Slow internet speeds can interrupt work and school, put a damper on an evening at home, and leave everyone in the house frustrated. It can sometimes be difficult to track down the root cause of slow internet connections.
To do so—and to fix the problem—you’ll need to work methodically to eliminate various potential issues that could be sapping your internet speed.
What is internet speed?
Your internet speed determines how quickly data can be sent between your devices and the web. You’ll often see this measured and advertised by internet service providers (ISPs) as megabits per second (Mbps) or gigabits per second (Gbps). For instance, a plan might offer an “up to 25mbps” download speed.
Download speed is the speed at which you can access content from the web—which includes loading webpages, streaming audio or video, and surfing social media. Upload speed is the speed at which you can send content to the web—which includes video calls and gaming. Download speeds are generally higher than upload speeds—an important difference for those who are working from home.
ISPs also don’t generally guarantee your internet speeds. Instead, you’ll see maximum or “up to” download and upload speeds for each plan.
Bandwidth vs. latency
One reason you’ll see “up to” limits for internet plans is that you can break internet speeds into two components—bandwidth and latency. Bandwidth is how much data can be transferred within some unit of time (like a second or a minute), while latency is the round trip time for a small piece of data.
A highway is a helpful metaphor for how this works. Think of cars as the data flowing through the highway. BBandwidth is then dependent on the number of lanes available, while latency is determined by the cars’ maximum speed.
You might experience a traffic jam if a lot of cars are trying to get through a narrow, two-lane section. Having more bandwidth could open up additional lanes and allow all the cars to reach their destination sooner. But if the cars on the road have low maximum speeds, even a five-lane highway won’t help them reach their destination much sooner.
With this analogy in mind, you can see how low bandwidth results in slow speeds, especially when multiple people are trying to transmit a lot of data at once. You might experience this when several people are streaming high-definition videos and your show frequently pauses or glitches.
But paying for a higher maximum bandwidth won’t solve the problem if latency issues are also at play.
Latency is often measured in milliseconds as the time it takes for a packet of information to make the roundtrip from your device to another server and back. High (or “bad”) latency can be especially disruptive when you’re using the internet for real-time communication. For example, if you’re gaming or on a Zoom call, latency can lead to a choppy or “laggy” experience.
If you live far from a city or use satellite internet, you may notice slow speeds because of the transmission time (the latency) rather than the bandwidth (the amount of data that can be sent and received). Low-orbit satellite internet services are being worked on to lower latency.
4 factors that can affect internet speed
Internet speeds can be affected by various factors, and a single choke point can slow down your entire system. Understanding what might be impacting your internet speeds can be an important first step in solving the problem. These factors can be broken into several categories:
1. The type of internet connection
Depending on what’s available in your area, you may have a choice in the type of internet services. The type of connection you have can impact your maximum internet speed and the factors that can slow it down.
Fiber-optic internet service isn’t widely available and may be relatively expensive, but it’s one of the best options. Optic cables are made of glass fibers and data gets transferred as light. Data can go further and faster on glass fibers than it can over metal-based cables. It may also be less susceptible to electromagnetic interference.
Cable connections use the same coaxial cables as cable TV services. You can often purchase this service from cable providers, and high-speed internet options may be available. However, you may be sharing the same cable lines with your neighbors and may find your connection slows down during high-use times.
DSL services use copper wires to transmit data. Your speeds could be impacted by the age of the wiring and the distance to your nearest telephone company site.
Satellite connections are popular in remote areas. However, the distance between your home and the satellite can lead to high latency. Intense weather may also disrupt your connection.
Wireless services that use a mix of fiber-optic connections and wireless 5G service are starting to pop up as competitors to the major ISPs in the US. These can provide high-speed internet, but you may experience slowdowns or outages as the companies work through growing pains.
Dial-up uses phone lines to connect to the internet. While it used to be the only way to get online, dial-up technology is slow and outdated.
2. The internet service provider and your internet plan
Your ISP and the plan you pay for can also impact your speeds, even if you’re choosing between several options that depend on the same type of internet connection.
The company’s policies for limiting or slowing traffic.
The maximum bandwidth for your internet plan.
The provider’s network capacity and current usage in your area.
3. Your home
Once the internet reaches your home, the physical equipment, environment, and what people in the home are using the internet for can all impact speeds. Specifically:
The hardware used to transmit internet through your home—such as modem, router, ethernet cables, and wifi extenders.
