Improving your Internet Connection at Home

When I wasn’t working at home, my internet connection was just fine in my house.  However, with two kids and me all competing for bandwidth, we realized we needed a faster connection.  

We went from 200 MBPS (megabytes per second) download to 1 GBPS (gigabyte per second).  We can now download files quickly, and our access to the internet is very fast.  We also improved our “upload speed” (how fast we could upload files to the internet – e.g., attach a document to an email or upload an assignment) from well under 100 MBPS to 1 GBPS. 

I live in a house in the suburbs, so I did this by:

  1. Upgrading our internet from broadband to fiber (this reduced what I was paying for internet)
  2. Moving our modem/router to a central location
  3. Creating a mesh network
  4. Connecting some computers to the router using network cables

Not all these solutions will work for all users due to cost, availability, or other issues. I live in a high-coverage area where fiber is relatively affordable.  Below are some suggestions for making your internet work better, from things you may have on hand (such as network cords), to new equipment (e.g a new modem/router), to upgrading your service.

How fast is my internet connection?

You can use an online speed test like this one: https://www.speedtest.net.  A connection of 100 MBPS or better will work well for most purposes.  If it’s slower, you may want to try some of the solutions below. The image below is from a fiber connection over wireless internet.  

Speed test results

How your connection is set up

In most instances, you’ll need a modem- a device that connects to your internet service provider (ISP).  If you are not using a network cable to connect your computer, you’ll need a wireless router.  In many cases, the devices are combined into a single one.  You probably are renting your modem/router from your ISP.  If you buy a 3rd party device (which will avoid the rental cost), be sure it connects to your particular provider.  

Why your internet connection is slow

The connection you purchased is slow

Some ISPs offer very slow connections for low cost.  For example, XFINITY offers a deal in Chicago for $25/month, but the speed is only 25 MBPS.  Other, smaller ISPs offer speeds around 6 MBPS.  These may be too slow for online learning and working.  

Limitations with your ISP

Your internet provider may not be able to provide you with your advertised speed all the time.  You may be sharing a connection with many others, particularly at peak times of the day.  Or your house may be far from your ISP’s internet server.  See this article for more information about slow speeds.

Your wireless modem/router is overloaded  

A while ago, long before COVID, I found my internet connection was getting slower and slower.  I learned that trying to put 20+ devices (don’t ask) on a modem made for five wasn’t going to work.  I found a wireless modem/router that could handle more devices. After that, we were just fine (until COVID).

Your wireless modem/router is in a bad location

If your modem/router is not in a central location or is behind a large object such as a TV, this might affect your signal.  This warren of wires in the TV alcove was not the best place to put a router, so we moved it.

TV Alcove

The sites you are connecting to are slow

Your ISP may provide you with a fast connection, but you still may encounter slowness from time to time.  This situation is often due to issues with the sites to which you are connecting.  There isn’t anything you can do about this.  

Increasing your internet connection speed

Some of these suggestions can be relatively costly, but others are low-cost or free.

Improve your modem and router

Free:  Are you trying to use too many devices at once on your wireless router? Disconnect devices that you are not using.  

If you can’t disconnect, you may consider upgrading your modem/router.  

Free (or at least the same as the rental price you pay now):  You can contact your ISP to see if they offer a better modem. If your connection was set up a long time ago, they might send you a new device.  

Netgear router with catAbout $100-300: You can also buy a 3rd party modem/router. But be sure: 1) it works with your ISP (see my note above), and 2) the device has the features you want (e.g., can handle many wireless connections).  Note you can get devices from discount stores like Costco, such as this one that connects to Comcast/Xfinity and can handle over 20 devices (cat not included).

Change your wireless location

Free

When using a wireless network, the closer you are to your router, the better your speeds will be.  If you can, try moving your modem/router to a new location.  Or move your computer closer to the router.  

Note that often the faster your wireless router speeds are, the less they can maintain good signal strength over long distances.  Very high-speed wireless routers may do poorly with objects like “walls” or “stairs.”  An extender or mesh network (described below) may be a good solution.

Use a network cable

Low cost: around $10 to $25, depending on the length you need

If you have a computer that can connect to a network cable (or have an adapter), you’ll get the best speeds if you plug in directly.  Note, do not use a “CAT 5” network cable if you have speeds above 100 MBPS – they are too slow for fast connections.  You can use CAT 5e or CAT 6.   Here are the limitations of different kinds of cables.

Examples of cables

Add a network extender or mesh router

Higher cost: $30-60 for a network extender; $100-$300 for a mesh network

If your internet connection is not consistent throughout your house, you may want to extend your wireless network.

For some users, a network extender might boost your speed in different places in your house.  These devices plug into an outlet and increase the range of your network.  They can be moved anywhere you have power and can even let you work outside.

Fiber modem and Deco RouterIf an extender doesn’t work for you (e.g. it’s range is too limited), you may want to set up a mesh network.  Mesh routers connect to each other, while extenders connect to just your modem/router. You’ll need more than one in most cases, but you can buy them in sets of 3.  The first mesh router connects to your modem/router.  The others you can place wherever you are experiencing a slow internet connection.  They even work from floor to floor in a multi-story house.  

Extenders and mesh networks work best in central locations, away from walls and large objects.  

 

This is a Deco mesh extender attached to a high-speed fiber modem. 

Upgrade for a faster connection

Higher cost: Fiber is $45/month in my area, high-speed broadband is much more

Your selection of providers may be limited, depending on where you live.  If you live in an apartment or shared living situation, you may not be able to upgrade your service. 

You may find that you can get a bargain if you upgrade.  But be sure to read the fine print – does the price go up after a year?  Do you have to use their modem for the price offered?  Many providers will encourage you to buy extras you don’t need – like cable TV or an internet phone connection.  Often sticking to only what you need will keep the cost down, especially in the long-term.  

Be sure to compare prices.  For example, in my town, one provider offered a relatively high-speed connection, but it was expensive.  Another offered a fiber connection at a good price, so we chose that provider.  Fiber connections tend to be more stable and faster than regular broadband connections.  If fiber is available, affordable, and speed is important to you, consider this option. And if you do switch providers, keep both for a week to make sure your new option really is better. 

Note: for most users, 100 MBPS is fast enough.  Also note that for regular (not fiber) connections, your upload speed will be slower than your download speed (expect around 10-20 MBPS).  If you are creating videos (or playing high-end video games), you may want to consider a faster connection.  

 

 

A slow internet connection can make learning and working from home difficult.  If you can increase your speed even slightly, you should find your experience improves. 

 

Have you tried any of these steps?  What worked for you?

About Debbie Ginsberg

Debbie is the Educational Technology Librarian at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.
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