We’ve all been there: progress bar’s stuck at 0%, the browser taking an age to load a page and Netflix videos looking like the jittery picture was constructed from Duplo blocks. Slow broadband is a pain when you’re relaxing and it is doubly unwelcome if, like as most of us, you’re trying to work from home. As you read on, we’ll look at some simple steps we can all follow to make your home broadband work more efficiently. None alone is a silver bullet. Rather, think of them as marginal gains: small and simple steps which, if taken in concert, will combine to give you a good aggregate speed boost.
1. Do a speed test
If your work laptop is feeling slow or your Netflix movies are juddering, you’ll get a better understanding of the problem not from your feelings of angst, but on taking a long hard look at the numbers. There are lots of online broadband speed testing services. Ofcom’s speed test site is impartial and it won’t try and sell you anything after the test. Try running this test in different rooms.
2. Place your router carefully
Where and how you position your router can have a profound influence on the data transfer speeds you receive as you work and play.
Ugly as it can be, your WiFi router should be visible. Don’t be tempted to hide it away and don’t put it on the floor. Keep the router raise up and away from walls. This will ensure that it can broadcast clearly to all your devices.
It’s also a good idea to keep electrical devices like lights, televisions and stereos away from your router. In short, place your router as you would a bunch of flowers - visibly, proudly and unobscured from view. It’ll thank you.
3. Beware of blackspots
Unlike rain on a summer’s day, WiFi doesn’t saturate everything equally. Rather, some rooms and corners of your home might, because of their shape and location, be sheltered. This means your iPad or laptop might struggle in one room and fly in another.
Thankfully, this problem might be cured by moving your router (point two) and leaving all doors between your router and your office open.
You can get a better understanding of where black spots might be by running speed tests (from point one) in different rooms. Possibly, you might need to think about moving where you work, if you can’t move your router.
Sometimes however there’s no easy solution - maybe your house is just too big and the walls too thick. If this is the case, think about investing in a powerline networking kit. These use your home’s internal electrical wiring and can push fast broadband out of specially designed plug adapters.
4. Are you running 4G or WiFi?
It might feel like your mobile phone is always on and always connected and, in may ways, it always is. But it’s also working hard to find the best and fastest broadband. As you move around outside (while being socially distant) your phone might shift invisibly between different mobile data systems. Commonly these are 3G, the oldest and slowest, and 4G. If you’re very lucky you might use 5G.
When you get home, your phone should automatically detect your home WiFi system and connect to it. The point is, your phone is always assessing its connection options.
Sometimes, when you get home, your phone might remain connected to 3G or 4G. Or, if the signal is weak in your house, it might disregard your home broadband and try and use the mobile networks. Alternatively, it might just get confused and stick with 3G and 4G. This can cost you cash and download performance.
The easiest cure is to briefly put your phone into ‘airplane’ mode and then return it to ‘normal’. This will force it to reset, reconsider its connection options and hopefully embrace your faster home WiFi.
5. Stop using the microwave when watching movies
It sounds odd but, using your microwave can slow down your WiFi speed. The same can be true of some cordless phones and baby monitors. So, if you’re having problems with your internal WiFi signal, try turning off, or moving these devices.
6. Everybody needs good neighbours
Along with where you place your router and the things with which you surround it, you may need to think about what your neighbours are up to.
WiFi is broadcast across around a dozen radio channels. The problem is, if your neighbour’s router and yours are broadcasting on the same channel they might cause interference. This could artificially hamper your network speed.
The quickest and easiest way to remedy this problem is to move your router, as we discussed in point two. You could also close all your windows - this should quieten your neighbour's signals.
The very latest routers, as supplied by the big internet companies, are however, quite clever and will intelligently select the best channel on which to broadcast. If however, you’re using a very old router, it is worth contacting your supplier and asking for a replacement.
Alternatively, if you enjoy tinkering, you can download a tool that will map the broadband spectrum in your home. You can work out where the congestion points are and configure your router to stay away from these.
7. Plug your router into your primary phone socket
Not all phone sockets, on the wall, are equal. Homes generally have one primary socket and a series of spurs that satellite from it. You might even use a phone line extension cable to provide sockets in different rooms.
If you want the best broadband speed, you should plug your router into your home’s primary socket or master socket.
8. Try wired rather than WiFi
Wireless internet access is certainly more convenient, but it may not be the fastest. If you can, link devices to your router via an ethernet cable. It’s not as convenient, but what you lose in ease you might gain back in faster data transfer speeds.
9. Don’t forget your landline
Skype, Facetime, WhatsApp… We’re surrounded by apps and services that let us make voice and video calls over the internet. They’re quick, convenient, fun and - if we all use them - they can consume a lot of bandwidth.
This is true both inside your house and across the wider internet.
Indoors your router can supply only a finite amount of data so, it makes sense if you’re seeing videos stutter and applications lag, to use what you have for the most important jobs.
Across the wider internet, the mass adoption of video conferencing, home working and movie streaming has caused some worries about the net’s ability to withstand such high levels of demand. Time will tell whether these worries founded.
So, we say: ‘Don’t forget your landline.’ Making traditional landline telephone calls reduces the burden on your home’s internal network and lightens the load on the wider internet’s infrastructure too.
10. Don’t waste what you’ve got
If you are still struggling, consider turning off tablets and phones you’re not using. Or, park them in ‘airplane’ mode (as discussed in point four).
All web-enabled devices update themselves and constantly sip away at the available supply of internet. Stop them doing this by turning off their WiFi receivers and you can save a smidgen of broadband. You could also consider using just voice calls as video uses much more bandwidth than sound.
Finally, if you’re still struggling and need to call your boss, ask your family to pause data-heavy tasks like high definition gaming and watching movies. When you’ve finished the important call, let the action resume and you can join them!
11. 2.4GHz vs 5GHz
Modern WiFi routers can support two different wireless carrier signal frequencies: 2.4GHz and 5GHz. The 2.4GHz band provides a signal with a greater range than 5GHz but data transmission will be slower. Switch to 5GHz and you’ll get faster data transfers but the signal won’t travel as far - it’ll be hampered by solid objects, walls and floors.
Broadband providers might refer to this two-frequency system as dual-band. And, generally, they’ll provide help on their website about switching bands.
You may need to retrain your devices to the new frequency. Use the ‘airplane mode’ trick we looked at in tip 4.
12. Adopt a mesh network
A traditional home WiFi setup has one radio transmitter serving every room and every device. A mesh network has the main router and a series of satellite modules - or nodes - that can be placed around the house. You can place these nodes anywhere and they capture the router’s signals and rebroadcast them. The result is a fast network free of black spots.
Because of the comparatively high cost, Mesh setups are best suited to very big homes and offices.
13. Consider the contention ratio
The contention ratio is an old problem that has largely been addressed by fibre networking. It is, however, worth knowing about if you live in a street served by traditional broadband delivered via copper lines.
Effectively the contention ratio means there’s a finite amount of data available to everyone in your street. If more homes are using broadband at a given time, your share will go down. You’re effectively fighting for your share of a fixed resource.
There are two solutions. Firstly, if you can, switch to fibre-based broadband delivery. Of course, for some people, particularly those in very rural areas, this isn’t an option.
So, if you find yourself in this position, try and do your heavy internet work - like downloading movies - early in the morning or late at night.