Get the Best Internet for Your Home

(Last updated on: September 19, 2018)

A Guide For Getting All You Need, and Nothing That You Don’t 

best internet

[Revised and Improved!] The best Internet is almost like breathing the best air, or eating the best food. Essential to modern life! However (unlike air and food), Internet service is an ongoing aggravation and major expense for almost everyone.

This blog discusses how you can get the best Internet service. And, how you can avoid buying more Internet than you need. I thank my friend Joe Behrens for suggesting that getting the best internet and best TV service might be worth a blog! (For Best TV, see next week’s blog.)

How To Get the Most Internet for the Least Cost

I wrote this headline to get your attention! And to say: “Most for the Least” is not the path to the best Internet solution for most people.

Even the meaning of the words can lead us astray. What should we mean by the “most Internet”? Fastest download speed? Zippy upload speed? Most reliable? Most secure? The most accessible to all your devices? Providing the best tech support? All of the above, combined with some weighting factors?

For that matter, what should we mean by “least cost”? Cost per month? Installation cost? Cost of peripherals you need such as a router or range extender? For that matter, what is your own time worth, dealing with the company, fussing with the equipment, calling tech support?

Let’s re-frame the objective. We don’t necessarily want the fastest Internet. We want Internet that is fast enough for the devices, apps and services that we use it for. There are useful speed guidelines in THIS article. And we want the service to be reliable enough to keep us satisfied, and affordable enough that it doesn’t continually aggravate us. So that leads us to this revised headline:

How To Get the Internet That’s Best For You

Whatever Internet service we have now, it may seem good enough until we start reading the ads. Solicitations continually pepper us with offers that promise the best Internet service – newer or cheaper or faster. The sales pitch is always tempting. However, how do we know that a new service would be best for us? And by “best” I mean, would make us happiest, all things considered?

The only fair comparison would be to install the new service alongside our existing service and do a one-to-one comparison. For most people, that is neither practical or affordable. Moreover, making an accurate comparison requires effort and expertise.

Are you someone who will only be happy with the very best internet experience you can get? Then there are a number of blogs worth your look. Wikihow has a straightforward discussion that is not too technical. To go beyond that you need a more detailed approach such as that on LifeHacker.

But I’d like to back off from this compulsive “very best Internet” quest. We need to remind ourselves of an important principle:

Better is the Enemy of Good

best internet

This wise saying, at least as old as Confucius, is also one of the most important principles in engineering. The point is that the lure of something better can distract us from using and benefitting from something that already meets our goals.

So I claim that we should first examine our present internet service. Let’s make it as good as it can be with simple practical steps, including the possibility of an upgrade.

If the service becomes good enough to satisfy our needs, we should declare victory at that point and turn our valuable attention to something more important. Only if our present service just can’t hack it should we embark on the uncertainty, cost and aggravation of trying a competing service.

What Did the ISP Promise You?

When you signed up with your Internet Service Provider (ISP), they promised you a certain number of Mbps.

The promised speed always represents download speed. Download speed controls how long you have to wait to download a movie. It also determines whether you can watch a high-definition video feed without dropouts and pixellation.

Your Internet upload speed will be slower than download speed. Often, much slower. Unless you are producing videos or sharing giant data files, the upload speeds will probably not concern you.

You Will Now Become an Expert (At Least, Concerning Your Home Network)

Access to the Internet is increasingly critical for most of us if we are to function in today’s world. That reason forces everyone to become at some level a network engineer. A bit of knowledge will help them understand why their device isn’t functioning the way they want, and if they have to talk to a support technician.

In your role as home network engineer, you will encounter certain terms over and over again. It will help if you have some understanding of what those terms mean when you talk to sales people or technical support staff.

If you read this blog and feel uncertain about any terms, please skip to the Internet Related Definitions at the end of this blog. You might also like to review how all these definitions fit together, in the section called How Your Computer Connects to the Internet.

Start By Measuring Your Internet Service

Are you getting the speed you’re paying for? To find that out, you need to measure what you have. Your first step should be to measure the speed as close to the source as you can. That source is the box provided by your Internet Service Provider that is wired directly to their incoming signal line. That box contains a Modem to decode the signals. It may also contain a Wireless Router to broadcast the Internet signals throughout your home.

