Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.
It's not uncommon to feel like the internet is slowing down. Determining if it's your ISP's fault is possible, but it needs to be done carefully.
I live in rural Arkansas and I have been paying for DSL at a premium. Most of the time, however, my system runs like dial-up rather than DSL. How can I check to see if I am actually getting what I am paying for?
There are many things that factor into the speed that you actually get from your internet connection. If you read the fine print on most ISP agreements, they're quoting you a maximum speed, not a minimum, and there is no guarantee of throughput.
Nonetheless, if you're paying for 1.5 megabits and you're only getting 33 kilobits on average, then it's time to talk to the provider.
I'll look at some of the reasons that speed might vary and, of course, show you a quick way to test.
The simplest way that I've found to get a quick read on how my internet connection is fairing is to simply visit a site like Speakeasy's speed test. That'll test both your download and upload speed and present you with the results.
Here are the results that I just got:
On the surface, it looks like I'm not getting what I'm paying for - my T-1 should be giving me 1.544 Mbps both down and up. This test looks like about half that.
But I'm not calling my provider just yet.
After getting those results, I did a quick little inventory and discovered that I have 12 devices connected to my network, all sharing that single internet connection (five desktops, four laptops, a WebTV, my DirecTV recover and my Android phone).
It's not surprising that I'm not seeing full speed, as it only takes one of those devices performing a download to cut my effective speed in half.
Granted, my case is a little extreme, but it raises one of the most important points about speed testing: other devices sharing that connection will impact your results. It's also easy to forget about some of them, such as your phone or DVR.
If you need an absolute test, you must disconnect everything from the network except for one PC to perform the test.
When I first got my T-1 line, I definitely tested to make sure that I was getting what I paid for, right down to disconnecting everything except for one computer. While my download speed was great, the upload speed wasn't.
I ended up calling the provider. A technician showed up and ran the test herself only to find that the speed was in fact correct both up and down.
I was running Firefox and she was running Internet Explorer. When I re-ran the test using IE, I got the same, correct results.
The lesson here isn't to use IE for your tests (recent releases of Firefox run that test more consistently), but rather to be aware of what else is running on the machine when you run the test, as well as trying different browsers, perhaps with add-ons disabled, if you run into unexpected results.
Particularly, if you're running the test over a wireless connection, there are many things that could be interfering with the test. When testing an internet connection for speed, or anything else for that matter, it's best to use a wired connection to eliminate these issues.
Another potential problem is the wiring in or to your house. Years ago, I had an intermittent internet connection that was eventually traced down to water corroding the phone line between the street and my house. At the time, that phone line was carrying my DSL connection. Similar issues can easily manifest as underperforming internet connections.
This is particularly true of cable internet connections where bandwidth is often shared between several customers.
The same concept applies to all internet connections. At some point, your internet connection is combined with those of other customers. If they suddenly begin making heavy use of the internet, the speed of your connection could be impacted.
This is one of the reasons that many ISPs disallow peer-to-peer file sharing; it's notorious for using lots of bandwidth.
Of course, this is the main reason for running the test in the first place - to confirm that the ISP is delivering on their implied promise.
ISPs face a tough problem because it's impossible to provide enough infrastructure at anything close to a reasonable cost where everyone could use the full capacity of their connection at the same time.
Consider the telephone system: if everyone picked up their landline handset at the same time, only a scant few would actually get dial tone. The phone system simply doesn't have the capacity to provide connections to all of their customers simultaneously. They rely on the fact that rarely, if ever, are a significant percentage of their customers on the phone at the same time.
ISPs do the same thing.
Similarly the quality of equipment they use, the size of their own upstream connection to other ISPs or the internet, and even the architecture of their own network infrastructure can all affect their ability to deliver consistent speed.
And I'm assuming that the quality of what they provide might well have an impact on your ability - or desire - to continuing paying for their service.
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