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Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 14 Issue 5
May 2020
Is Your Modem or Router Preventing You from Using the Full Speed of Your Internet Service?

The problem

As the technology for internet connections has changed over the years, for example from dial-up to DSL to cable, fiber-optic and satellite, two aspects have evolved together: Ever-faster connection speeds and the equipment to bring that speed to your computer and mobile devices. The brand-new modem and router that you installed just a few years ago in order to deliver the full speed of your internet service may have become outdated as new generations of service and equipment have developed.

This can sometimes lead to a hidden issue that may develop over time with your internet connection: Without notifying you, your internet service provider might provide a faster connection speed today than your original internet equipment is capable of delivering to your computers and mobile devices.

And, with the average person's or family's or office's growing need for multiple devices that use more and more data-intensive internet services (including streaming video and music, teleconferencing, etc.), as well as more and more people using their home internet service for work and social events, especially as social distancing has taken hold, such a speed restriction can limit your productivity and prevent you from making full use of what you're paying for.

Note that this is not about your Windows computers, Macintoshes, iPhones, iPads, or Androids. While each of those devices may also have issues that might make them run more slowly than they should, the focus here is on the underlying equipment that connects all of your devices to your internet service.

This process (to determine whether your current internet equipment is making the most of your internet service) can get a bit complicated, so if it seems too difficult for you to tackle by yourself, ask someone with technical experience that you know and trust to help you.

First, a little terminology

In order to sort this out, there are a few technical terms that you should understand:
  • ISP: Internet Service Provider, the company that you pay for the internet service coming into your home or office; common companies include AT&T, Comcast Xfinity, Verizon Fios, RCN, Cox Communications, Charter Spectrum, and DirectTV
  • Mbps: Megabits per second, the units that most ISPs use to measure the speed of their internet connections; as of this writing, typical cable internet speeds can range from 25 to 1,000 Mbps.
  • Download: The process of copying data or software from the internet or the "cloud" (e.g., a website, your email server, etc.) "down" into your computer
  • Upload: The process of copying data from your computer "up" to the internet or "into the cloud"
  • Modem: The device that connects to your ISP and brings the internet connection into your home or office; it typically converts an analog signal into digital information on the way in, and digital to analog on the way out
  • Router: The device that shares the internet connection from your modem among your various computers and mobile devices, typically creating both wired and wireless networks
  • Gateway: a device that combines a modem and a router (and possibly other things, like a landline telephone connection) into a single piece of equipment
Your internet equipment

You probably have either:
  • Two devices: An internet modem and a separate router, working together, or
  • One device: A single gateway that combines the functions of a modem and router.
In order to be able to follow my advice below, I recommend that you:
  • Locate your internet equipment,
  • Determine whether you have a modem and a router, or a single combination gateway, and
  • Make a note of the make and model of each piece of equipment.
Note that this equipment is completely separate from any cable TV "boxes" or converters that you might also be using. Unlike your internet equipment, those TV devices deliver television channels and shows, not your internet connection.

The core information you will need

In order to figure out whether you have this hidden internet speed limitation, you'll need to find out:
  • What is the maximum speed of your current internet service?
  • If you have a modem and a router, are they each capable of delivering the full speed of your service to your computers and mobile devices?
  • If you have a combination gateway instead, is it capable of delivering the full speed of your service to your computers and mobile devices?
Step 1: Find out the maximum speed of your internet service

I recommend that you call your ISP and ask:
  • For your internet service, what are the maximum upload and download speeds that you're currently paying for, in megabits per second? If they state the speed in megabytes per second, ask the question again until they give you megabits per second.
With most high-speed internet services, the download speeds are usually higher than the upload.

Typically, these "stated" upload and download speeds are not guaranteed. Instead, they are theoretical maximums, and they're expressed as "speeds up to X Mbps."

Keep the following in mind while you're talking to your ISP:
  • You are not reporting a problem. You are simply asking a few questions about the current situation.
  • Do not upgrade your service to a higher speed, even if the ISP representative suggests it, which they might be trained to do when any questions are raised about speed. If your existing equipment already cannot deliver the full speed of your current service (which you have not yet determined), it's certainly not going to magically deliver the higher speed of a higher-cost service.
  • After getting this information from your ISP, end the call. Do not feel pressured to change anything about your service.
  • If you have trouble getting someone on the phone, try using your ISP's online "chat" function instead.
Step 2: Measure the actual speed delivered to your computer

Next, measure the actual internet speed that your computer sees.

Before you begin, I recommend the following in order to get good speed measurements:
  • Restart your internet equipment, i.e., power your modem and router (or gateway) off and on again. It will probably take a few minutes to fully start up.
  • Restart your computer.
  • If you share your internet connection with other people or computers, in order to try to get consistent and meaningful measurements, pick a time when they are not making heavy use of your internet connection, e.g., not web surfing, watching YouTube or Netflix, teleconferencing, etc.
If any of your computers or mobile devices connects to the internet using a wireless network:
  • Use an internet speed-testing website to measure the speed; there are many to choose from. Here are three that I've found easy to use: Speakeasy Speed Test (http://speakeasy.net/speedtest -click "Start Test"), Speed Of Me (http://speedof.me) and Fast.com (http://www.fast.com - click "Show more info" to reveal your upload speed).
  • Run at least 3 to 5 tests, and then calculate the average wireless download and upload speeds in Mbps (megabits per second).
  • There are a number of factors that may affect wireless speed, including distance from the router, the wireless radio signal getting partially blocked (by walls, ceilings, metal cabinets and appliances, etc.), and interference (from cordless phones, microwave ovens, other routers, etc.), so for the purposes of this process (checking the speed that your router is capable of, not checking to see how well your wireless network reaches every floor and room), I recommend placing your computer in the same room as your router.
If any of your computers uses a wired network:
  • On a computer connected to your wired network, use a speed-testing website to measure the speed (see above for suggestions), and then calculate the average wired download and upload speeds in Mbps (megabits per second).
Your wired speeds are likely to be higher than your wireless speeds. If they're similar, then you probably have a very fast wireless router!

