We’re all working from home now, teachers, students, and business people who are relatively non-techie, and our home networks are our lifelines! Here’s how to improve your home network (painlessly) before your next important meeting or class to reduce frustration and slow speeds.
I promise, this is a non-techie explanation of how to increase your home network speed. Yes, there will be tech terms like wifi, ethernet, and Mbps, but please give this a quick read. Calling Comcast or Verizon (or whoever your internet provider might be) probably ranks right below root canal and maybe right above changing a dirty diaper, but you’ll get useful info here to make sure that you and students who share your home have the best connection that you can afford for this school year.
You probably need faster internet.
Would a kitchen sink sprayer, a garden hose or a firehose push more water?
If you said firehose, then you already understand the concept of internet bandwidth. A bigger pipe can handle more throughput. But what’s a little less obvious is how big YOUR home office internet pipe is. How do you find out? How do you find out if it’s enough for the work you are doing from home in 2020? And why do you care?
Sure, you’ve been humming along until now, working from your couch, but your school district just put a whole new distance-learning platform in place and if you are a teacher, you are going to be teaching online almost the whole day this year. Or your kids will have to be on camera most of the day (and probably trying to sneak a game or videos in on the side). And all this will be going on while your spouse is on video calls and moving around big spreadsheets or design files for their job, also happening from home. That’s a LOT of bandwidth demand that you haven’t needed before. Is your home network prepared for how we’re working from home now? Could you be more efficient at work if your network weren’t slowing you down?
What does a (free) speed test tell you?
To find out, run a speed test. It’s super easy and free. Just open a browser on your Mac or PC and type in “speed test.” You’ll get many options, and just about any of them will give you decent information about your PC or Mac’s speed. (I’m lumping Chromebooks in with PCs for this discussion.) Your speed test will tell you how much bandwidth you have down to the device you are using, which might differ from what you think you are supposed to be getting from your provider.
Maybe you never actually thought about how much bandwidth you were getting? In other words, you never wondered, “Do I have a kitchen sprayer, garden hose, or a firehose worth of bandwidth for my internet?” That’s fair. But now it’s worth asking, and Googling “speed test” will tell you.
Results should give you both upload speeds and download speeds. Both are important. You “upload” things like emails that you are sending, backing up to cloud services or your corporate server, and your end of Zoom calls that you are participating in. You “download” things like movies that you are watching, emails that you receive, that Word document that your boss just sent you via your shared Dropbox folder, and the presenter’s end of Zoom calls.
Where I live, we typically see upload AND download speeds around 100 Mbps (megabytes per second) if you’ve got Verizon internet. That means that whether they are receiving or sending data in a home office, data zips along pretty quickly. Comcast Xfinity subscribers have a different situation. Comcast’s internet service will often register download speeds close to 200+ Mbps but upload speeds of ~5 Mbps. This makes sense because Comcast started as an entertainment company, so they are optimized to deliver blazing-fast downloads, which is awesome when you want to watch your favorite movies or you need to download video files provided by your corporate employer. But you might find that uploading large batches of data get “choked” in the limited upload bandwidth offered on Xfinity service. This can lead to frustratingly slow communication, occasional dropped or splotchy video calls, and some applications timing out. Slower download speeds aren’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just how Comcast internet is designed. Remember, they are awesome at delivering content on demand with fast download speeds. And by no means will you always have trouble with lower upload speeds; according to Comcast, a 25 (download)/3 (upload) speed tier is sufficient to handle three simultaneous Zoom calls.
What else can impact internet speeds?
Back to our kitchen sink sprayer, garden hose, and firehose example, there’s only so much space in each pipe. If you are sharing your internet, then your pipe is divided by the number of users, the number of devices for each user, and the things each user is doing at any given time. One of my daughters constantly streams music from YouTube while editing video files using a cloud-based app. She’s got two very internet-intensive apps going at all times, and she’s reducing the amount of bandwidth available to me. Is that usually a problem? No. But if I need to upload or download large files, it’s going to be quicker and more reliable if I do it while she’s not doing her things online.
Are you thinking of hosting an in-person learning pod for your kids at your home? That might mean another student or two in your home chewing up even more bandwidth for part of your day. I’m not saying you will have problems. But if you do have problems, don’t just suffer through it. Keep reading for easy things you can do.
In-home wifi can also slow you down. If your computer is connected to your home router via wifi, it’s not going to be as fast as your other connection alternative, an Ethernet cord. Why? An Ethernet cord is a “bigger pipe.” Being directly wired to your router means that you won’t get dropped like you might on wifi, which is a magical service where data packets get sent through the air. Wifi is convenient, but not particularly reliable. You know this if you have “dead spots” where your cell phone reception fades in and out. Yeah, I know, connecting your computer with an Ethernet cord is not as convenient, but if you want a faster internet connection, Ethernet is the way to go. If your router is in the basement and you work upstairs, it’s not as easy as plugging a cord from your laptop to your router. But if, like me, it’s really important to have a stable and fast internet connection, it might be worth hiring an electrician to come fish a wire up your walls so you can connect directly. It might cost you ~$200, but if it reduces your #WFH frustration and lets you work faster and more professionally, it’s totally worth it, right? (There’s another option below. Keep reading.)
