’ straws and everything to do with yours. Are you doing a lot of activities that require the internet? Because if you are that can be the culprit.

A big thing in entertainment these days is 4K movies and televisions. These are movies delivered in incredible detail and quality. If you are using a Blu-ray disc, then this isn’t a problem but if you are streaming in 4K then that may be the source of your slow connection. Your straw might not be able to handle the flow you’re trying to consume.

Video games are another possible consumer of internet speed. This is especially true if the game requires a constant internet connection. Because many gamers are also using voice chat features and play music from online sources one person can use up all the flow for a home.

Computer updates are another big drain on water flow. If you are updating your machine, which you should do, it can be a heavy load on your connection and make it so less of the water is available for the other devices in your home.

Why is my Internet Slow All the Time?

Let’s say you aren’t getting on at a ‘peak time’ when lots of people are online. Maybe it’s five A.M. Maybe it’s midnight. It doesn’t matter when you get on or how few straws others are using, your internet is always slow. For these moments there are a few options:

Have you tried resetting it?

For my frequent readers this will sound familiar. You can fix many problems, including internet slowness, by turning your devices off then back on again. This process includes your router. Your router is also a computer and it too can get confused. This is why the first thing your internet service provider will ask is, “Have you reset it?” If your device has an app, I suggest using it as the app will have diagnostic tools and a handy reset button.

What are you paying for?

Thanks to television and movies many of us have unrealistic expectations regarding the speed of the internet. Before you contact your internet service provider you need to know what you are paying for. If your contract says that you are paying for a speed of 32mbps (megabytes per second)—this is very slow—then that is the maximum size your straw will be. Most internet service providers, despite what they sell you, only guarantee half of whatever you are paying for. So, if you are finding that your speed is too slow, and you’ve reset your modem, you might need to upgrade your internet plan.

Is your internet service provider actually providing service?

Now while I just said that you may need to start paying more for internet, I do not want you to immediately jump into that hole. Before you start paying for more, make sure your internet service provider is giving you what you paid for. If your internet is continuously running slower than the 50% of what you are paying for then call them. Keep records. Keep calling and having people come out until it is fixed.

I say this from a position of experience. My own internet used to die, like clockwork, in the 7 – 8 AM bracket. I called and called. Multiple service technicians came out. They replaced every cable in my home. They put me on another node on their line at the pole. They replaced their router four times in a month. Finally, after all the headache, all the, “Have you reset it,” it turned out that there was a faulty node five miles away.

So before you pay a single cent more, make sure you are getting what you paid for.

Where is your router?

The placement of your router can be critical to how you consume the internet. In the off-chance that every device in your home connects to the router via an ethernet connection, meaning a physical wire, then the position matters less. We are going to push such notions aside for now though.

Your router has two main radio transmitters in it, what we call Wi-Fi. One, the 2.4GHz is slower than the 5GHz, the numbers being an indicator of radio frequency. To use the straw metaphor, your router is analogous to the data center and the frequency is the size of your local straw. The 2.4GHz band is slower but more universal, meaning more devices in your home are probably using it. The 5GHz band is faster and newer so your phone might jump onto it but not your printer.

The frequency also determines where you can place your router. 2.4GHz can go further in your home and is blocked by less things while 5GHz has a shorter range. Also, because we are dealing with radio frequencies, we must remember that things like brick and metal can slow or block the signal. If you are in a brick building reinforced with steel, then you might not get signal in the next room while in a wood building you could get it from the other side of the house.

Consider placing your router near where you intend to get the most use from it. If you need it strong in your office, then put it in your office. If you need it near your tv in the middle of your home, then place it there. And if you need WiFi throughout the home but your home is not cooperating then consider purchasing WiFi boosters that can pick up your router’s signal, amplify it, and broadcast to a wider area.

Or go completely crazy like I have and run Ethernet cable through your home. The cable is fairly cheap and then you never have to worry about dropped WiFi signal.

How do I Know How Fast My Internet Is?

Good question. It is hard to refute what your internet service provider is saying without some hard evidence. Thankfully it is easy to find your current internet speed. All you need to do is google ‘speed test’. When you do this, you should be presented with a button saying “RUN SPEED TEST” or “Start”. Press the button and sit back.

Once the software is done you will receive three numbers: the Ping, the Download, and the Upload. Ping is a measure of how quick information leaves your computer, travels down your straw to a data center, then returns. Usually, Ping is under a millisecond and is honestly the number I worry about the least.  Download is a measure of your straw itself. The larger the number of your Download the more information is coming down your straw. When I tell you to make sure you are getting at least half of what you pay for, this is the number to look at. Upload is the measure of how much information is going up your straw to the data center. As a rule, this number will be much smaller than your Download, often by a lot. Unless you are doing something that requires you to have a high Upload number, I would not worry about it.

Anything else?

On this particular topic? Maybe. But as I have proven with these last two posts, I can talk a lot on a topic. Therefor I am ending this one here. Besides, this is the easy stuff. Anything beyond what we’ve talked about today is in other’s hands. Stay tuned for another post in this series where we discuss THE boogeyman of the digital era. Viruses.

*cue lightning bolt and spooky music*

Until then, have fun, find adventure, and stay safe.

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