For this and all the measurements below, you don’t want to be “competing with yourself.” That is, if someone in the house is playing an interactive video game or downloading high definition movies, they can easily interfere with whatever measurements you’re making. Try to turn off the wi-fi on other devices in the house or put them into “airplane mode.”

The competition can also come from inside your computer. There are many processes running “in the background” in your computer. It takes considerable expertise to know which ones could drag down your speed and turn them off. However, you can take a step in that direction by closing all the applications you are using except a single browser window. If you have automatic backup functions such as DropBox or Time Machine, disable them temporarily while you are running speed tests.

            Making the Speed Measurement

Then, plug your computer directly into your Modem using an Ethernet cable. And measure the speed of your internet connection by directing your browser to the free website speedtest.net.

You might want to check the speed at various times of the day and night, and both weekends and weekdays. If other customers such as your neighbors are loading down your ISP’s speed, you should see big differences in speed depending on when you test it.

If the best download speed you see is significantly, say 25%, less than what your internet provider promised, call them up and say, “Hey!” They may be able to test your installation from their end, or re-boot their system to improve your speed. Or, they may confess that in fact their “promise” is misleading. Either way, you are directly comparing their promise with their delivery.

Is Your Router Throttling You?

best internet

At this point you know what internet speed your modem is delivering. However, the test you just completed connected you directly to the modem. In many cases, that kind of direct connection is not practical. Yes, it does provide the highest degree of security from eavesdropping. However, wi-fi is usually “secure enough” and a lot more convenient.

Therefore you also want to know whether the wi-fi is delivering that full speed to your devices. And that is a function of the Wireless Router, which for shorthand we may also refer to as simply Router. As noted in the Definitions below, the wireless router may be a separate box, or may be built into the same box as the modem.

If you’re using a portable computer like a laptop, you’re in luck. Set it up next to your wireless router so that you can receive the maximum router signal. Use the wi-fi to connect to the speed test. Is the speed just as fast as when you plugged in with the ethernet cable?

            Why Your Wireless Is Slow

If your wireless connection close to your router is slower than your Ethernet connection, there are many possible reasons. However, here are a few to consider first:

Reason #1: Your wireless router may not be fast enough to keep up with your modem. In this case the solution may be an up to date router. Did your ISP provide you with the router, either separately or combined with the modem? Then you can insist that your ISP give you the newest router technology. Today, that’s a wireless router with “802.11ac” specifications. On the other hand, if the router belongs to you, check the LifeHacker article for guidance on buying a new router. Of course, if the Internet speed you have subscribed to is blindingly fast, even the newest wireless router may not be able to keep up with it!

Reason #2: If you have an older computer, it may have out-of-date slower wi-fi hardware. As described in the LifeHacker article you don’t have to buy new computer. You can instead buy a wi-fi adapter for your old one.

Fixing either or both of these problems may bring you wi-fi service that’s just as fast as a direct connection. That is, when your computer is right next to the router!

Your Home Design is Making Your Computer Slow

(Regular readers of this blog may notice the allusion to one of my earlier posts)

We frequent users of cell phones and GPS navigation would like to believe that radio waves can penetrate through any building material that is not mostly metal. However, that is not the case. The design of your home can noticeably slow down wi-fi signals, especially the faster (high-bandwidth) ones.

            How Home Design Can Hurt Your Internet

  • Distance: The farther your devices are from the router, the weaker the signal they will receive. And a weaker signal delivers less usable bandwidth.
  • Antenna Angle: As described in this article, the orientation of the router’s antenna matters. Changing its angle (or turning the router on its side) greatly changes the pattern of coverage. Experiment to see what adjustments of the router give the fastest measured signals at your devices.
  • Metal: Metal objects such as filing cabinets or appliances can block or reflect the router’s radio signals.
  • Walls and Ceilings: Even non-metallic structural features absorb radio energy and can degrade your wi-fi performance.
  • Out and Up: Most articles advise having your router out in the open and up high. Don’t hide it inside a cabinet or on the bottom shelf of a bookcase. Treat it as a member of the family, someone you’re proud to know!

Your goal should be to measure the same internet speed at all the locations where you will be using your computer. And that speed should be close to what you see when you’re right next to the router. This goal may determine where you place your router, what furniture is around or next to it, and how you position it and its antennas.

