Hey Dad, why is my Internet connection slow?

If you're like me, the go-to person for household technology "stuff", whether it's the kids pressing some obscure button on the remote (you didn't even know existed) or connecting PC's, installing software, then you will of said to yourself more than once "I wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that question", right?

Many homes and businesses perceive their network just like those nice simple layouts you see on the back of the box the router arrives in, which will be something like this:

 

 - Hey Dad, why is my Internet connection slow?
Figure 1 - Basic Home Network

Guess what ? Your home or business is NOTHING like this!

You have brick walls, plaster walls with insulation, pipes, electrical cabling. Metal doors or doors/walls with mesh, fridges, stoves and large devices.

Then there are the neighbors' WiFi routers that might of been using channel 8 yesterday, but they restarted their router (maybe because your router was interfering with theirs) and now they use a WiFi channel closer to yours.

In Figure 1 above, the modem is on top of a shelf in a central room of top floor, so the "dome" of radio waves filters nicely through all rooms on upper and lower floors. In reality your modem is probably tucked away in a room on the lower floors where the Telco installed the phone socket.

Apartments and Single level home / office

 - Hey Dad, why is my Internet connection slow?

Even a single level home or apartment has its challenges. Whilst most of the unit may be open plan and the direct line of sight means the WiFi signal should be strong, but is it?

When I last lived in an apartment, the WiFi was in the center of the home, and yet the signal dropped to -60db in the TV room, just 15 metres away in direct line of sight because of the competition from the WiFi of others in the building.

The signal in the bedrooms just 5 metres through 2 walls was worse at -80db because the laundry was in between, and the walls and plumbing stopped the signal.

Then there are cases where one daughter watching YouTube is joined by another who sits down beside the first and cannot get an internet connection. Why you would ask... they are right next to each other? The answer is that the first had established connection where the signal was weak, but their device was using all available bandwidth at that point in the home and the buffering of the device was managing to overcome the fluctuating signal and provide smooth display. The second tablet arriving on the scene could not get sufficient signal to get their device connected, which gave the symptoms of no connection (because the 1st device was hogging the connection). So we stop/start connections, routers and other devices and magically it eventually comes good.

However, what really happens is the router restarts on a different channel with less interference, and for a while dominates that channel frequency against competing devices in other apartments.

Stand alone and multi-level homes

 - Hey Dad, why is my Internet connection slow?

Stand alone homes are not immune either. My last home was set into the hillside 20 metres below houses above and 10 metres from those adjacent, yet walking from one room to another with a signal detector it was clear the signal from neighbors was getting through.  Worse still I had two repeater routers to provide a stronger signal at all ends of the home and into the grounds and my neighbors also had strong signals beaming into corners of the my home. Over time I realized the neighbors' router when restarted occupied another channel but if it was an adjacent channel it still interfered if the signal was strong. Sometimes if conditions were ripe when they re-started, their router may restart on the same WiFi channel I was using and soon after I would hear that familiar "hey Dad, why has the internet stopped?".

Solutions

It's best to start early. We know what Murphy's law is about, best not have problems on the day before a family member's exams, or when you're trying to send an important contract, pacify a child with a movie or sending that CV ahead of tomorrow's interview. With the growing adoption of technology in the home / office and in those homes / offices around you, it's a certainty that you will have connectivity problems sooner or later, and setting up your network correctly is the only way to avoid problems.

