Updated by Aaron Peters on 10/27/2017
As we consume more and more content online, the local network becomes increasingly important. Whether it’s streaming the latest movie on Netflix, posting updates to Twitter, or reading the fascinating articles here at MUO, we want speed. And when there are multiple people with multiple devices all tapping your home network for connectivity, you’ll want to make sure you’re wringing every last bit of speed out of it.
It’s easy to set up a home network, but even little flaws can add up to take a toll on performance or take your connection offline entirely. Below we’ll take a look at some things to take into consideration when building your network, highlight common problems, and take a look at how to fix them.
Consider the Following…
Before we dive into the sections below, there’s a couple of notes worth mentioning:
- Firstly, bear in mind that part of your overall experience is your device’s ability to process traffic. You can have the slickest network in the world, but if you’re trying to play network games on a Pentium 4 with 512 MB of RAM, the network may not be your problem.
- Also, we’re not delving too much into your internet service provider (ISP) at a granular level, such as whether DSL is better than cable. You want the best Wide Area Network (WAN) you can get of course, but we’ll be examining the Local Area Network (LAN) in this article.
- Lastly, “slow performance” can be a subjective thing. If you’re happy with how your apps are performing, don’t bother yourself with trying to “fix what ain’t broke.” But if your browsing is a little slow, or your streaming movies buffering a little too often, take a look at some of the items below.
Let’s also take a moment to define what causes a “slow” network.
Internet data transmissions are managed and maintained using a series of protocols. The protocol suite, simply referred to as Internet Protocol (hence, IP address), use packets to send and receive data. Each packet contains a tiny chunk of the overall content (such as a web page).
Content is split into packets at the origin, sent over the network, then reassembled at the other end. Part of the protocol requires that the sender states what they’re sending, send it, then confirming its receipt. If it doesn’t receive that confirmation, it will try to send it again. A big problem is “dropped packets,” or ones that don’t make it to the destination for whatever reason. The sender resubmitting these over and over again until they get their confirmation comprises a lot of what you (as a user) feel as “network slowness.” It’s not like wireless data suddenly slows down, despite what science fiction movies will have you believe.
Now let’s take a look at some potential causes of network slow-downs, and what you can do about them.
1. ISP Limitations
While we said we wouldn’t consider the capabilities of ISPs in general (since they’re out of our control), there is one issue that you can prevent. Some providers have a policy of throttling speed and throughput for high-volume users. Are you a big Torrent user? Or a cable-cutter, getting all of your HD video via streaming? Check your terms of service to make sure there’s not some threshold hidden in there that you regularly surpass.
If this is indeed happening to you, sadly your options are limited. Either curtail your activity, or see if there’s another provider that doesn’t have the same draconian limits.
2. Network Throughput Is a Shared Resource
A common analogy for network speeds is to think of your connection as a pipe. And like a pipe, only so much data can go through that connection at any one time. In modern households, each member of the family is likely to have at least one device that can connect to that network. Some members may have many more than that, including phones, tablets, game consoles, smart TVs, set-top boxes, and other “internet things.” Any or all of these may be sending or receiving information at a particular point in time.
You may be surfing the web on your tablet, while your Xbox is grabbing the latest DLC content and the set-top box is streaming an on-demand movie. All of which are competing with 15 people trying to download the different Linux ISO Torrents you’re seeding. Now, normally the data sent by devices you’re not actively using is minimal. But you can never really tell when that “perfect storm” will occur that squeezes your network connection, leading to stuttering videos, in-game lag, and more.
If there’s a particular application or type of activity you want to make sure is always performing its best, look into Quality of Service. This setting of your router “ropes off” a certain amount of throughput for either a particular device or a specific activity. Check out this article for all the details on what it is, and where to look for it on your router.
3. Substandard Wired Equipment (Devices & Cabling)
The ability of the network to carry a data signal is also dependent on the integrity of its parts. There are two aspects to this, the first of which is network equipment that shuffles the packets along to their destination. To most users, network devices are plug-and-play. You connect your cable/DSL/fiber modem to one port, then a device (either wired or wirelessly). And it just works. But these devices are embedded computers in their own right, and many of the same things that can affect a computer’s performance can affect theirs as well. If your router is old it may contain a slower processor, and levels of heat can build up over time. These can degrade the speed at which it can process network traffic, resulting in a performance hit.
The wires that data travels along is another factor. You can have the most optimized network in the world — up to the point of your router. But if the Ethernet cable between the router and your modem has broken copper, you’ll experience poor performance when accessing sites and content over the internet. This can be an issue, for example, when supplementing your network over your home’s electrical wiring. Older homes with older electrical systems may not do as well as newer homes with newer wiring.
On the device front, consider upgrading your main router, as it’s faster innards may help to handle more network traffic faster. (Plus, you can turn the old one into a wireless bridge and extend your network.) Or try installing a new, open source firmware such as DD-WRT, which may have a better software stack (plus you’ll get the bonus of extra features like a VPN).
If you’re stringing Ethernet cable all around your house (not that there’s anything wrong with that!), check that cable for obvious breaks. You can use a network cable tester to make sure there are no hidden issues, then replace any problematic segments. You can also consider adding Ethernet to some of your existing outlets (such as coaxial cable or phone line) if you feel like getting your hands dirty.
