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Reasons why you can’t always get 100% of your subscribed speed, regardless of ISP

Hub Expert

Finally the Day was here. My home was wired for fibre, the friendly ISP technician set up my “ONT”, activated my router, tested everything, and declared my fibre connection ready for use. I was excited beyond belief – quick, someone, call the PM, have him declare it a National Holiday, it’s Fibre DAAAAYYY. Fingers flying over the keyboard… speedtest… wham… 151.08 mbps down… 15 times faster than my old connection. Run Microsoft Software Update… over 200 megabytes worth of updates, downloaded in less than 30 seconds… this is the life people… huge smile… I’m in love… with my ISP. Bliss.



An hour later, the same speedtest from a different room showed 60 mbps. What happened? Who stole 90 mbps from my connection? Back to the living room, speedtest again, 122 mbps. Alright, but we’re still short a few megs… plugged in a network wire into the router and tested again, and the speed was now 158 mbps. Okay, I said, time to study this. So I got on to Google and spent the next few hours understanding why my speed varied so much. In this blog post, I’ll summarize some of what I learnt and share some tips you can use to try and speed up your connection.

While I found a number of factors, the key reasons for lower speeds are:

 

  1. WiFi suffers from interference and a number of other issues.
  2. The Internet is big. Not all parts are fast. Traffic jams occur.
  3. Some sites are popular. Too popular.
  4. As a market, we’re not important enough to some overseas companies.

The problem with WiFi is clutter – the wireless frequencies used are “unlicensed”, meaning all kinds of gadgets can use the frequency with little regard for one another, creating tremendous interference. Cordless phones, microwave ovens, hand mixers. Neighbours’ WiFi networks. Baby monitors. Neighbours’ WiFi networks. Analogue wireless surveillance cameras. Neighbours’ WiFi networks. The biggest culprit? That’s right: neighbours’ WiFi networks. Here in Singapore, most of us live in apartments. Everyone has at least one WiFi network, some with many wireless devices in the same household. Imagine a situation where 50 people walk into your living room and all talk at the same time. It would be incredibly difficult to understand what any one person is saying. People could try talking in different languages, to try and break through the noise – this is like WiFi routers changing channels – it makes a bit of a difference (since you can “tune out” the parts you don’t understand or don’t want to pay attention to) but ultimately it would still be difficult to listen.

 

Sometimes you would hear only a part of what your friend said, and you’d use your intelligence to “fill in the gaps” – WiFi protocols aren’t as intelligent as humans (yet!), so what’s lost (“packet loss”) must be retransmitted, adding to the noise. Bottomline: while WiFi gives us convenience through mobility, it can result in significant loss of speed, partly due to the large number of networks around us.

 

Next, the Internet itself. One way to think of the Internet is as a number of towns and cities, connected to each other through a number of roads – some are 8-lane dual-carriageways with fast-moving traffic, some are dual-lane roads jammed with slow-moving trucks. You can drive fast down the wide roads, but come to a stand-still on the inner-roads. And even though your 100 mbps Ferrari can be driven faster than 250 km/h, and StarHub ensures your road to the Internet is fat and clear, there’s very little that can be done about traffic on inner roads that may be controlled by other ISPs in other countries.

 

Then there’s the problem of popularity. Have you seen the throngs of fans at the airport when a top Korean star comes by? He barely has a second or two for each fan, sometimes less, and sometimes not at all. It’s the same with wildly popular Internet sites – while most companies make the investments in putting in additional servers and bandwidth, in some cases their rate of growth is faster than their ability to increase their capacity. Too many people hitting too few servers = slow download speeds.

 

One of the other key reasons is market importance. Service providers like Google, Apple, YouTube, Microsoft, and others, are keenly interested in the Singapore market; they locate additional servers in Singapore to ensure a better user experience for us. Others, that are more region-specific (e.g. sites focused on US-only markets, China-only markets, etc) are less interested in the APAC region and may not have local servers, necessitating that data be retrieved from half way around the world, while potentially going through some “slow roads”.

Having understood the issues, here’s what I did to improve speeds and eliminate “dead zones” in my home:

 

  1. Set up a wired network
  2. Experimented with wireless router location and antenna positioning
  3. I use download managers to speed up downloads
  4. I’ve setup my routers to use the ISP’s DNS servers to ensure “best routing”
  5. And, easiest of all, I occasionally turn the router off and back on

Wired network with multiple WiFi routers: Fortunately, my fibre subscription coincided with the repainting of my apartment’s walls. As part of the exercise, I had the contractor run network cabling into each room, “concealed” in a plastic casing running along the skirting near the floor. The casing was then painted the same colour as the walls. Yes, it’s still visible if you look for it, but having understood WiFi’s weaknesses, it’s really the only long-term effective solution to ensure high speeds. I have also set up multiple WiFi routers in different rooms, each running on a different channel – no more dead spots, and strong WiFi everywhere. (I experimented with “Ethernet over Powerline”, also known as “HomePlug” and was very unhappy with the results… having said that, I have friends who are delighted with the results, so clearly a lot depends on the quality of electrical wiring, number of devices connected, the use (or not) of power strips, etc)

 

Wireless router location: Through experimentation, I learnt that the absolute WORST place to put a WiFi router is directly on the floor. Lifting the router even 1 – 2 feet off the floor makes a very substantial difference to the speed – as much as 4x to 5x faster. Put it on a table or, better yet, mount it on a wall, high up.  I also learnt that experimenting with the angle of the antennae on the router can make a difference – for me, a “V” shape arrangement of antennae works best, antennae pointing sideways are “okay”, and antennae pointing inwards are a complete disaster. Oh, and ensure the router isn’t anywhere near a cordless phone or microwave oven. (For more information on this, go to www.slashdot.org and search on “what’s killing your Wi-Fi”)

 

Use a download manager: Most webservers appear to be configured to limit the speed of any one connection (so no individual user “hogs” resources) – using a download manager bypasses this restriction by opening up several simultaneous connections to the server, and this brings your files home quicker. Download managers have been around for many years and many download managers are free.

 

Use the ISP’s DNS: If you’re not familiar with DNS, just ignore this paragraph – the likelihood is you’re using our DNS servers anyway. If, on the other hand, you’ve reconfigured your DNS settings to use OpenDNS or Google’s DNS, you may actually be doing yourself a disservice. Why? Because only the ISP knows the best possible route to a particular site, especially to popular sites, based on its connectivity to the Internet. As each ISP typically negotiates its own routes and sets up its own peering arrangement, a third-party DNS it may direct you to a site in the United States rather than – say – a mirror of the site in Singapore to which StarHub has a shorter and faster connection.

 

And finally, the old “off and on” trick: at the end of the day, a router is a small computer. Just like rebooting your PC occasionally helps solve niggling issues, in the same way I’ve found that occasionally switching my router off for a minute and then switching it back on, does make a difference. I do this once a fortnight – your mileage may vary.

With this setup and some of the router positioning and antenna angle experimentation, my wireless speedtests consistently deliver over 100 mbps in each room. Is there something you’ve tried that’s helped improve your broadband speed? Do share it by posting a comment.

 

(Disclaimer: while I’m employed by StarHub, the views represented above are mine alone. Some – or even ALL – of the tips above may not work for you. Also, I’m a technology enthusiast but by no means a technology guru – I learn by breaking things…)

 

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