If you can’t attain full speed wi-fi everywhere that you need it, you may need to install a more powerful router or a wi-fi range extender.

Better the Devil That You Know…

OK, let’s suppose that you are getting the internet speed you are paying for. Your reception is full speed at the modem and throughout your wi-fi network.

Is this your best Internet? Not necessarily. You may still be unsatisfied. Perhaps your streaming videos are breaking up. Perhaps your movies take so long to download that you lose interest in the film before you get to see it. Or perhaps someone in your house is sucking up bandwidth with an online game.

In this situation, I think your next step should be a chat with your internet service provider. Yeah, I know. You may be fed up to here with them and ready for a change. Any change!

But I tell you. There are no saints or philanthropists in the ISP business. If you suffer the inconvenience of changing service providers, there’s a good chance that you’ll find flaws with the new one too. Different flaws, perhaps, but still flaws. Sometimes the devil that you know is better than the one you haven’t yet done business with.

Give Your ISP A Chance?

best internet

I have often, though not always, found that giving your current ISP a chance pays off. Prep yourself with one of the good articles (DigitalTrends, BroadbandNow). Moreover, keep reminding yourself of the essential Three P’s in dealing with media providers. Be Patient, Be Polite and Be Persistent. (Don’t get captured by the accompanying “rage” icon!)

You have a powerful advantage in the situation we have just described. You want more bandwidth. And you might even be willing to pay a bit more for it. Moreover, the rules often say, if you are upgrading your services, you’re eligible for some great discounts.

I have several times discovered that I could upgrade to better Internet and receive a reduction in my monthly bill. We have found this to be true for ATT, the ISP we have been using in Michigan and Hawaii. Notably, ATT has generous discount policies. In New York we use Spectrum/Cablevision/OTW cable and have had much less luck negotiating affordable Internet.

Any discounts you can capture will carry time limitations – typically one year or two. However, after that much time passes, the situation will probably be different. You may want more bandwidth. Or, there might be more ISP competitors in your area. So it will benefit you to screw up your gumption and start the whole negotiating process over again.

If All Else Fails…

You are the customer and you are in control of the situation. Therefore, if your existing ISP simply cannot satisfy you and they have competitors, you can consider switching providers.

At least, by this time you have a clear understanding of what “best Internet” means for you, and how much “best Internet” you can get. Therefore, you are well equipped to gain the best possible deal if you change providers.

This guide should help you get the best Internet, and know when you have what’s best for you. Please feel free to comment and agree or disagree with this summary!

Acknowledgements: I thank Charles South for the definitions below, and for many helpful comments leading to this improved blog post.

Internet Related Definitions:

            Network:

A generic word meaning an electronic “highway system” allowing a set of devices to talk to each other, exchanging or passing information. A network can be just a few devices, or at the opposite extreme it can be …

            the Internet:

The “information superhighway” created in the early 1990s, this is the (now) world-wide network designed to allow any number of devices in the world to talk to each other through a single global network. The Internet is a hyper-example of a network, and is what we all expect to “be there” every day, 24×7, with no outages.

            ISP (or Internet Service Provider):

This is the company you contract with to give you a private home network as well as a portal from your ISP to the worldwide Internet. Often, your ISP is either your telephone or cable supplier, but it can be anyone marketing Internet-access service.

            Modem:

A coined term (originally “MOdulator/DEModulator”) which means a translation device separating two otherwise incompatible network technologies, such as the signal from your ISP on one side, and your home network on the other. In the early days of home internet service, the Modem was the ONLY device the ISP provided. The consumer had to buy and install everything else below, as necessary or as desired.

Your ISP provides a Modem that they wire to their service. The Modem decodes Internet signals and delivers them for your use.

            Router:

This term refers to a crucial function required when two networks are joined — that of “routing” information to the right place within a network. Think of this function as that performed by switchboard operators 100 years ago. On one side of their switchboard is the outside telephone network, and on the other side is the series of jacks corresponding to each employee’s phone. The operator would use cables to plug any jack into the appropriate hole to complete a connection.

In the computer networking world, information is communicated in small units called “packets” which arrive at a router and then are shipped on to a computer on that network, based on the destination which is encoded in the header of every packet. Larger messages are broken into many packets, each of which have to make their way through the possible routes to get to its destination. The Router is the function making that packet travel possible, and directing traffic on the network.

