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Now That You Are Paying For High Speed Internet, Are You Getting It?

So, you’ve decided to splurge, and treat yourself to higher speed cable internet service. Now, you are paying for speeds ranging up to 50 Mbps. The question is, are you actually realizing that speed? My guess is no. In fact, if you use wi-fi (802.11 of one sort or another), I can almost guarantee that you are not getting even 10 Mbps, no matter what the cable company tells you, and no matter what the wi-fi manufacturer is telling you. In fact, you may not even be getting more than 5 or 6 Mbps! (And, I say this as someone who designs, develops, and prototypes all sorts of wireless communications equipment for a living.)

Sure, under some ideal conditions, you can get 50, or maybe even 108 Mbps through a wi-fi connection. But, everything has to be perfect, and the distance has to be very short. If you live within a hundred feet of a neighbor with a wi-fi setup, your setups may interfere with each other to some degree. If you have one of the newer cordless phones that works at 2.4 GHz, you will get interference from it. If you have a microwave oven in the house, it may interfere with your wi-fi when it is running. If you have a Bluetooth headset, it will interfere with your wi-fi. If your computer is in a different room from your wi-fi base station, the walls in your building will interfere. If you have more than one computer on the network, they will each take some bandwidth from the whole system, thus reducing the bandwidth available to any one computer. (And, this is true, to some degree, even if the other computer is not being used to actively surf the internet.)

The quick and dirty way to evaluate your situation is to go to one of the many internet speed testing sites. I just went to http://www.speakeasy.net/speedtest/.  Once there, pick a test location that is near your location. Then, run the test. My results were a download speed of 21135 kbps (21.135 megabits per second) and an upload speed of 4494 kbps, or about 4.5 Mbps. That agrees with what I am paying for. If your results do not match what you are paying for, something is wrong. It could be that your cable provider is not giving you what you are paying for. You can usually tell if this is the problem by running the test many times, and at various times of the day. If you find great variation, then the problem is probably with your cable modem provider. An almost sure sign the problem is with the provider is if you find you get your supposed speed in the middle of the night, but not during normal “waking” hours when all of your neighbors are surfing the net. However, if you do not get the speed that you are paying for, and especially if your speeds are consistently slow, it probably indicates a problem in your network.

Personally, I first discovered the limitations of my wi-fi setup when I was trying to transfer a large file from one computer to the other after downloading it over the internet. At the time, my internet connection speed was only 4 Mbps, or so. What I noticed was that it took me almost as long to download the file over my cable modem as it did to transfer the file from one computer to another over my wi-fi network. This meant that my wi-fi network was only delivering about 6 Mbps. But, I thought it was set up for 22 Mbps! No matter what it was set up for, it was clearly not delivering the supposed speed. You can test your wi-fi system very easily by simply copying a large file from one computer on your wi-fi network to another, and time how long it takes.

Lets say you have a 100 MByte mp3 or video file. While your network is otherwise not being used, copy that file from one computer to the other. Lets say that takes 80 seconds. Since a 100 MB (MegaByte) file is 800 Mb (Megabits), that means that your network throughput is 10 Mbps (Megabits per second). (800 Megabits divided by 80 seconds equals 10 Megabits per second.) I know, it gets a bit confusing, but network speeds are always in terms of Megabits per second, while file sizes, as listed in computer folders, are always in terms of MegaBytes. (There are 8 bits to a byte.)

So, if you got this result over your wi-fi network, I would say that you have a pretty good wi-fi system, given all of the things that can tend to slow it down. But, if you are paying for more than 10 Mbps service from your cable company, you are wasting your money! I would love to know what the average consumer wi-fi network throughput is. I’m sure the data is available, but I don’t have it. I’m also sure that the cable company is very aware of this problem, and that is why they are so anxious to upgrade consumers to higher priced, higher speed plans. I suspect they know that the majority of consumers will just be paying for bandwidth that they cannot use, and most are totally unaware of this.

So, if you find that your network is not up to the task, what can you do? One route would be to spend a few days “tweaking” your network settings. By playing with the frequency settings, and the various speed settings, and by adding antennas with some gain, and moving things around a bit, you may be able to improve the performance of your network. (Even moving an antenna a few inches can be significant because of something called multi-path.) But, unless your speed is really low, I doubt if there is anything you can do to significantly improve your situation. In that case, the only real solution is to go to wired Ethernet. Of course, that means that you have to run cat-5 cable all over your house, but that may be the only solution if you want to get the cable modem performance that you are paying for. And, if you are going to go that route, you would be best going to gigabit Ethernet. Don’t waste your money on 100 megabit Ethernet, since even that can get congested with traffic pretty quickly, especially if you have more than one computer on your network.

When I have tested my own Ethernet, I have generally found that I get about 97% of the rated speed. In other words, when I had 100 megabit Ethernet, if I transferred a file from one computer to another, I would generally measure a speed of about 97 Mbps. With my Gigabit Ethernet system, I generally measure speeds of about 970 Mbps. That is about right, considering that there is some overhead and other things that take up some of the available bandwidth. And, remember, you must run this test with just one thing happening on your network, since the speed refers to all traffic on the network. If you are transferring a file over the network at the same time that someone else is transferring a file, you will each, ideally, see a transfer rate of about half what you would otherwise expect to see.

But, your problems may still not be over. If you have had a cable modem for many years, the chances are pretty good that it will not support more than about 9 Mbps. If your cable modem says that it is DOCSIS 1.0 or 1.1 compliant, then you will never see more than 9 Mbps, no matter what you are paying for. (And, don’t expect the cable company to tell you that you need to upgrade your modem when you call to sign up for a higher speed plan.) If you have a DOCSIS 2.0 compliant modem, then you can get up to 27 Mbps. If you want more speed than that, you need a DOCSIS 3.0 compliant modem. Upgrading the modem is easy, and not too costly, but you must do it if you expect to experience higher speeds.

But wait, there’s more. Many consumer routers do not support WAN (Wide Area Network) speeds above 8 to 12 Mbps. They may say they will give you 100 megabit Ethernet, or even gigabit Ethernet, or wireless speeds up to 108 Mbps, but unless they are very new designs, they probably don’t support more than 12 Mbps on the WAN side. (This is the jack that you use to connect your router to the cable modem.) I found this out the hard way after I converted to a wired Ethernet. I was supposed to be getting 16 Mbps on my download speed, but was only getting about 9 Mbps. This was after trading in my old DOCSIS 1.1 cable modem for a DOCSIS 3.0 cable modem and upgrading my router to one that supported gigabit Ethernet. What I did not realize was that the router, which was a relatively new design, only supported 12 Mbps on the WAN side, which amounts to about 9 Mbps in real throughput. So, I had to buy a new router, and I had to search for a long time to find one that supported 60 Mbps on the downstream. (I bought a D-Link DGL-4100, called a Gamer Lounge. It has worked fantastically.)

So, there you have it. Even though you are paying the cable company for service ranging from 16 Mbps to as much as 50 Mbps, I’ll bet you are not seeing that speed to your computer, especially if you are using a wi-fi network.

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