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Now that the majority of the workforce has to work from home, and their kids are out of school with them, home networks are getting jammed up.
If you use a cable connection to the internet, as most homes in the US do, then you are essentially on what used to be called a ‘party-line’. That’s an old early-telephone term meaning that multiple people share the same line. That also means that if multiple people get online at the same time then the signal degrades.
That is affecting home networks because if multiple people in your home are online at the same time then your bandwidth will suffer. And likewise, if multiple homes are online at the same time along the main cable-line serving your home, all the homes connected to that line will suffer.
Think of the Internet as a highway, where congestion in traffic causes speed to slow from 60 mph to 20 mph.
That’s why people noticed that their Internet service was slower right after they came home from work. A lot of people jumped online to check their personal email and catch up with the friends who have nothing to do but post on social media.
With so much of the U.S. workforce — and their families — now cooped up at home to combat the spread of COVID-19, it’s not a huge surprise that home Internet is showing the strain.
Residences and neighborhoods served by lower bandwidth cable and copper-wire connections will be among the first affected. Whole families sharing a single Wi-Fi signal, all logging in at once to work, or firing up TVs and tablets to stay connected and entertained, should also expect delays.
If you’ve been working at home and had a business video-conference stutter while your teenagers play Call of Duty online in another room, or found yourself unable to stream the news while your spouse uploads huge data files for work, you’ll have a good idea of the problem.
So – what to do?
IS THERE A BANDWIDTH PROBLEM?
The internet’s core is managing the spike in traffic just fine, experts say. It has massive capacity to handle Netflix, YouTube, Zoom and other streaming services.
True, Netflix recently throttled down its video quality in Europe at the request of authorities there. But the company already stores its programs on servers close to users’ homes already, and there’s no evidence that it’s clogging networks.
IF THE INTERNET IS SO STURDY, WHY DOES MY HOME CONNECTION STUTTER?
The problem partly lies in the so-called “last mile,” the link that connects your home to the ultra-high speed Internet backbone.
Most U.S. homes get their Internet from cable companies and thus connect to the broader network via coaxial cable, a legacy of the cable TV era. These connections provide faster “downstream” speeds to your home than “upstream” speeds back to the internet. Since videoconferencing sends equal amounts of data both ways, simultaneous sessions can clog the upstream channel and disrupt service for the entire household.
If that happens, one quick solution is to have some family members switch to audio-only, which conserves bandwidth. This also applies to anyone in multiplayer online games, where the chatter between players often resembles conference calls with occasional shooting.
You could also order a service upgrade, although that might not be strictly necessary. Some providers are temporarily offering more bandwidth, particularly for families with school-age children, in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Others have dropped service caps that charge extra when data usage passes a certain threshold.
The relatively few U.S. households with their own direct fiber-optic connections have the same bandwidth in both directions and shouldn’t experience serious hiccups.
DOES MY HOME NETWORK NEED AN UPGRADE?
It might. Start with your internet modem, the device that most likely has a coax cable connecting it to your wall. Your internet provider often rents the modem to you.
If it’s several years old, it’s probably time to ask your provider if upgrading the modem’s internal software, or replacing the modem entirely, will help. Older modems often can’t deliver the full bandwidth you’re paying for to your household.
Next up is your Wi-Fi router. If you have cable, it may be built into your modem. If you haven’t already, try moving it to a more central location in your home or apartment; that will ensure bandwidth is distributed more equally.
Or you can add more access points and distribute Wi-Fi with a “mesh” network. Newer routers let you add several satellite stations that boost your signal throughout the house, though you might have to arrange that with your provider.
Something that most homeowners aren’t aware of is that modems, like the computers themselves, can get clogged with data that needs to be flushed from time to time. There are several technical ways to handle this, but the easiest way to eliminate the loose bits clogging your system is a complete shutdown of all your devices at the same time and reboot.
That means to turn off all your computers, tablets, phones, laptops, games – everything that connects to your Internet signal, whether it’s connected by Ethernet or Wi-Fi. Shut them off, along with the peripherals connected to them. Then unplug your modem (and router if it’s a separate unit). Let everything just sit without power for a couple of minutes.
Then plug your modem back in. Wait until you see the lights that indicate the signal is fully on. That may take a couple of minutes, be patient. That cleans out the clogged data that gets stuck in the modem over time slowing it down. Then one by one turn your devices back on starting with the ones that connect by Ethernet cable. Since your modem is back on, your computer will automatically connect to the Internet.
Then turn your devices that connect by Wi-Fi back on one at a time. They will search for a Wi-Fi signal and automatically connect. Then turn on your peripherals like your printer or external drives. Most likely you will notice an immediate speed increase.
One more possibility: You can connect some devices, not just desktop computers, directly to the router with Ethernet cables instead of using Wi-Fi. This should improve the performance of videoconferencing and overall speed. While Wi-Fi is convenient, the broadcast area slows down as you move away from your router, but an Ethernet signal remains constant.
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