“Router” is also a shorthand term for “Wireless Router” as defined below.

            Wi-Fi (or sometimes WiFi or wi-fi):

Wi-Fi is technology used to create a wireless local area network using radio signals. The name originated as a pun on “hi-fi,” referring to “high fidelity” home audio systems.

            Wireless Base Station or Wireless Access Point:

This is a “radio station” that communicates with your computer using Wi-Fi technology. In the home, it’s usually used to connect your computer to a router that provides Internet access.

            Wireless Router:

If you go to an electronics retailer and ask for a “router,” what they sell you will be a Wireless Router. This is a device that combines the function of a Router with the function of a Wi-Fi Base Station. The wireless router takes the Internet signals provided from your modem, attaches routing information, and broadcasts it to your computer.

Your ISP will always provide you with a Modem to decode their signals. Often, they will also provide you a Wireless Router. The Wireless Router may be a separate box, or it may be built into the same box that contains the Modem.

            Ethernet:

Ethernet is a standard for wired (as opposed to wireless) connection of network signals. It provides a way to connect a device like a desktop computer directly to your home network. The ugly part, however, is that a cable has to run along or under a floor, or through or in a wall or ceiling, in order to deliver Ethernet service to a device. The payoff for putting up with all that hassle is that Ethernet access to a network is faster than Wi-Fi (often by an order of magnitude), more reliable and more secure from interception. Today, routers often incorporate a signal-splitting function that feeds multiple Ethernet cable sockets.

            Firewall:

There is a mechanism in a standard router for keeping outsiders “out” called NAT (Network Address Translation). If someone comes to your door and knocks, they will simply be ignored, so you can think of it as a locked front door. However, this only works if you don’t open the door if someone knocks. A firewall goes beyond that by actually examining the traffic any outsider brings to the network … and stopping anyone who misbehaves. Think of them as a “bouncer” in a bar who keeps scruffy types from entering without being admitted, and who ejects any customer who starts a fight or otherwise misbehaves.

A firewall almost always exists in businesses but is rare in home networks since it is usually a separate box, and requires special (and fairly complex) configuration.

How Your Computer Connects to the Internet

Here’s how the functions defined above fit together, to connect your computer, smartphone and other devices to the Internet:]

[INTERNET]
||
[ISP Private Network]
||
[Connection Wiring from ISP to Consumer’s Home]
||
= = = = = ISP / Consumer’s Home Boundary = = = = =
||
[MODEM]
||
[perhaps: FIREWALL]
||
[ROUTER]
(leading to [ETHERNET PORTS] which lead to Multiple Ethernet Devices)
||
[WI-FI BASE STATION]
(leading to Multiple Wi-Fi Devices)

Image credits:
Representation of the Internet from Wikimedia, courtesy of Vector Background
– Internet of Things, jeferrb on pixabay.com
– Wifi Icon, russelkakkat on openclipart.org
– Rage Smiley, chovynz on openclipart.org


Comments

Get the Best Internet for Your Home — 2 Comments

  1. A comment from Joe Behrens:

    Re your internet post, many of your comments I have experienced over the past few years. What helped me to improve Mbps was getting AT&T to replace my router with a 5268ACFXN version which is the unit they are currently using on installs in the DFW area. Tech told me they are also using fiber optic cable in new developments and that cures the bandwidth and speed issue completely.

    Tech also stated that older housing additions will be updated in next year. The distance from your house to the neighborhood server also impacts Mbps speed as does the the distance inside your house on wireless devices distance from your router as your post points out.

    Kaye’s computer is in the room where the router resides and she gets about 50 Mbps whereas my CPU is approx 35′ away, runs wireless, and even with the new modem only gets 30 Mbps. Still much better than 10 I was previously experiencing on the download.
    I appreciated your blog and think your info should help frustrated internet and video streamers.

    Joe

    • Thanks for your comment, Joe! I apologize that the comment poster did not work for you. I belatedly learned that when GoDaddy installed a firewall for me, one of its default settings was to block all comments! So the problem had nothing to do with type of browser but was happening outside that.

      In any case, I’m glad to hear that ATT upgraded your router and that your bandwidth is improved now. We are all still waiting for ubiquitous wideband fiber service to the home. It’s a long time coming…

      Art

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