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How Fast Does Your Internet Need to Be?

Number of devices, what you do with them are parts of the equation

spinner image Family of three generations sitting on one couch, busy with one device each, Cologne, NRW, Germany

Zooming with loved ones and office mates, bingeing on streaming services such as Amazon Prime and Netflix and playing online games emerged as a new normal during the pandemic.

Now that you’re out and about again, you still rely on the internet to socialize, stream media, control smart home appliances such as thermostats and door locks and get work done remotely. Only now you’re often frustrated with a connection that frequently stalls, stutters and is just plain slow.

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So is there a cheap path to a speedier cyber-thruway, or must you buy into the expensive gig-speed promotions that broadband providers offer? And just how fast is fast enough?

No answer is one-size-fits-all. The size of your home, the number of people living there and the myriad devices competing for precious broadband all factor into the equation.

What’s more, your neighbors may contribute to network congestion, and in parts of the country the speed may get worse when the weather turns colder. Having kids or grandkids around who frequently log in from home doesn’t help.

Here’s a guide to determine internet speeds and steps you can try to rev things up

Run a speed test

Several online tests are available for free at sites such as Fast.comSpeakeasy Speed TestSpeedOf.Me and Another popular option is Ookla’s aptly named Speedtest, available on the web or as a download for Android, Apple TV, Google Chrome, macOS and Windows.

The minimum you need

If one person is doing the tasks below on the internet, that user will need at least the following internet speed. Additional simultaneous users require more bandwidth — the amount of data that can be sent over a connection in a certain period.

  • Email, podcasts, social media or songs, 1 megabit per second (Mbps).
  • Zoom or other video chat, 2 Mbps.
  • Standard-definition streaming video, 480 pixels tall, 3 to 4 Mbps.
  • High-definition streaming video, 720p, 5 to 8 Mbps.
  • Student, telecommuting needs, 5 to 25 Mbps.
  • Ultra-high-definition, 4K, streaming video, 2160p, 25 Mbps.

When you click or press Go, packets of data are dispatched between your device and a site’s network of local servers as the test gauges download and upload speeds in megabits per second (Mbps). You’ll also receive a “ping” result, which tells you how long your connection needs to respond to a request.

The Federal Communications Commission hopes to simplify the way you shop for high speed internet service in the first place through broadband nutrition labels that internet service providers (ISPs) must start displaying later this year or in 2024. Some households with limited income can qualify for the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides a $30 subsidy for speedy internet.

Put the results in context

Streaming video exacts a far greater demand on your broadband than, say, checking email.

Netflix recommends download speeds of at least 3 Mbps to watch a 720-pixel high-definition movie or TV show, 5 Mbps for 1080p full high definition and 15 Mbps for ultra high definition or 4K.

If housemates are simultaneously watching on other screens or yakking on a video call while streaming a game, the broadband requirements are taxed that much more.

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The reality is that most folks tap the internet for mixed use. The comparison site BroadbandNow helps people select an internet plan and features a speed calculator.

You’re asked a series of questions about the number of people who use the internet and Wi-Fi daily, the number of devices in use, the frequency of use and whether you frequently stream videos on multiple devices simultaneously and at what quality. Based on your collective responses, you'll receive an internet-speed recommendation.

Perform device maintenance

Now focus on the devices themselves. Are aging computers past their prime? How about your router, the very gizmo that directs internet traffic to all other electronics in the home? This could be the root of a slowdown.

Check the manufacturer’s website to see if your device’s firmware — permanent software programmed into the read-only memory of the device — has an update available and instructions on how to install it. If you have a dual-band router that operates under two frequency bands, 5 gigahertz or 2.4 GHz, consider switching to the former.

5 GHz is faster and not as prone to interference from other devices, though the signal won't typically travel as far. Some routers switch automatically.

Make sure all your computers and other devices are running the latest software, including security updates. And if your internet browser is poky, try clearing out the cache and cookies, the tiny files accumulated as you prowled the web. Look under the browser’s Help menu for the drill.

Video: How to Increase Your Internet Speed at Home

Move, amplify or replace the router

Do you plan to stick with your current router? If possible, move it to a more central location.

If you’re ready to retire the router, choose a replacement compatible with modern industry standards — notably, models that adhere to geeky-sounding industry standards, written out as 802.11ac (Wi-Fi 5), 802.11ax (Wi-Fi 6) and Wi-Fi 6E, with the “E” signifying access to the 6 GHz frequency band. Older routers run off creakier 802.11n or 802.11g standards.

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Wi-Fi 6E routers also promise less interference for compatible devices compared to prior models. But even these won’t be state-of-the-art for much longer with 802.11be (Wi-Fi 7) routers coming relatively soon, which will allow for faster speeds and more simultaneous connections.

A single router should cut it in a modest-size living space. If your house is somewhat larger, you may be able to amplify the signal by plugging a less than $50 Wi-Fi extender into the wall. This solution won’t speed things up, but it may reduce dead spots.

For a pricier but generally more satisfying solution in a large home, consider a mesh router system. Such routers from Amazon-owned eero, Google, Linksys, Netgear and TP-Link, among others, intelligently distribute Wi-Fi throughout the home. They often come in a package of three.

You connect the first router or base station to your modem with an ethernet cable, then strategically place the other units or access points around the home, perhaps one on each floor of a multistory residence. These boxes wirelessly piggyback off one another to spread the signal. Though you can spend $200 to $400 for a mesh system, the cost is often worth it.

“Nobody wants to be forced to cram multiple ‘offices’ or ‘classrooms’ wherever the router happens to be located,” says analyst Avi Greengart of Techsponential, a technology research and advisory firm in northern New Jersey.

Go for the gig

If these efforts fail, now may be time to spring for gigabit internet. Its name comes because data is transmitted at up to 1 gigabit per second or 1,000 Mbps, roughly double the fastest cable internet from your provider or from a rival.

Data typically passes through fiber optic lines, rather than traditional copper wires. In some places, wireless 5G cellular plans provide a blazing-fast in-home option as well.

Be prepared to pay more, at least after promotions run out. And keep in mind that while you're almost certain to see an improvement, the speeds you experience are unlikely to match the hype. Even the fastest internet connection may hit bottlenecks as it funnels through your home to the router and beyond.

This story, originally published October 12, 2020, was updated with information on new router standards and broadband nutrition labels.

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