If you normally sit close enough to your router, you can simply plug in an Ethernet cord (affiliate link) from your computer to the back of your router and–voila!–life will be easier and better. Ethernet cords come in different lengths and in Cat 5, 6, and 7 designations. The higher the numbers, the faster they are. The Ethernet cables are “firehose” speed, while your Wifi is “kitchen sink sprayer” speed.
Time of day can also be a factor. If everyone in your neighborhood, town, and state hops online at 9 am, then it’s exactly like rush hour traffic. Everyone will still get on the internet highway, but everyone will slow down just a smidge (or a lot if you are really unlucky). There’s not a darned thing you can do about that, except perhaps to schedule huge downloads on off-hours. If you run your speed test during the day and late at night, you’ll get different results.
Your device itself can also be limited. If you have an old computer, your computer might be processing data slower than your network can hand it off. This has more to do with RAM and internal speed. Again, it’s a little techie, but in general, the higher the RAM number, the faster your computer can work. If my clients are having trouble with a slow computer, we see if we can upgrade them to at least 16 gigs of RAM or more. (Right, RAM is another techie term you almost never need to worry about. Random Access Memory (RAM) comes with your computer, sometimes can be increased, and determines how fast your computer can work.)
These aren’t just hypothetical issues. One of my employees had to hand a project off to me because she was trying to move so much data around at a time that her computer, her in-home network, and the cloud service were all timing out in the middle of a big project. Remember, we at HeartWork Organizing remotely organize photos and videos for clients, so our data needs at my home office are more than the average bear, but we definitely saw chokepoints that reduced our productivity for that job. Translation? Her internet service was so slow, she couldn’t get her job done. I don’t want this to happen to you.
Can I get faster internet?
Probably. First, plug into an Ethernet port on your router if you can. Even if you just want to test out the situation, you can take your laptop to where your router lives and plug it in temporarily to see the difference. (Desktop users like me, it’s not so easy if your computer and router aren’t in the same room. Sorry.) All you need is an Ethernet cord and the right port on your computer. The port looks like a phone plug, but slightly bigger. The Ethernet cords are usually yellow or blue. If your laptop doesn’t have an Ethernet port (check all sides), you can purchase an Ethernet-to-USB adapter like this one (affiliate link), and plug in. If it improves your speed, you can either move your office permanently, move the router closer to your office, or invest in an electrician to make the Ethernet cord connection a permanent option for you.
You can ask your kids not to do video-intensive projects, including gaming, while you are working. (Good luck.)
More to the point, you can call your internet provider and ask for an upgrade. The first upgrade to ask for is your router. If your router is over 2 years old, ask for a newer model. Xfinity launched a fancy new Wifi 6 router in January 2020. You can apparently swap an older router for the newer one for the same price you are paying now. It’s faster and prettier, too.
One of the best features with this new Xfinity router IMHO are the “pods” that are wifi extenders. Just plug them into your wall and your wifi signal gets boosted to those dead spaces. The router is still sending over wifi, so it doesn’t increase your network speed, per se, but it might eliminate dead spots. Comcast tells me that they proactively contact you to upgrade your router, so if you’ve been ignoring that email or letter from them, you should really jump on their offer to upgrade you right now. You’ll hear the terms “meshed network” and “wifi extenders,” which are the same things no matter who your internet provider is.
Verizon will also replace your router when it fails, upgrade your router when it’s old, and sometimes replace the entire kit and caboodle that connects your in-home network to the street if you are on a really old service. You just need to ask for it. It’s absolutely worth the pain of calling them if you are limping along with slow speeds. You can also buy your own high-speed router to increase your speed, but that takes just a bit more tech know-how.
Finally, you should ask your provider about upgrading your service plan specifically to increase your speed. You’ll pay more for monthly service, but if you aren’t able to get work done from home, then you should look into this option. Comcast posts these plans with differing speeds. The difference between a 3 Mbps and a 35 Mbps connection is noticeable. Verizon FIOS plans are posted here with differing internet speeds. If you haven’t changed or at least evaluated your plan in a while, it’s worth looking into…after you’ve run your speed test.
This Wifi 101 article from Staples has some other good tips, like moving your router as close to the middle of your home as possible, and not tucking it behind brick walls or other obstructions.
OK, I’ve done my best to explain routers and wifi and Mbps in a non-techie way. Please comment below with your questions so I can explain it even better. My hope is that you figure out if you have enough home bandwidth to work and school at home this year.
Got a friend working from home with slow speeds and bad connections? Please use the share buttons or copy and paste this link to send to them.
And if your problem is more about where to store your digital files and less about moving data over your network, then check out the podcast I taped with the team from Insomnicat Media. They had great questions about how to organize their digital files and their home offices, and you are going to love meeting them.
If you liked this article, you’ll really like knowing more about external hard drives, and why you need one to backup your computer and your precious digital photos.