We’ve all been there: politely asking for a video of a cat doing some wacky antics from the Internet. And then … the internet stops, considering the request.
What is the problem here? It could be you (sorry). This could be the infrastructure you work with. It may be your internet service provider. Let’s explore some of the causes and solutions together.
The first step is to conduct a so-called speed test. Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy advisor at Consumer Reports, who works on the organization’s Fight for a Fair Internet initiative and collects consumer internet bills and speed test results as part of its advocacy, suggests using a pair of tests from Ookla and Ookla. Apart from MLab. Each uses slightly different techniques, so Schwantes recommends trying both to make sure they’re consistent.
The tests show two important results: download speed (how fast you receive data from the Internet) and download speed (how fast you send data to the Internet), measured in megabits per second. A bit of data is a unit of information expressed in binary code that computers can understand as a one or a zero. A megabit is one million bits of data. If the speed test says your download speed is 100 megabits per second, your connection is hitting your device 100,000,000 ones and zeroes every second, and short videos of cat antics should stream just fine.
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However, a “good” internet speed depends on what you use it for. If you have multiple users and need stable connections (think kids studying online while you work in the next room), education advocacy group Common Sense Media recommends 200 mbps download and 10 mbps download. These recommended speeds may be higher than current levels in much of the United States. For the month of February of this year, Ookla set median speeds in the US for wired broadband connections at 146 mbps download and 20 mbps upload; mobile internet speeds – 63 mbps download and 9 mbps download – were lower. Amina Fazlullah, the organization’s director of capital policy, insists that stable video conferencing connections are crucial for things like virtual schools.
“What does it mean for a 7-year-old to have a break?” Fazlullah pointed out that 25 mbps upload and 3 mbps download would technically work, but would likely result in frequent service outages. “How long can we wait for them to get back up to speed? Will they be able to get back on track after these breaks?”
Netflix, on the other hand, recommends a download speed of just 15 mbps for streaming content in 4K/Ultra HD.
What speed is available to you at home depends on the existing infrastructure: the pipes through which the digital data you want flows. This infrastructure may seem intangible, but it exists both within the walls of your home and in the series of corporeal pipes that transmit information around the world.
Understanding these factors and how they work together is critical to understanding how the modern internet works and how to get that cat video faster.
Is Slowdown Coming From Inside The House?
When Schwantes receives a slow speed test result, his first suspicion is usually along the lines of “There’s something wrong with my router.”
If you’re reading this on a device connected to Wi-Fi, the first connection you have to the greater Internet is your modem and wireless router, or modem/wireless router that beams Wi-Fi to a nearby area.
If your internet is slow, the first two things to try are restarting the router and moving your device closer to the router. Like computers, routers store information in their memory, and sometimes an error is recorded by mistake. Rebooting is a way to shake off the cobwebs. And Wi-Fi signals are getting worse.
If distance slows down your speed, consider your options: Your Wi-Fi router may offer a choice between 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz connections; 5 GHz offers faster speeds over shorter distances, while 2.4 GHz offers slower speeds over longer distances. The 2.4 GHz frequency can also become congested with traffic from other wireless networks in the area, so sometimes switching to 5 GHz will provide a less obstructed path for your cat video.
If your device has an ethernet port, you can connect directly to the router and avoid the Wi-Fi problem altogether.
At the start of the pandemic, Schwantes noticed his internet slowing down. In this case, that was the problem. He had been using an old wireless router for ten years. After changing it, he said his speeds improved dramatically.
What happens on the other side of the wall?
The biggest speed differences come from the different ways data flows through pipes directly outside your home. Data can be transmitted over different types of pipes—fiber optic, coaxial cable and copper wire, and even wireless cellular networks—each providing very different speeds for uploading and downloading.
Dollar to Megabit, You Could Be Paying 400 Times More Than Your Neighbor for Internet Service
A study by The Markup found that AT&T, Verizon, EarthLink and CenturyLink disproportionately offer slow internet service to low-income and non-whitest neighborhoods for the same price as the fast connections they offer elsewhere in the city.
Sometimes the technology leading to your home is too outdated to support higher speeds. The Markup’s research found that it has a greater impact on communities of color and poor residents. AT&T, Verizon, Earthlink, and CenturyLink charged customers in 38 cities the same price for chained fiber connections for slow DSL connections. In 36 of those cities, the worst deals went to households in low-income, less white or historically red-lined neighborhoods.
Fiber optic cables consist of an ultra-thin glass core surrounded by a reflective coating that transmits information as pulses of light at the speed of light through the glass. The fastest internet connections available today are called “fiber to the home” because fiber optic cables start where you live and run to where they connect to the maze of larger fiber optic pipes that make up the internet. (There are also so-called “fiber to the hub” or “fiber to the hub” systems, where the fiber runs to a hub somewhere in the neighborhood, and then the signal travels the rest of the way to slower wires.)
If the Internet is a road, fiber is like an expressway with five lanes in each direction and a speed limit of 75 mph. Not everyone in the US even has access to fiber internet. Fewer than half of U.S. homes have the option, according to a study released in January by the Fiber Broadband Association.
At the other end of the spectrum, copper wire is like a one-lane road where you can’t get above 25.
Not only can Fiber Expressway get you home faster than Copper Lane, but it can handle more traffic without congestion, which is important because your data travels through the same pipes as your neighbors who use the same ISP. The longer you can stay on fiber before switching off something non-fiber, the faster your connection will be.
What is copper wire? DSL, which stands for Digital Subscriber Line, runs on the same copper wires that phone companies use for traditional phone service—landline phones—albeit in a higher frequency range, without the need to connect a phone line like dial-up. serve. (Kids, ask your parents.) Phone lines are built to carry voice, which doesn’t require a lot of data, so they’re s‑l‑o‑w.
DSL speeds depend on the distance they are attached to the fiber links leading to the Internet backbone. To transmit data over longer distances, they often need to be amplified.
In the middle is cable internet, which is generally slower than fiber but can provide relatively high speeds.
Cable Internet is transmitted over coaxial cables that carry signals over copper conductors surrounded by layers of plastic and metal cladding to protect against interference (an upgrade over DSL). Because coaxial cables were originally developed to transmit cable television, which requires a lot of data, video and audio data, they can carry a lot of data. Because cable TV is traditionally a one-way broadcast medium, cable connections generally have faster downloads than downloads.
A relatively new entrant to the residential broadband market is fixed wireless. As the name suggests, this type of connection does not involve a pipe directly into your home. Getting a fixed wireless connection usually involves installing a receiver that uses cellular service, which then converts to Wi-Fi. Fixed wireless home service isn’t available across the country, but some services advertise speeds that can give cable connections a run for their money.
For remote locations where it is not possible for ISPs to run any kind of wired connection between the Internet fiber backbone and your home, satellite Internet is an option that allows data to be transmitted to a satellite and then transmitted to an antenna at your residence. Satellite internet is generally not as fast as fiber or cable internet. Ookla found that SpaceX’s Starlink, the fastest satellite internet available in the US, averaged 100 mbps download and 13 mbps download.
Can I just switch to a different provider and get faster internet?
You can definitely give it a shot! However, the lack of competition in the U.S. broadband market may make this difficult.
“The U.S. internet service market is dominated by just four companies: AT&T, Charter, Comcast and Verizon,” says the Open Technology Institute’s 2020 State of the U.S. Broadband Internet Market. developed countries.
“Most cities had only two providers, and there are large addresses with only one provider,” said Claire Park, one of the authors of the report.
According to a 2020 report by the Home Reliance Institute, 83.3 million Americans can get broadband from just one provider.
PSA: If your household income is below these guidelines, you may qualify for the Affordable Connection Program (ACP), which was created by the 2021 infrastructure bill and provides a $30 monthly subsidy for internet service. This subsidy increases to $75 for people living on tribal lands. If you’re already enrolled in free and reduced-price lunch for your addiction at school, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, or a number of other public benefit programs, you’re likely eligible. (But hurry: An analysis by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance shows that the money Congress has earmarked for ACP will run out in 2024 if it is not replenished.)
Many ISPs have created their own discounted internet plans that will allow ACP-eligible households to effectively get free monthly internet service with a government benefit.
Even if you can pay your internet bill, you can still shop around to see if you can get faster and/or cheaper service.
To check your options, enter your address in the FCC’s National Broadband Map to see which providers serve your address. What’s listed as available for each address isn’t always accurate, so after viewing your search results, visit each ISP’s website, search for your address, and see what prices and speeds they offer you.
Maybe you can get an upgrade that will get that cat video much faster.
This story has been updated to include the results of an investigation by The Markup.