The solutions don't all involve solving WiFi speed issues, some of the answers come from applying the 12 rules of network planning:

  1. You don't need to use WiFi for everything
  2. You don't need to download everything on demand
  3. Those things you must download, you don't have to re-download each time you use them
  4. You don't need to re-download movies
  5. You MUST use multiple networks in the home
  6. Get a NAS to manage what, when, where, how things are sent, backed up, shared, serviced
  7. You must plan to use 2.4Ghz network for casual web surfing (so it has a lighter load)
  8. If you have the opportunity to install 1GB or 10GB Ethernet to link sections of the home "do it"
  9. If you (or the person you eventually sell your home to) will value home security, then when installing Ethernet, install TWO cables side by side so you can have double capacity of redundancy if someone digs a hole in the wrong place.
  10. If installing Ethernet under structures before they are built (like running a cable under a slab of cement before its poured) run protective electric pipes capable of carrying 3 Ethernet cables (1 spare) and make sure that cable is in the pipes before the cement is poured.
  11. If you can stretch the budget to purchase a NAS with Thunderbolt 20 or 40GB connection between devices with high traffic (e.g. NAS to backup), this will move the high volume traffic away from the Ethernet.
  12. A fast WiFi router matters. The WiFi routers provided by your ISP are mostly the lowest spec devices, and when the home starts to fill up with more and more devices, these low spec devices get locked up trying to handle the data packets. (That's why your network sometimes seems faster after restarting router, because the router has dropped all the incomplete connections it was holding onto.)

Some examples of how to apply these rules are:

  • Get a fast WiFi router, even if you still use the modem provided by the Telco to connect to the internet, you can still set up your own WiFi router
  • Get a dual band router (so you can use the 5Gb band for different purposes)
  • Set up casual web surfers on the 2.4GHz WiFi band
  • Try to remove as much of the streaming or high volume traffic as possible from 2.4Ghz and connect through the other network connections as shown below.
  • Install your movies on the smikbox NAS with transcoding
  • SONOS music systems use a separate band and don't place much load on the 2.4Ghz network
  • Install music libraries on NAS and share with SONOS
  • Assign Airplay device with fixed IP address
  • Assign all physical devices such as DVD, Playstation, TV, Set top box, the NAS, Printers, Scanners, Power line adapters, routers, and repeaters fixed IP addresses
  • When planning fixed IP addresses set up ranges for devices. e.g. Routers from 192.168.1.1 to 192.168.1.9, TV/DVD/Set top appliances/Media players 192.168.1.180 to 192.168.1.189, PC's using DHCP to get their IP address in range 192.168.1.100 to 192.168.1.149
  • Enable automatic transcoding of the movies you intend to provide access to from low resolution devices (phones, tablets) (which means think of your folder structure where movies are stored)
  • Enable the NAS proxy server so devices use NAS proxy in place of default gateway (which not only helps with speed, but also protects users on your network from spoof attacks)
  • Install either 1GB or 10GB Ethernet switch to connect NAS to other devices.
  • If you still have an old 10M or 100M switch then use these for connecting low volume devices such as Printers, scanners
  • If your smkiBox NAS has 4 x 1GB ethernet, select 2 of these to run in the paired mode, so the network connection from NAS storage is 2GB and then set up Ethernet 3 and 4 for use by Virtual machines, backup and replication.
  • If Ethernet connection from router to the TV is not possible, install Power line connections to jump across to the TV (so you can stream from NAS or view Netflix, Stan etc without any burden on WiFi).
  • You can use Power line devices such as those from Netgear to have the main device connected to the same switch used by the NAS, and then 2 or 3 power line ports in the home (in a bedroom, and/or one next to the TV/entertainment systems). The greater the distance between the power points of these devices results in a lowering of signal quality and speed, as does power adapters and running to power points not on the same line. So you may need to use the signal testing software provided to pick the best power points to use, and even if those are not located as close to the TV as you would wish, consider installing a switch at a location where signal will be strong and either running a second WiFi router, an Ethernet cable or a second power line connection to jump across the the desired location.
  • If you have the original Google Chrome device and it appears to slow the network down, or it stops and is hard to get re-started, you could either: Purchase the new Chrome which has a more reliable dual band WiFi or purchase an Ethernet adapter to connect it to Ethernet, which also reduces the 2.4GHz traffic speeding up the network for casual web users.
  • If you have more than 2 WiFi camera's for surveillance don't connect through the same 2.4Ghz network used by general household users. The 5GB network or a separate WiFi on a different IP range is better.