Despite the gradual roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines, the pandemic will be with us for at least the next few months and — for many of us — that means we’ll continue to work, study socialize, and consume entertainment from home. And all of that content comes into our homes through a cable, a pair of phone wires or — for those who live where it’s
available — a fiber optic cable.
Services offer different speeds
If you have a choice and are willing and able to pay a premium for higher speed internet, fiber is generally your fastest option followed by cable and then DSL which transmits data via telephone wires. But even DSL is more than fast enough for most households.
Internet speeds are measured in megabits (Mbps) or gigabits (Gbps) per second. A thousand megabytes equals one gigabyte. In general, the higher the speed, the higher the price, but there are exceptions including bundle deals and special offers. The quoted price may not include additional equipment fees and taxes and some of these deals are for a year or two with the prices going up later. If your price has gone up, call to see if they’ll lower it. I’ve had pretty good luck doing that. Also, there are discounts for customers who qualify based on income and other need factors with service typically costing about $10 a month. Comcast’s need-based discount service is called Internet Essentials while AT&T calls its service “Access.”
AT&T’s DSL speed is up to 50 Mbps, which is more than adequate for most households, even if you’re watching video or using video calling services like Zoom. It may not be adequate, however, if multiple people are using video or other high-bandwidth services at the same time.
Comcast offers speeds ranging from 25 Mpbs (also adequate for many households) all the way up to 1000 Mbps (1 Gbps).
With both DSL and cable, the speeds quoted are typically for downloads such as watching a movie on Netflix or downloading content from the web. There is also upload speed, which is typically considerably lower. Upload speed doesn’t matter much for streaming video or web surfing but it could matter a lot if you’re using a video conferencing service, because that requires you to upload video from your PC, phone, or tablet.
AT&T offers fiber service in select areas only. You can see if it’s offered where you live by searching for “AT&T fiber.” One advantage of fiber is that the upload and download speeds are the same. So, for $35 a month you get 100 Mbps in both directions, $45 buys you 300 Mbps while $60 gets you a gigabit. Unfortunately, it’s not available where I live so I haven’t tried it.
After the first stay-at-home order, I upgraded my Comcast service to 1 gigabit because I’m frequently on live TV and that faster service also includes faster upload speeds, which can improve my broadcast quality. Frankly, it’s overkill even for my needs, but the price difference wasn’t all that much over what I had before. If you do upgrade your internet speed, check to see if you also need to upgrade any of your equipment. I had to buy a new cable modem and a new router because my old equipment couldn’t handle a gigabit.
Your speed will vary
With any service, your speeds will vary depending upon multiple circumstances including network congestion, the performance of the server or site you’re connected to, equipment issues and even the condition of the wires coming into your home. WiFi connections are almost always slower than hardwiring your PC to the internet router or gateway and are typically slower the farther you are from the router or gateway, especially if the signal has to go through walls or floors. Even though I pay for 1,000 megabits, I rarely get more than 800 Mbps and it’s sometimes even slower, especially during peak times when my neighbors are also using their cable internet because cable speeds are affected by other nearby users. WiFi can be much slower. My internet-connected TV, which is several rooms away from my router, gets only about 70 Mbps from its WiFi connection which is more than fast enough but considerably slower due to its distance from the source of the WiFi signal.
Checking your speed
There are numerous websites and smartphone apps that can check the actual speed you’re getting from your device. Links to several of them are at larrysworld.com/speedtest. Try using two or three of these and you are likely to get different results at different times. If you’re checking speed from a smartphone, know that you may be measuring your cellular speed instead of your WiFi. Connecting by cellular can affect your data plan so it’s always a good idea to make sure WiFi is turned on with any mobile devices you use at home.
Equipment and troubleshooting
When diagnosing slow service, start by knowing whether it’s a wired connection (If so, there will an ethernet cable connected to your device from the modem or router. If it’s a WiFi connection, bring the device near the router or gateway to see if the problem is simply the distance between the device and the source of the signal.
If that’s the case, you can solve the problem with a range extender or a mesh network. These devices extend your signal to further areas of your home. Basic range extenders start at about $25 but they require you have more than one network name, which is a minor inconvenience. A more elegant solution is a mesh network such as the Eero or Google Nest WiFi that come with two or three routers that you put in different rooms with the ability to add more if needed. One is hard wired to the modem while the others pick up the signal and amplify it. Your service provider may offer its own mesh network equipment. They may recommend using their mesh equipment if you’re using their gateway though there are ways around that. PC Mag has a tutorial on mesh networks at tinyurl.com/pcmagmesh.
If you’re getting slow service on a hard-wired PC or a WiFi device near your router, the first thing you should do to troubleshoot is to restart your phone, PC or tablet. That sometimes fixes the problem. The next thing is to turn off your internet gateway and/or router (called “power cycling”), wait about 30 seconds, and turn them on again. Sometimes this is one device, called a Gateway, that’s typically provided by your service provider but it could be two devices such as an internet modem and a router. If it’s two devices, turn them off in either order but first turn on the modem or whatever is connected to your cable or phone wires and then the router.
It will take a few minutes before your internet comes back on so make sure no one in your household is using the internet during this process. Most devices have status lights to show that they’re fully working but the meaning of these lights is not always obvious so you might want to take a picture of them before you turn off the devices to know when it’s fully back online after you’ve power cycled it.
If power cycling your equipment doesn’t do the job, then you should call your service provider to see if they can troubleshoot. Sometimes it’s a temporary glitch on their end or just heavy network congestion, but I once had Comast come out to discover that squirrels had nibbled on my incoming cable, not enough to sever it, but enough to slow it down.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.