The mysteries of internet speed — explained by Sudbury tech expert Aaron Langille

How can you boost your internet connectivity at home? It’s a question many are asking now that scores of us are staying at home during this pandemic. 

If you want higher speed and more downloadable data, you can easily just pay more money. But what if you’re unwilling or unable to pay a little bit more per month. There are a few things you can do at home before calling your internet service provider to complain.

“If you’re having intermittent, or even consistent problems, check your hardware,” said Aaron Langille, who teaches computer science and game design at Laurentian University.

“If you’re using a wireless router, make sure that it’s not more than say three- to five years old, because technologies do change and we tend to change the devices that are in our hands a little more frequently than we change the devices that are sitting on a shelf.”

Aaron Langille is a professor of computer science and game design at Laurentian University in Sudbury. (Aaron Langille/Supplied)

If a newer phone is connecting to an older router, it may not be using the right protocols. Protocols are the way devices communicate. 

“And if you have a relatively new wireless router, you might want to check the hardware that you’re using to connect to the internet directly. That’s the modem — either fiber optic or wireless or cable — that you might have gotten from your internet service provider,” Langille added.

“Service providers can also check your download speeds remotely, and let you know whether or not that device needs to be replaced.”

Doing a so-called “speed test” involves measuring how quickly you’re transmitting information both to and from a particular server.

“So you’ll get a download speed — that’s how fast data is transferring to your device and you’ll get an upload speed, which is how fast information is going from your device to their server. Both of those numbers are pretty important,” Langille said.

“Certainly the bigger the number the better [it is] on both sides. But what you’re looking for is a download speed that’s usually faster than your upload speed, because we tend to consume more data than we send. So those numbers are basically how many millions of pieces of information per second we’re sending to and from the different servers that we connect with.”

What kind of internet access do you have?

Obtaining good internet connectivity can be tricky, so understanding all the factors at play is important, Langille continued.

“They do change from time to time, certainly depending on the strain that we’re putting on our our data systems. These numbers change from minute to minute, from hour to hour.”

Much of it depends on the kind of internet access you have.

“I would imagine that a lot of us are using cable internet … so internet that’s transmitted over what would otherwise be our cable TV lines . A lot more people are ending up on fiber optic. And there could be some people still on older technologies, like dial up, or digital subscriber lines or DSL. So it really depends on the technology,” Langille said.

The number of users accessing the connection is also a factor.

“Some of these technologies use what we call a shared bandwidth. And while most internet service providers will put in measures to make sure that you don’t drop below a certain rate, there’s only so much internet to go around. And when everybody’s taking their share, it can dip a little bit for a little bit of time.”

Power down unused devices

Langille said it also depends on where you’re connecting.

“So, if there’s a big news story and everybody’s trying to connect to the CBC servers, for example, those servers can only handle so many requests per second or per time period. It might seem like your internet is slow, when actually it’s the connection that you’re trying to get to.”

Something else to consider, Langille said, is shutting down devices that you’re not actually using.

“Power them down or put them to sleep, to make sure that they’re not trickling some of your internet out as well.”

Langille noted that internet connectivity is a lot like electricity — it’s there, but you can’t actually see what’s happening.

“It’s hard for me to tell where that problem might have happened, but it could have been anywhere from your machine to the servers that are local, to your internet service provider, to things that go more regional or national or international,” he said.

“There are a lot of points of failure  … and really hard to pinpoint where the problem might be. And sometimes you need some special digital or hardware tools to figure out where those problems are.”

Our Tech Matters columnist Aaron Langille talked to us about routers, wifi and the mysteries of internet speed. 8:17

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