By: Aaron Sankin
We’ve all been there: very politely asking the internet for a video of a cat engaging in goofy antics. And then… the internet pauses, seeming to consider the request.
What is the problem here? It could be you (sorry). Maybe it’s the infrastructure you’re working with. This may be your internet service provider. Let’s explore some causes and solutions together.
What is a “good” Internet speed?
The first step is to perform a so-called speed test. Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy adviser at Consumer Reports, who works on the organization’s Fight for Fair Internet initiative, which collects consumer Internet bills and speed test results as part of its advocacy work, suggests d use a pair of tests, one from Ookla and another from MLab. Each uses slightly different methods, so Schwantes recommends trying both to make sure they’re consistent.
The tests show two important results: download speed (how fast you receive data from the Internet) and upload speed (how fast you send data over the Internet), measured in megabits per second. A data bit is a unique unit of information, expressed in binary code that computers can understand as a one or a zero. One megabit is one million bits of data. If a speed test indicates that your download speed is 100 megabits per second, your connection is pumping 100,000,000 ones and zeros into your device every second, and the short kitty antics videos should play fine.
What qualifies as “good” internet speed, however, depends on what you’re using it for. If you have multiple users and need stable connections (think kids taking online classes while you work in the next room), education advocacy group Common Sense Media recommends download speeds of 200 Mbps. and 10 Mbps download. These recommended speeds may be high compared to levels available in much of the United States. For February of this year, Ookla pegged US median speeds for wired broadband connections at 146 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload; mobile Internet speeds (63 Mbps download and 9 uploads) were much slower. Amina Fazlullah, director of equity policy for the organization, insists that stable video conferencing connections are crucial for things like virtual school.
“What does it mean when a 7 year old has a hiatus?” Fazlullah said, noting that 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload will technically work, but likely with frequent service interruptions. “How long can you expect them to pick up speed again? Will they be able to get back on track after these hiatuses?
Netflix, on the other hand, recommends a download speed of just 15 Mbps for streaming content in 4K/Ultra HD.
The speed you have at home depends on the available infrastructure: the tubes through which the desired digital data flows. This infrastructure may seem intangible, but it exists both inside the walls of your home and in a corporeal series of tubes transmitting data across the world.
Understanding these factors and how they work together is key to understanding how the modern internet works and how to get that video chat faster.
Does the slowdown come from inside the house?
When Schwantes gets a slow speed test result, his first suspicion is usually something like, “Something is wrong with my router.”
If you’re reading this on a Wi-Fi connected device, the first connection you have to the wider internet is your wireless modem and router or wireless modem/router combo broadcasting Wi-Fi to the immediate area .
The first two things to try if your internet is slow are restarting the router and moving your device closer to the router. Like a computer, routers store information in their memory, and sometimes an error is logged by mistake. Rebooting is one way to shake off the cobwebs. And Wi-Fi signals degrade as they travel.
If distance slows your speed, consider your options: Your Wi-Fi router may offer the choice of a 2.4 GHz connection and a 5 GHz connection; 5 GHz offers faster speeds over shorter distances, and 2.4 GHz offers slower speeds over longer distances. The 2.4GHz frequency can also be congested with traffic from other wireless networks in the area, so sometimes switching to 5GHz will provide a less obstructed path for your chat video.
If your device has an Ethernet port, you can also connect directly to the router and avoid the Wi-Fi issue altogether.
Early in the pandemic, Schwantes noticed his internet was slowing down. In this case, the problem was him. He was using a ten-year-old wireless router. After replacing him, he said, his speed improved significantly.
What’s happening on the other side of the wall?
The biggest speed discrepancies come from the different ways data travels through the tubes directly outside your home. Data can travel over different types of tubes – fiber optic, coaxial cable and copper wire, and even over cellular wireless networks – each offering vastly different speeds for uploading and downloading.
Fiber optic cables are made of an ultra-thin glass core surrounded by a reflective coating that transmits information as pulses of light at the speed of, well, light passing through glass. The fastest Internet connections available today are called “fiber to the home” because the fiber optic cables start where you live and go all the way to where they join the larger maze of fiber tubes optics that make up the Internet. (There are also systems called “fiber to the node” or “fiber to the curb”, where the fiber goes to a connection hub somewhere in your neighborhood, then the signal travels to slower wires the rest path.)
If the internet is a road, fiber is like a highway with five lanes in each direction and a speed limit of 75 mph. Not everyone in the United States even has fiber internet access. According to a study published in January by the Fiber Broadband Association, less than half of American households have this option.
On the other end of the spectrum, copper wire is like a one-lane road where you can’t go over 25.
Not only can Fiber Expressway get you home faster than Copper Lane, it can also handle a lot more traffic without congestion, which is important because your data travels through the same tubes as your neighbors using the same ISP. The longer you can stay on fiber before you have to switch to something that isn’t fiber, the faster your connection.
What is copper wire? DSL, which stands for Digital Subscriber Line, runs over the same copper wires that telephone companies use for traditional phone service – so-called landlines – but over a higher frequency range that doesn’t require you to attach a telephone line in the same way. service done. (Kids, ask your parents.) Phone lines were designed to carry voice, which doesn’t require a lot of data, so they tend to be slow.
DSL speeds depend on the distance from which they connect to fiber optic connections leading to the Internet backbone. They need to be boosted frequently to push data over longer distances.
In the middle is cable internet, which is generally slower than fiber but can provide relatively high speeds.
Cable Internet is carried by coaxial cables carrying signals over a copper conductor surrounded by layers of plastic and metal sheathing to protect it from interference (an improvement over DSL). Since coaxial cables were originally developed to transmit cable television, which is quite data-intensive video and audio information, they can move a lot of data. Since cable TV has traditionally been a one-way broadcast medium, cable connections generally have faster downloads than uploads.
A relatively new entrant to the residential broadband market is fixed wireless. As the name suggests, this type of connection does not involve tubing directly into your home. Getting a fixed wireless connection usually involves installing a receiver that pulls cellular service which is then converted to Wi-Fi. Fixed wireless home service is not universally available across the country, but some services advertise speeds that can give cable connections a run for their money.
For remote locations, where it is not possible for ISPs to install any type of wired connection between the fiber backbone of the Internet and your home, satellite Internet, which allows data to be transmitted up to a satellite, then transmitting them to an antenna at your residence, is an option. Satellite internet is generally not as fast as fiber or cable internet. Ookla found that the median speed of SpaceX’s Starlink, the fastest satellite internet available in the United States, was around 100 Mbps download and 13 Mbps upload.
Can I just switch providers and get faster internet access?
You can definitely give it a shot! However, the lack of competition in the broadband market in the United States can make this tricky.
“The U.S. Internet services market is dominated by just four companies: AT&T, Charter, Comcast, and Verizon,” reads the 2020 edition of the Open Technology Institute’s Cost of Connectivity Report on the state of the US broadband market compared to other countries. developed nations.
“In most cities, there were only, like, two providers, and there are large swaths of addresses that only had one provider,” said Claire Park, one of the authors. of the report.
A 2020 report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance found that 83.3 million Americans can only buy high-speed internet from one provider.
But that definitely doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to look for another ISP that can offer you faster and/or cheaper service.
You can check your options by entering your address into the FCC’s National Broadband Map, although what’s listed as available for each address isn’t always accurate.
Maybe, just maybe, you can get an upgrade that will get you that chat video much faster.
This article originally appeared on The Markup and has been republished under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives Licence.