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Why is your internet so slow? Network strain could be the cause

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As online technology evolves, your internet speeds may leave you struggling to keep up. There are two challenges for today’s internet; the first is the increase in the number of connected devices in the average home or business. Security systems, smart appliances, thermostats, and streaming devices connect to the same network as your gaming console and laptop. Add the work-from-home trend, which looks set to continue past the COVID-19 pandemic, and you have a recipe for slow internet, especially in rural communities.

Second, data-hungry technology, like 4K streaming, virtual reality (VR), and video conferencing, requires high-speed connections and huge amounts of bandwidth.

Internet speed is measured in kilobits and megabits per second (Kbps and Mbps). The FCC suggests a minimum speed for “high-speed internet services” at 3 Mbps for uploads and 25 Mbps for downloads. 3 Mbps up is sufficient for basic work-related tasks like video calls, uploading documents, and checking emails. It is even enough for basic online gaming. However, new technology, like VR programs, may require up to 50 Mbps down, with 4K movies demanding 25 Mbps.

The flow of data from numerous connected devices and data-intensive technologies can slow your home internet, but they can also strain the wider network, causing it to slow, even for people who do not contribute to the issue.

What affects network speed and bandwidth?

The most common sources of network strain are new digital technologies that require large amounts of data. As this tech becomes more common, it puts more strain on the current network. Here are some of the culprits.

Streaming video

As more people switch to streaming over the internet instead of watching DVDs, cable, or broadcast TV, the demand for bandwidth is increasing. However, not all video streaming requires a high-speed connection.

Consumer Reports found that a standard-definition (SD) stream requires a connection speed of 1 Mbps. High-definition (HD) videos are more data-intensive, requiring 8 Mbps.

4K streaming, which is widely available from major services like Amazon and Netflix, requires between 18 and 25 Mbps down.

Streaming becomes an issue when you have multiple devices running simultaneously on the same network. If you are streaming a live event while your spouse streams video and your children access an online gaming platform, you may pressure your network even if you have above-average speed. If the same thing is happening in households in the wider network, it could slow the internet provider's entire system down.

VR technology

Emerging technologies like virtual reality use even more data than the highest-quality video streams. A low-resolution VR system still needs 25 Mbps down, which is as much as the best 4K video stream. This is the data required for the type of wearable VR headsets that are currently available to consumers.

If you want a better picture from the VR system, you may need speeds of up to 100 Mbps, and the requirements can top 600 Mbps for the highest-quality VR experiences.

These speed requirements can bring significant challenges to home internet networks. When you consider that the use of VR technologies is expected to increase by about 15% per year for the next decade, you can see that it could also be a problem for internet service providers trying to manage demand on their current networks.

The issue may require steps by ISPs to increase bandwidth. Meanwhile, VR technology developers need to find ways to lower the data requirements for their devices.

There’s also the issue of connectivity — you need a reliable network to run VR. If you’re on a home Wi-Fi connection, network strain or an out-of-date router may cause poor connectivity and dropped data packets. Anytime your network isn’t transmitting data properly through to your VR device, the jittery connection may cause you to experience nausea, headaches and dizziness.

While Wi-Fi can suffer from dropped connections due to things like microwaves or interference from other networks, cellular coverage is more stable and reliable, meaning VR users should consider connecting their devices via Bluetooth to a smartphone with a high-speed unlimited data plan.

Online gaming

Online gaming brings unique challenges because it requires constant data transfers to gaming platforms that need to react in real time to the player’s inputs. Gaming consoles are quite economical in terms of speed. You need download speeds of at least 3 Mbps to play most console games online. However, you may experience issues, such as lag between inputs to the controls and movements on the screen, with speeds below 20 Mbps.

Game consoles can also eat up data with large game files or updates, which can dominate your internet network while they are downloading.

The main problem with online gaming is if you are on a network with others who are engaged in data-intensive activities.

Remote working

Remote work can put a strain on the internet network in several ways. Some tools, such as video conferencing, file sharing, and cloud-based software, are necessary for a home office. These programs may require high-speed connections. For example, video conferencing platforms can require up to 5 Mbps or more for a video conference, depending on which application is being used, the meeting size and how much competition for bandwidth there is on your home network.

Also, many professional software systems now exist in the cloud. This setup makes collaboration easier and solves problems such as taking up memory on your computer. However, it may also cause bandwidth issues when you have to upload large files or data collections to the cloud. 

Meanwhile, enterprises also have to manage the traffic from remote workers while also taking up bandwidth with security systems and other necessities.

Effect of network strain on infrastructure

What does the use of all this new technology do to the internet? In some cases, it can create bottlenecks in the system. When this occurs, all dependent network connections slow down, even if they are only using a fraction of their bandwidth.

You may notice this type of slowdown during peak video viewing hours. For example, perhaps everyone on a specific internet provider’s network is watching a long-awaited, newly released movie in 4K.

A logjam can also occur on mobile networks. These networks sometimes have to deal with a high concentration of devices in one place. You may have experienced slow connections on your mobile device because everyone is live streaming from social media during a concert or a convention or using shopping or coupon apps at a mall.

With internet-connected appliances, VR devices, gaming consoles, and 4K streaming in many of the homes on an ISP's network, the same overcrowding and subsequent slow loading times can occur for wired connections, as well.

Effect of network strain on a home network

Network strain can affect your home network because your modem and router cannot keep up with the data demands. These devices have limitations. They can typically handle the amount of data and speeds offered by your ISP. Some ISPs will require that you use their modems and routers or approved third-party equipment. However, if you engage in high-bandwidth activities or if the cumulative effect of many internet-connected devices is too much for the router and modem, you will notice slower than normal speeds. In some cases, devices may get kicked off the network entirely or be unable to sign in again.

How to improve bandwidth and limit network strain

There are several ways to limit strain on your home network:

  • You can limit picture quality on your devices or streaming accounts. You can turn on 4K streaming manually if needed, but by turning it off, you can significantly cut your bandwidth requirements.
  • You can set maximum upload and download rates on your devices. This may reduce picture quality or lengthen upload and download times, but the difference could be negligible, and it will save a significant amount of bandwidth.
  • You can disconnect embedded systems from your network. You may think that home security systems are necessary, but connected appliances, such as the smart refrigerator, may take up bandwidth without adding convenience.
  • You can also increase your speed by purchasing a faster service from your internet service provider (ISP). Faster services are typically more expensive, but it could be worth the investment if you are currently suffering from the effects of network strain.

Network strain is an ongoing issue, but you can take simple steps to keep your home network operating efficiently.