Your home’s layout and building material. Wifi signals may have an especially hard time passing through concrete, stone, and brick.
Other electronic devices may interfere with your wifi network.
How many people are currently using the internet and what they’re doing.
4. Your devices and the websites you visit
The devices you use to access the internet and the websites you visit can have an impact.
Old, overworked, or infected computers might run slowly, even if you have fast internet.
The websites you visit may be slow, especially if they’re poorly designed or filled with ads.
10 common reasons for slow internet speed
With the above factors in mind, here are 10 common reasons you might experience slow internet speeds:
You reached your internet plan’s bandwidth cap. Your bandwidth may be limited by the internet plan you purchased. If you don’t have enough bandwidth—there are calculators you can use—you may need to upgrade to a different plan to increase your internet speeds. Often, this can be an issue when there are multiple connected devices using the internet at once.
Your internet plan has data caps. Some internet plans have data caps for each billing period. You may be given warnings or have your service shut down if you exceed the limit. Some ISPs offer an unlimited plan—for an extra fee. However, even with an unlimited plan, if you cross a certain threshold, the ISP may slow your speeds until the start of your next billing period.
The ISP is throttling your connection. Your provider may also have a policy of throttling (i.e., slowing down) traffic to certain sites or types of services. For example, you might receive slower speeds for video streaming services than a newspaper’s website. On July 9, 2021, President Biden signed an executive order that (in part) encourages the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to restore net neutrality rules, which might stop ISPs from throttling traffic.
The ISP’s equipment is at fault. In some cases, the hardware you rent from your ISP—like modems and routers—may be out of date or malfunctioning.
Old ethernet cables are slowing connections. If you have older Cat 5 ethernet cables, they could be slowing the connection between your modem, router, wifi extenders, and wired devices.
The wifi signal is crowded. If you’re experiencing slow wifi throughout your home, your wifi channel may be crowded. This issue may be more common if you live in a densely populated area.
The wifi network isn’t large or strong enough. The problem may be due to the wifi router’s signal strength or obstructions from your home’s building material or other electronic devices.
Your device can’t handle the speed. If you have high-speed internet, your device could be a limiting factor if it’s old or has a low speed cap.
Malware is slowing your device. Your device could also be slowed down by a virus or malware.
A virtual private network (VPN) is slowing your connection. A VPN can encrypt your browsing activity and help keep your information private. However, it’s also another layer between your device and the internet, which could slow transmission speeds.
How to fix slow internet
Since internet speed can be affected by a number of factors, a methodical process of elimination is the best way to troubleshoot it. With each step, narrow in on the root cause of your issue.
But first, turn your modem, router, and devices off and on. Yes, really. Restarting hardware is cliche advice, but it can sometimes resolve connection problems. If that doesn’t work, follow these steps:
Check your plan. Start by reminding yourself of what you’re paying for. Check the details of your plan for the upload and download speed promised by your ISP.
Run a speed test. Next, make sure you’re getting the speed you pay for. Connect a device directly to your modem or ONT with a Cat 6 ethernet cable if you can and try running a speed test. Several popular options include tests from Fast.com, M-Lab, and Ookla. If you’re not getting close to the download and upload speeds for your plan, the issue might be with the ISP, and you should reach out to them directly. One exception could be if you have gigabit, or “gig,” speed internet plan and you don’t have a DOCSIS 3.1 modem.
Check all devices. If your speed test looks normal, move on to your devices. Try running the speed test on multiple devices while standing next to your wifi transmitter. If only one shows low speeds, it could be a problem with the device itself. Getting to the bottom of why a device is running slow is another task, but you’ll want to check things like speed cap, age, and potential malware.
Check your router and wifi signal. If you notice slow speeds on all your devices, the issue may be with your router. Perhaps it can’t handle your plan’s maximum bandwidth, it needs a firmware update, or you need to switch wireless channels.
Look for dead spots or weak signal. If you haven’t found the culprit yet, test wifi speeds in different areas of the house. If you find dead spots, a new router might handle higher speeds and longer distances. You can also invest in wifi extenders or repeaters that relay the signal further. With the latest mesh wifi systems, your device can automatically connect to the strongest point without you having to actively switch networks.
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