If your internet has been buffering recently or you’re worried you’re not getting the speed you’re paying for, you’ve probably been advised to run a speed test.
You can find out your download speed, upload speed and ping time — but what does this data mean, and how can you use it to improve your internet?
Here’s how to understand your speed test results as well as steps you can take to boost your home network.
What data does a speed test tell you?
Running a speed test primarily tells you three things:
- Download speed – A measure of how quickly data or content can be transferred to your device over the network. Measured in Mbps.
- Example: Streaming a TV show or movie on Netflix
- Upload speed – A measure of how quickly your device can upload data or content over the network. Measured in Mbps.
- Example: Posting a photo on Instagram or publishing a video on YouTube
- Ping – A signal sent to measure latency, or the time it takes for data to travel from a device on one network to a device on another network. Measured in milliseconds.
How can I ensure I’m getting accurate data?
Your speed test results will be accurate for that moment in time. The best way to get a full picture of your internet speed, though, is to run multiple tests. For example:
- Run a test over multiple connections – Running a speed test over Wi-Fi, which is typically a weaker connection since it’s being transmitted through the air, will yield different results than running a test over an Ethernet cord.
- Run a test with only one or multiple devices – The number of devices connected to your network will affect your speeds. Run a test with just one device connected to the network and run another test with multiple devices connected to the network.
- Run a test at different times of the day – Speeds can also fluctuate throughout the day, especially for cable internet subscribers who are sharing bandwidth with other users in their area. Your tests may reveal that your speeds are slowed during internet rush hour but fine during off-peak hours.
- Run a speed test in different rooms – The strength of your wireless signal will weaken as you get further away from your router. Try running a speed test in the same room as your router and in others further away to see if, and by how much, results vary.
- Run a speed test while doing different activities – Running a speed test while performing different activities (such as listening to music vs. streaming a TV show vs. playing an online game) can help you pinpoint if the slower speeds are content related.
What should I do with this data?
If your speed test results closely match your plan’s advertised speeds, then you’re good. According to the Federal Communications Commission, your actual speeds should be within 80% of your plan’s advertised speeds when running a test using an Ethernet cord and no other devices connected.
If you’re not getting those speeds, though, there are some actions you can take to try to boost your internet speeds.
General recommendations to improve your speeds
- Restart your modem and router – As any IT person will tell you, turning it off and turning it back on is a good first step. In fact, some internet service providers (ISPs) actually recommend rebooting your router every few months.
- Download any software or firmware updates – If your modem or router haven’t been updated recently, it may be the case that your equipment needs the latest software to operate properly. Refer to your user guide on how to check for updates.
- Make sure there’s no clutter – If anything is blocking your router, it may not be able to transmit the signal as strong as it has in the past. Clear any clutter to ensure your router has open space around it.
- Double-check who’s accessing your network – There’s always a possibility that a neighbor is piggybacking off of your network. If you suspect this is the case or can monitor access on an app and see authorized devices, change your password and review all of your security settings.
Possible slow speed scenarios
There are a number of possible scenarios that may result in slower speeds. This is where running multiple speed tests and doing a little investigating can help you determine if it’s an issue with your provider or something else.
Scenario #1: Your speeds are fine over a wired connection but weaker over Wi-Fi.
What to do: First, it’s common for Wi-Fi speeds to be slower. However, if your Wi-Fi speeds are significantly reduced (less than half of the speed you’re paying for), then it’s time to look at your equipment. Your provider may need to issue a newer router or, if you purchased your own Wi-Fi router, it may not be compatible with your provider or plan.
Here’s a list of providers and their compatible equipment:
Scenario #2: Your speeds are fine when only one device is connected, but slow when multiple are online at the same time.
What to do: There are really only two options here — either 1) only connect your devices while you’re using them and disconnect after you’re done, or 2) increase your internet speed. As you add more devices to your home network, they require more bandwidth. Call your provider to see about getting a faster plan or consider switching to a new provider with higher speed tiers.
Scenario #3: Your speeds are fine during the day, but are reduced between 7-11 p.m.
What to do: Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do aside from trying to be online at different times during the day since this is peak internet usage time. If you have a cable internet connection, though, and your speeds are drastically reduced during internet rush hour, you may want to consider switching to a DSL or fiber-optic connection where you won’t share bandwidth.
Scenario #4: Your speeds are fine in the same room as your router but weaker as you get further away.
What to do: Wi-Fi that’s spotty or inconsistent from room-to-room is typically less of a speed issue and more of a distance issue. First, consider repositioning your Wi-Fi router so it’s in a centralized location and not obstructed by thick walls or other clutter. If that doesn’t help, consider a long-range Wi-Fi router or a mesh network that can help extend your signal.
Scenario #5: Your speeds are fine while browsing, but slowed while streaming TV or playing an online game.
What to do: There are two things that might be happening here. The first is that you may not have the appropriate plan for your online activities. For instance, streaming Netflix in standard definition is fine on a 5 Mbps plan; however, if you’re trying to watch 4K TV on the same plan, you’ll have buffering issues. Additionally, playing online games may require higher download speeds than you’re currently getting. The other option is that your ISP may be throttling your internet during certain activities or if you’ve gone over your data limit.
Last resort option
If you’re getting poor speed test results over a wired connection or you go through multiple of these suggestions — rebooting your equipment, repositioning your router, disconnecting devices, going online during off-peak times, etc. — and are still having poor speed test results it may be time to call your provider.
Document all of your speed test results as well as the different variables under which you tested the speeds and let them know you’re not getting what you’re paying for.
In most cases, your ISP should want to resolve the issue so they can keep you as a customer. However, if your provider is unable or unwilling to work with you, it may be time to shop for a better internet plan.
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Learn more about your provider’s actual vs. advertised speeds and the fastest cities: