By Brian X. Chen, The New York Times
Restricted to our homes for months now, many of us have been putting up with a persistent annoyance: a lousy internet connection.
When we are working, a video call with colleagues becomes pixelated, with delayed audio. When we are relaxing, movies and video games take ages to download. In the worst cases, the connection drops altogether.
As people have hunkered down to contain the spread of the coronavirus, average internet speeds all over the world have slowed. Some broadband providers are feeling crushed by the heavy traffic. And dated internet equipment can create a bottleneck for our speeds.
Even the most tech savvy are affected. Keerti Melkote, founder of Aruba Networks, a division of Hewlett Packard Enterprise that offers Wi-Fi products for businesses, said that in recent weeks, his DSL service from AT&T had dropped periodically. He waited several days for a technician to arrive and is now contemplating subscribing to Comcast for a second internet connection.
“I had three or four days of calls, and I had to go find a particular spot in my house where I had better coverage,” Melkote said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, my internet also became unbearably slow and suffered several outages. So I asked experts to explain what’s causing our internet problems — and the different remedies.
First, diagnose the problem.
What’s causing your slow speeds — your internet provider or your equipment at home? Here’s a method to figuring that out.
- Download an internet speed test app on your phone, like Speedtest by Ookla (free for iPhones and Android phones).
- Stand near your router and use the app to run a speed test.
- Move to a room farther away from the router and run the speed test again.
- Compare the results.
Less than 15 megabits a second is pretty slow. Speeds of about 25 megabits a second are sufficient for streaming high-definition video; more than 40 megabits a second is ideal for streaming lots of video and playing video games.
If the speed test results were fast near your Wi-Fi router but slow farther away, the problem is probably your router, said Sanjay Noronha, the product lead of Google’s Nest Wifi internet router. If speeds were slow in both test locations, the issue is probably your internet provider.
If it’s your router, here’s what to do.
If you have pinpointed that the problem is your router, the bad news is that you may have to buy new equipment. The good news is that there are many approaches to improving your Wi-Fi connection.
Start by asking yourself these questions:
- How old is my router? If it’s more than five years old, you should definitely replace it. In 2015, the Federal Communications Commission removed restrictions that had limited the wireless transmission power of Wi-Fi routers, allowing new routers to be 20 times more powerful than they were before. Upgrading to a newer router will probably be one of your most life-changing tech purchases.
- Where is my router placed? Ideally, your router should be in a central location in your home so that the signal covers as many rooms as possible. In addition, your router should be out in the open, like on top of a shelf, not hidden inside cabinets or under a desk, to beam a clear signal. You should also avoid placing the router near objects and materials that cause interference, like large fish tanks and metal.
- How big is my home? If you have a home with multiple stories and lots of rooms, and your Wi-Fi is weak in some areas, the best solution is to buy a so-called mesh network system. It’s a system of multiple Wi-Fi access points, including a main router and satellite hubs, that lets you connect multiple wireless access points together to blanket your home with a strong internet connection.
My favorite mesh systems are Google Wifi and Amazon’s Eero, which start at $99 for a single router and can be bundled with additional access points. In general, I recommend mesh systems even for smaller homes, because they are fast and very easy to install.
- Are my other devices slowing down my connection? Gadgets with slower internet technology can slow down speeds for all your other devices.
For example, the iPhone 5 from 2012 uses an older-generation Wi-Fi standard. Newer iPhones, from 2014 and later, use a faster wireless standard.
Let’s say you own a new iPhone and your teenager owns the iPhone 5. If your teenager begins downloading a video on the iPhone 5 and then you start downloading something on your iPhone, the older phone will take longer to finish before the signal frees up for your phone to download at maximum speed.
As a remedy, many modern Wi-Fi routers offer settings that can give specific devices a priority for faster speeds. Consult your router’s instruction manual for the steps. In this hypothetical example, you would want to give your new iPhone top priority and move your teenager’s old iPhone to the bottom.
- Are my neighbors slowing down my connection? In apartment buildings crowded with gadgets, the devices’ signals are fighting for room on the same radio channels. You can see what radio channels your neighbors’ devices are using with scanning apps like WiFi Analyzer. Then consult your router’s instruction manual for steps on picking a clearer radio channel.
This step is tedious, and many modern routers automatically choose the clearest radio channel for you. In general, replacing an outdated router is the most practical solution.
If it’s your service provider, there’s not much to do.
If you have determined that your internet provider’s service is the root of the issue, your only option is to call your internet service provider and ask for help.
When you call, ask a support agent these questions:
- Why are my speeds slow? Occasionally a support agent can analyze your internet performance and make changes to speed up your connection. This rarely happens, and more often a technician will need to pay a visit.
- Does my modem need to be replaced? The modem, which is the box that connects your home to the internet provider’s service, also can become outdated and occasionally needs to be replaced. If the support agent confirms the modem is old, you can schedule an appointment for a technician to install a new one.
Or you can buy your own modem and call the internet provider to activate it. Wirecutter, The New York Times’ sister publication that tests products, recommends modems from Motorola and Netgear, which cost about $80 to $90.
- Can I buy faster speeds? Your provider may offer packages with more bandwidth meant for higher-quality video streaming and faster downloads. Ask about your options.
As a last resort, you can turn to backups. Many modern phones come with a hot spot feature, which turns the device’s cellular connection into a miniature Wi-Fi network. (Apple and Google list steps on their websites on how to use the hot spot feature on iPhones and Androids.)
Whatever you do, be patient. In these trying times, everything takes longer.
As for me, I confirmed my slow speeds were related to my internet provider, Monkeybrains. I called to report the issue, and after more than a month, a technician replaced the antenna on our roof. Now my speeds are even faster than before the pandemic, so it was well worth the wait.
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