Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Internet Speed At Home In the Time Of Home Work And Schooling

Most families aren't this happy on their devices
photo cr. Apple
At this time of COVID, a lot of people are finding out things about their internet connection, usually not good things. What you night have encountered at night, all of your family on devices at the same time, happens all day, with bigger and more resource consuming devices like work and school computers versus just phones and tablets. So, many people are looking into increasing their Internet speed from their provider (ISP), which means paying more. But before you do so, I want to help people understand how it works and why it may not even help in the end to pay more for faster speeds. What may help more is making your home network better.  

What many people don't understand is that your internet speed is dependent on 2 things:

1) Your Internet service provider speed

2) Your device's speed (PC, laptop, tablet, phone) from its internal network adapter.

On any device the speed will only be as fast as the slower of the 2. So you can have fast Internet & WiFi but your device might not be very fast. Or your device may have a  fast network adapter but you have slower Internet speed. All if it throttled by your home WiFi network.

We will take a look at what this means and my recommendations.

Chrome's built in speed test
To start with, how do you you know how fast your Internet is? Well, you can check your internet speed here: https://fast.com/, or https://www.speedtest.net/, or other sites if you Google "Internet Speed Test" (Chrome has a built in one that will come up as a first option in that browser). Your ISP may also have a tester on their site. Your speed will be in Mbps for megabytes per second. If you are lucky you might hit Gbps which means Gigabytes per second or 1,000 Megabytes. 

Your fastest speed will usually come from a desktop computer connected to your router via an ethernet cable (wired). 

For example, at home I have fiber connection to my ISP.

  • Gaming Desktop PC Wired: 912.3 Mbps | WiFi: 244.3 Mbps
  • Work laptop: Wired: 93 Mbps | WiFi: 119.2 Mbps
  • Pixelbook high-end Chromebook: WiFi: 1.1 Gbps 
  • Android phone: 
Yes, you read that right, my Pixelbook's WiFi adapter is faster than my wired gaming desktop PC. It can keep up with the fastest my fiber connection gives me. It's all about that adapter in the end my friends. More importantly, it is more than 10 times as fast as my Windows work laptop. The laptops purchased by and provided to most employees just don't come with decent ethernet adapters.

So great, now I know how fast my devices can connect, what can I do with that information? How can I improve my setup?

To start with, you probably tested your speed in one room, now walk around your home and do it in other rooms. Note the difference from more distance from the router, more walls between, even outside. Find your slow points. 

Internet Service
Most people want to start with their service provider (ISP) and check their speed and bandwidth. What is the difference? Speed is how fast you can connect, bandwidth is how much you can pass - how much you can download or stream. Bandwidth may have a max for how much at a time and a total per billing period. In truth bandwidth is probably a bigger deal than the speed.

You can do work to see how much you use, most ISP provide reports and you can see how much you might need. But most packages are good enough, even in this time of bigger demand.

You can check the different packages and weigh the cost and benefit of spending more to get more. But do you really need it? Will it really help? We'll talk about that below. In the end the decision is yours. But here is one tip:

See if fiber, fiber-optic cable, is available to you. If it is, it will be the best option. It is flat out faster - up to 10Gbps versus 10Mbps to 1Gbps of cable (yep - 10 ore more times as fast). While when it was new it was of course more expensive, I have found that now it may cheaper than faster cable packages, even from the same ISP (mine is $10 per month cheaper for fiber than the fastest cable package). Why else is it better? Its different tech: you get a dedicated line vs. sharing a connection - even at home, it is more reliable, it has better two-way upload and download symmetry. 

So I picked my ISP package, how else can I improve my speed?

2.4ghz vs. 5ghz
You may notice that when you connect to your WiFi there are actually 2 of them. Your router is sending signals on 2 different frequencies, and you can use this to your advantage. Use both of them. So that you don't have too many devices on one frequency connect some to one and some to the other to break up the bandwidth usage. 2.4 while smaller and generally slower, it has an advantage, it travels farther better so if your device is farther away from the router connect to that one. 5 is faster but has a shorter radius, the farther you get the worse the signal will be. Try to have your devices with the biggest requirements be closer to use 5ghz.

But what if you can't move your router or device to take advantage of 5ghz when you need it?
(Like a streaming device or gaming console for your TV that will need a lot of bandwidth)

Amplify it
There are ways to make your signal stronger, to go farther. There used to be only one for homes, but now another has come on the market. Newer is usually better and that does work here. 

Extenders do what their name suggests, they extend the range by repeating the signal. But its still just one signal. The same network remains but the extender is placed far from the router, gets its signal, and repeats it to extend the range. This is helpful, but the problem is, once connected to one your device will stay on it until it is lost then find the extension. Its not smart enough to start using the extension ones it finds it is stronger than the base. They also aren't super easy to setup. The main advantage is your network will remain the same - no need to reconnect your devices and tell visitors.

photo cr. Business Insider
Mesh Routers
 are better than Extenders as they create a mesh in your house of overlapping smart regions created by access points, one network that does not need switching between so it is seamless. They also will use both 2.4 and 5 frequencies efficiently, using 5 for devices but 2.4 for network communications and other optimization business. The only irritant is that it will be a new network, you plug your current network cable into it and then setup a new network name and password so you will have to connect all your devices to it. Again. But, its also far easier to setup, usually with an app that walks you through a few steps to create the network and connect the mesh access points. 

But remember, in the end, your device may make this all moot. Your work or school computer, and your phone, will likely have far lower speed it can communicate to the network with than the network can send. But, other devices should keep up: tablets; desktop computers; media streamers like Roku, Firestick, AppleTV, smart TVs; gaming consoles; etc. all have better network adapters, expected to work via WiFi all the time and provide streaming content without interruption.

So what do I recommend?

If you can get fiber, get it. You can usually get it cheaper than the higher packages for regular cable internet and it is much faster.

Seriously consider a Mesh Hub network, it will smooth out bad spots. It will 'replace' your current network with a new name and password. The best setup is the base and at least 2 access points but even 1 can be a big help. There are many brands, eero.com is a well reviewed one and very affordable at $249 for the base and 2 access points. Another good one is Netgear Orbi from Walmart. I went with Google Nest even though it is pricier (price for 1 access point the same as 2 from other brands) for 2 reasons: we use Google everything so it was easy to setup in our Google Home app with all our other devices, and each access point works as a home smart speaker so it added one to our existing network of Nest speakers for another room with audio and other smart speaker functions. The base package only comes with 1 versus 2 access points as other brands have, but it just works for us.

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