The FCC is now criticizing broadband providers for a situation well-known to most of us: Sometimes, speed stinks. But what can you do about it? Here are some tools, tips and tricks to self-heal your sluggish net connection.
[ How do the Internet providers get away with such slow speeds compared to what's advertised? See CIO.com's "The Truth About Broadband Speeds" ]
First, get a handle on industry data for your region of the country and what you should be getting according to your peers experiences. The first piece of news that you can use: Timing is everything.
Like to do your browsing first thing in the morning? If you do, you'll find 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. the time when your broadband connection works at its fastest. But if you're a night person, the same connection will slow down by as much as 20 percent at 9 p.m., according to an hour-by-hour survey of major metropolitan areas by Ookla, which collects comparative data on broadband speeds that you can access.
It's not surprising that broadband via cable slows so much in the evening; cable bandwidth is essentially shared within neighborhoods. But the Ookla survey shows that DSL connections also slow during busy hours, even though bandwidth provided by companies like AT&T is not shared. However, the provider's overall network capacity is limited, and when many people on the system hit it at the same time, it slows.
"For DSL the bandwidth they supply to users is subject to the available infrastructure they have in place, meaning how much bandwidth the provider subscribes to from peering partners," says Ookla's Hanna Lane. So Covad in New York runs at 3.5 Mpbs in the wee hours from midnight to 5 a.m., but is nearly 23 percent slower at 9 p.m.
While the fast in the morning, slow at night rule is generally true, there are some notable exceptions. Earthlink subscribers in Seattle, for example, wake up to download speeds of 16.92 Mbps, but between 10 a.m. and noon, it's turtle time, with speeds averaging 1.9 Mbps.
More typical, though, is Comcast Cable service in Boston; service is a brisk 16.5 Mpbs first thing in the morning, dropping a bit more than 18 percent at 9 p.m. Of course, even at its slowest, cable is much faster than DSL at its fastest.
5 Tips to Speed Up Your W-Fi
The most direct route to a faster connection is to switch ISPs, or upgrade to a premium plan. But that can be expensive, and if you don't use your own domain, switching e-mail addresses can be very painful.
Of course, browsing and download speeds depend upon more than the speed of your broadband connection. Your browser, your PC, and your wireless network all make a difference and the speed you get won't be any faster than the slowest component allows.
Tweaking each of these elements should help you squeeze more speed out of your existing connection.
Try these 5 tips to speed up your Wi-Fi:
1. Upgrade the firmware in your existing router.
2. Take a look at your router and wireless card. If you're still using older equipment that supports the 802.11b or 802.11g protocols, think about moving to 802.11n. You'll notice the difference, since the "n" protocol is much faster. However, don't believe claims that "n" is five time faster than "b." While there's some theoretical truth to that, the real-world speed isn't nearly that dramatic. Remember, if you upgrade your router to a faster protocol, you'll need to upgrade the wireless card as well or you won't get any advantage.
3. The good news about broadband modems is that they tend to last a long time. The bad news is that they can slow down with age, as heat and the constant conducting of electricity take their toll on components. If it's more than a few years old, you might as well replace it.
4. Avoid wireless electronics, particularly cordless phones, that use the 2.4GHz frequency. Instead, buy one that uses the 5.8GHz or 900MHz frequencies.
5. Move the router off the floor and away from walls and metal objects (such as metal file cabinets) Metal, walls, and floors will interfere with your router's wireless signals. The closer your router is to these obstructions, the more severe the interference, and the weaker your connection will be.
3 Tips for Your Browser
1. Nothing gets geeky types madder than someone dissing their favorite browser. I certainly won't take that risk, but I've noticed that Chrome runs faster on my Windows Vista laptop than Firefox. Your experience could certainly be different, but it's no big deal to try a new browser. After all, they're free.
2. Upgrade your current browser to the latest version. This is smart for security's sake, as well as speed.
3. In general, the more stuff you lard on to your browser--skins, extensions and so on--the more chance you have of hitting a speed bump. Add what you need, and delete stuff you're not using.
Finally, it's possible that if you use DSL, the wiring in your house is old and not up to the job of carrying data at high speeds. Some phone companies can run checks of your connection and diagnose a wiring problem without a visit from a technician. Or they may have to send someone.
If you're an AT&T customer, spend a dollar or two a month on inside wiring insurance. If you have the insurance, and the wiring is causing a problem, AT&T will fix it for free. Other telcos may have similar programs, as well.
Whether you are a cable or DSL subscriber, complain if your connection is unacceptably slow. But before you do, visit the Ookla speedtest site and arm yourself with a few days of data.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at email@example.com.