Step 3: Compare your results

If your actual measurements are reasonably close to the stated maximum speed of your service, especially your (probably lower) actual wireless speed measurements, you're in good shape! Your internet equipment is more than capable of delivering the full speed that your internet service is providing. You don't have this hidden speed limitation, so you're done!

However, if your measurements are far below the maximum speed of your service, then your situation needs improvement, i.e., your current internet equipment cannot deliver the full speed of your internet service.

Step 4a: If your modem and router show this speed limitation

If your measurements above show that your equipment has this speed limitation and you've got a modem and a router, then it's not clear yet whether you should replace one or both of them in order to get your full internet speed. There are a few different ways to determine this.

For your modem:
  • You could call your ISP and ask whether your modem meets (or exceeds) the minimum requirements for a device that can deliver the full speed of your current service, or
  • You could measure your modem's speed yourself by temporarily plugging your computer directly into your modem (taking your router out of the picture for a few minutes), and then measuring the internet speed. That would tell you whether your modem can handle the full speed of your internet service. Before you start, warn everyone in your household or office that the internet will be unavailable for a few minutes, and then let them know that it's back after you're done and you've reconnected the router.
For your router, since it's limited by the speed of your modem:
  • If your modem is capable of delivering the full speed of your service, then you can conclude that your router must be the bottleneck, and should be replaced with a faster model.
  • However, if your modem is not capable of handling the full speed of your service, at this point it's not clear whether your router can handle that full speed over its wired and wireless networks or not, so the thorough approach would be to look up its technical specifications to find out. On the other hand, if your router is more than 3 to 5 years old, then it's more likely that simply replacing it with a current model that can handle that speed would be expedient.
Your goal here is to determine whether you need to replace:
  • Just your modem,
  • Just your router, or
  • Both your modem and your router.
Or, you might choose to replace them with a faster combination gateway.

Step 4b: If your gateway shows this speed limitation

If your measurements above show that your equipment has this speed limitation and you've got a gateway, then you will need to replace it with a faster model in order to get the full internet speed that you're already paying for. Or, you might choose to replace it with a faster modem and router.

Step 5: If you decide to replace your internet equipment

If you determine that you need to replace your internet equipment in order to get the full speed of your service, I recommend that you:
  • On the modem side, ask your ISP for the minimum technical requirements for a device (modem or gateway) that can deliver the full speed of your current service. As of this writing, the fastest cable modems and gateways use the DOCSIS 3.0 or 3.1 standards (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) and are "32 x 8," i.e., they provide 32 Downstream Channels and 8 Upstream Channels.
  • On the router side, determine what type of router or gateway can deliver the full speed of your service to your computer and mobile devices. As of this writing, the fastest wireless routers and gateways include ones that use the 802.11ac protocol and are "dual channel," i.e., they create two separate wireless networks on radio frequencies 2.5Ghz and 5Ghz, and have Gigabit Ethernet ports for fast wired connections. However, in order to take advantage of these speeds, your computers and mobile devices have to support that protocol and that 5Ghz frequency.
  • Decide whether you want to have separate devices (a modem and a router) or a combination gateway. Separate devices will take up more room and probably cost more now, but you'll get more features, and if one of them later fails, you'll spend less replacing it.
  • Decide whether you want to rent a modem or gateway from your ISP or buy your own. ISPs don't typically provide routers, so if you get a modem, you'll need to buy your own router. If you rent a device from your ISP, they are responsible for replacing it if it stops working. If you buy your own, you are responsible for it. And if you switch from renting a device to buying your own, that decreased monthly cost will probably make up for the cost of your new equipment over time.
  • Register your new modem or gateway with your ISP, and physically set up your modem and router (or gateway).
  • You will probably need to reconnect all of your computers and mobile devices to your new wireless network(s).
  • If you were renting your previous modem or gateway, talk to your ISP about returning it to them. You should then check your next two monthly bills to confirm that your ISP properly stopped charging you for the equipment that you returned.
Wrapping up

Once you've finished this process, I recommend that you:
  • Use your computer to measure your wired and wireless internet speeds again to confirm that your new equipment is now delivering the full speed of your service.
  • Make a note in your calendar to review this again in a year or two, since it's likely to happen again as the technology evolves while your equipment remains the same.
Where to go from here
How to contact me:
email: martin@kadansky.com
phone: (617) 484-6657
web: http://www.kadansky.com

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to martin@kadansky.com and I'll add you to the list, or visit http://www.kadansky.com/newsletter

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Copyright (C) 2020 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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