Network Cabling Explained
By and large, a cable network will get you a faster speed than Wi-Fi. However, not all cables are created equally and some are faster than others. Broadly speaking, cabling can be divided into three common categories:
- Cat-5: the oldest and slowest frequently used network cable. Performance up to 100 Mbps, with a maximum distance of 100 meters; it is not Gigabit capable.
- Cat-5e: superseeded Cat-5, and is one of the most commonly used network cables today; supports Gigabit Ethernet up to 100 meters.
- Cat-6: fastest commonly used network cabling, supports up to 10 Gigabit up to a maximum of 50 meters (though Cat-6a supports distances up to 100 meters).
Most home networks use Cat-5e. It is cheap and offers standardized network performance for most homes. At the moment, Cat-6 is overkill. There aren’t many home networks that will make use of speeds up to 10 Gigabits — but this will change in the future.
However, if you’re still using Cat-5, then this is undoubtedly a bottleneck, limiting your internal speeds to 100 Mbps. Cat-5e is very cheap, and you can make some yourself easily if you purchases in bulk on a reel; there really is no reason not to replace all your Cat-5 cabling with Gigabit capable Cat-5e.
4. Wireless Network Band/Channel
The next thing to check is what wireless band and channel you’re using. This is important because there may be some (many?) networks surrounding you using the same ones. If too many devices are trying to talk at the same time, their messages will collide — this is wireless interference. The frequency band you’re using depends on which wireless standard you’re using: either 2.4 GHz (802.11b/g/n) or 5 GHz (802.11a/ac/n). Higher frequency bands provide faster speeds, but lower ones are better able to go through obstacles (more on this in a later section). Many modern routers will offer networks in both bands.
Each band is also divided into channels, which is a measure to reduce interference. Some routers will attempt to select a “quiet” channel for you when you set it up, but not always. Add to this the fact that many people are unaware of the channel and won’t change it, meaning the majority of networks are on the default (first) channel. If there’s a lot of traffic on the same channel of the same band as your router, you’ll likely encounter some slowness as the packets in that channel collide.
When trying to you scan for networks, the ones in the higher range will typically have “_5GHz” appended to their names. If you see a majority of network names either with or without it, try to use the other on your own router. You may find the wireless lanes less crowded.
If you need a particular band and instead are looking to adjust the channel, use a scanner application to see how heavily used each channel is. Options exist for most operating systems. Check out
- Windows: WiFiInfoView or inSSIDer (the above image is an inSSIDer Wi-Fi plot graph)
- macOS: KisMac
- Linux: use the iwlist command for (see our Linux primer for details)
- Android: Wi-Fi Scanner [Free]
- iOS: Network Analyzer Lite [Free]
All of these display the channel used by surrounding networks… again, pick a different one to reduce interference.
5. Wireless Network Range
In most home networks, the majority of devices are connected via wireless. This means how you set up your Wi-Fi network is one of the most important elements to impact your performance. There are a number of considerations to ensure you’re getting the most out of your wireless connections.
The first and most obvious is range. The wireless networking technologies of the IEEE 802.11 family have roughly the same range. It’s about 100 to 150 feet. Unless you’re trying to access your network from a hammock in the woods, this is probably enough. But it’s worth noting that wireless signals also get weaker over distance. The longer the distance, the more likely your packets will not arrive intact, and will need to be resent. Dropping and resending network packets is what you ultimately perceive as “slow internet.”
If you need your wireless to travel long distances, consider these tips to boost your WiFi signal. Extender devices like these can also act as a middleman and forward your traffic along to the router. They can effectively double the distance you can be from your internet drop.
6. Wireless Signal Penetration
The final element to look at is wireless network penetration. What kinds of obstacles does the signal have to get through in order to reach your device? Consider the following: in my house, I get zero signal at a point on the first floor. But I get perfectly adequate performance at the same spot on the second floor. Why?
Because the router is also on the second floor. For my device to reach it, it needs to go through two doors. These hollow-core items don’t put up much of a fight in terms of blocking the signal.
But from the same spot one floor lower, it needs to go through the floor and wall — lengthwise, no less. Multiple layers of drywall, studs, joists, subfloor, and carpet block this straight line to the router. The end result is that somewhere along the way all my packets typically get lost.
Place your access points in a location where you’ll be as perpendicular to walls as possible. Keep in mind that trying to go parallel through it will require going through multiple (dense, wooden or stone) structures. In contrast, going perpendicular may only require going through softer drywall. Failing that, if you’re having trouble connecting, consider switching to your 2.4 GHz network. It has better ability to go through solid objects.
Make Sure Your Network Keeps Up With Your Devices
While it’s certainly advisable to plan your network, you never really know what devices you’ll add in the future. At first just using the wireless provided by the router may be enough to access the web. But continue to think about your needs as you add more and different devices.
Are you plagued with “slow internet?” Do you have any tips or clever home network designs to help out those that are? Let us know how you optimize your home network in the comments below!
Image Credit: ginasanders/Depositphotos