As many teams work from home (WFH), it’s important to ensure more consistent and better bandwidth connections. There are several cost-effective methods that can be used to boost your Wi-Fi signal, reduce network latency and improve your wireless throughput. To figure out which method or methods will work the best for you, there are some simple tests you can perform before you go shopping for new gear.
The first step is to purchase a new home router that makes better use of the radio spectrum. Most of us tend to forget about our home routers because they usually just work. But this also means that our routers can become antiques, especially as the press of new wireless standards can eclipse their features.
Check when you purchased your router and what radio frequencies and Wi-Fi standards it supports before getting any further. If your router is more than a few years old, it might be time to invest in a newer model. Some of the older routers (say more than four years old) support slower speeds and lower overall bandwidth because they don’t support the latest Wi-Fi versions and radio frequencies that can handle more throughput.
There are routers on the market that can optimize bandwidth on their own. For example, the Evenroute IQrouter examines your connection to your ISP and can graph the connection so you can see if you are experiencing any delays or other network problems.
The second step should be examining your broadband connection plan. In most places around the world, there are three basic types of broadband plans: those from cable companies, those from the local telephone vendor and wireless plans of various kinds. The cable and local phone companies make use of either a cable or digital subscriber line (DSL) modem that can act as a router to share its Internet connection with all the many devices in your home. The wireless plans either use your cellular phone or a special satellite dish and share this Internet data connection across a Wi-Fi network (either from your cellular phone or a special satellite box installed in your home).
This situation hasn’t changed much in the two or so decades since broadband Internet data became widely available. What has changed is the speeds cited by the various providers, with gigabit throughputs now very common. Typically, providers have different throughput speeds offered at different prices. For example, AT&T sells Internet access through its U-verse brand, with plans starting at $50/month for up to 5 Mbps service and increasing to 1 Gbps at $100/month. These rates can vary and be heavily discounted for new customers and if you are willing to purchase additional services, such as TV and Internet-based phone lines.
Some providers will upgrade you to a faster bandwidth plan for free if you have been a customer for several years, or offer a one-year deal that is heavily discounted. Always remember that it does pay to shop around.
It is hard to make any definitive rules as to who offers the best pricing for the fastest connections, so you should evaluate your ISP periodically. And as your needs change (for example, if you do return to an office), you can also downgrade your plan too.
There are two aspects of your Internet connection that will affect your overall performance. One is the raw throughput mentioned by your provider’s plan. This number is usually never seen in actual practice, because your mileage will vary depending on how many other users share your connection (which is typical of both cable and wireless providers) and what you are doing when you are online. The easiest way to figure this out is by using the site SpeedTest.net. It will compare your overall throughput from your home to a server located in different cities.
You’ll notice that often times upload and download speeds differ, depending on the provider and the plan you choose. That brings up another important point: your WFH needs might not match the typical home broadband plan. These plans were designed mainly for entertainment, so upload speeds are usually a lot lower than download ones. If your job requires you to periodically upload large files, like images or large PDFs, you may have to find a faster plan.
Throughput is also determined by the type of connection in your home: whether you are using a wired connection back to your router or a wireless one. Wired is usually faster, and if you can connect your computer to your router with a wired cable, you will usually see improvements in overall performance.
The second factor is actually more important and has to do with the path that your Internet activities take from your home to their eventual destination. The longer the path, the longer the overall network latency can be. This means, even if you have a gigabit connection, the delays introduced with this path can make your fast connection appear to be a lot slower.
You can measure the latency with a command called traceroute. If you open a command prompt session in Windows, type “Tracert Google.com” or open the Mac Terminal app and type “Traceroute Google.com” there. You will see a list of numbered lines, such as in the screenshot below. Each line indicates a new network router your Internet packets pass through from your home PC to Google’s servers (in this particular case, you can try this out for any Internet destination). Like in golf, the lower the number the better the latency and the shorter the delay (measured in milliseconds) between network “hops.”
Latency is a real issue for streaming video, such as Zoom conferences and watching online TV services such as Netflix and Hulu. We have seen these services become almost unusable when on high-latency connections.
When you start reviewing your routes, you will see that oftentimes the path with the fewest and quickest hops may or may not correspond to what we would commonly think of as geographically the shortest link. For example, the lowest latency and fastest path between a computer in Singapore and a server in Sydney might go through San Francisco, just because those were the highest speed lines that connected those two cities.
As you can see, figuring out your WFH bandwidth isn’t difficult, but can be time consuming. Periodically test your bandwidth and throughput to ensure that you don’t have any network problems, either inside your home or in your neighborhood. And don’t be afraid to change providers to get a better performing and priced plan.
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