Whether you’re an avid fan of binge-watching shows on Netflix, a keen gamer who’s just picked up the latest hot title, or someone who spends a good chunk of their evening doing stuff online, you’re likely familiar with the “evening slowdown”. Your usually speedy and responsive broadband connection seems to mysteriously become slow and unreliable right around 7pm. Around that time, files take ten times as long to download and Netflix spends half of a movie trying to pull down data fast enough to give you reliable high definition video. Why does it happen and what can you do about it? We investigate.
In many ways, the slowdown is a by-product of the massively growing popularity of the internet and especially download-intensive services that run on it – streaming video being just one factor. Though the sudden take-up of Netflix by millions of Australians did catch some ISPs completely by surprise, it’s not necessarily the cause of all evening slow-down you might be experiencing.
There are actually a few potential causes for peak hour online misery. And unfortunately in some cases a fix can be completely out of your hands. Let’s take a look at the potential trouble spots. We’ll explain why each one can cause slowdown, give you tips on how to test it, and offer some advice on what you can do about it.
Your home Wi-Fi
This might seem blindingly obvious, but the first thing you should be looking at when trying to pin down the slowdown is your home Wi-Fi network. This is especially something to assess if you live in an apartment or unit surrounded by other internet users; so thanks to the vast popularity of all things Wi-fi in recent years, it applies to just about anyone in an urban area.
Wi-Fi is capable of blazingly fast speeds, faster than anything the speediest NBN connection can throw at it. But the technology’s always had one inherent flaw – the potential for congestion. There is a finite number of Wi-Fi channels that your modem/router can make use of. And while it’s cleverly designed to minimise the impact of two or more people using the same channel at the same time, it’s not foolproof. At peak times when you’ve got people nearby all using their Wi-Fi to stream video, download stuff or just surf the net, your modem can end up spending a great deal of time trying to sort through all the radio noise to figure out which signal is yours – and it’s the same on the device end as well.
Making things more complicated is the fact that basic home Wi-Fi uses the same radio frequency range as a bunch of other technologies – from Bluetooth to wireless mice to your microwave oven (yes, your microwave is a radio transmitter as well!).
Fortunately, it’s easy to test whether congested Wi-Fi is your issue. Simply plug in an Ethernet cable between your modem/router and a device you’re noticing slowdown on (obviously this will need to be a device like a computer or a streaming box that has an Ethernet socket available). You can purchase the cable itself for a few dollars from your local computer store, but check the box your modem came in first. They usually throw in a cable or two.
With that done, you can run a speed and latency test while wired and again over Wi-Fi (see below for our recommended speed tests) and compare the two. If you’re getting substantially better speeds over Ethernet, you’ve found a potential problem. Latency should improve regardless, by the way, as Ethernet is inherently lower in latency than anything wireless. So having noticed better speeds via a cable, how do you fix your home network?
The obvious answer is to connect as many devices as you can via Ethernet instead of Wi-Fi. But that’s simply not practical for some people, especially when the modem is far away from the devices you need to connect. An alternative is to replace your modem/router with one that can handle the newer 5GHz wi-fi standard. Check if the one you already have can do so first (you might just need to configure it to use that standard) and be aware that if you’re on FTTN, FTTB or HFC NBN services, you’ll need to check your ISP for a list of modems that will work with their service – or buy a stand-alone wireless router that you can plug into your ISP’s modem to handle your Wi-fi connections instead.
5GHz Wi-Fi is far less congested thanks to the simple fact that most people don’t use it – and it’s also clear of all the other device noise floating around your home and your neighbours’.
What is latency?
Everyone knows what that speed number means, but latency… not so much. It’s a valuable number to take into account, though. It measures the length of time that data takes to go from your computer or device to the web site or service at the other end. The lower your latency, the more responsive your connection will be. That means videos start quicker, web sites respond faster, and so on. Low latency is especially important for people who enjoy online gaming.
Another term you may see used is “ping.” Similar, except this one’s a measurement of how long the round trip takes between your device talking to the other end and the other end answering back. Latency and ping are measures in milliseconds – thousandths of a second. If you’re seeing numbers in the hundreds while doing a speed test to a nearby server, it’s a sign that something could be causing congestion.
NBN Broadband Plans
- Up to 20Mbps Standard Evening
- 100GB Data
- NBN 25™ Fixed Line
- Up to 9Mbps Basic Evening
- Unlimited Data
- NBN 12™ Fixed Line
- Up to 9Mbps Basic Evening
- 100GB Data
- NBN 12™ Fixed Line
As the rollout of the NBN goes on and more and more people get switched over to it, some customers are starting to see drastic slowdown in peak periods where there wasn’t any on their old ADSL connection. Getting to the bottom of what’s going on can be tricky. That’s because if your NBN issues are being caused by your ISP, the chances of you being able to speak to someone who can actually get it fixed are often near zero.
So what’s actually going on here? Well, depending on the technology there’s two potential points where congestion can happen. Those lucky ones with Fibre to the Home NBN get a nice clear path through the streets to the nearest connection point, with no slowdown at all, but it’s the connection from there to the NBN itself where problems can arise.
The reason for this is the way NBNco charges your ISP for access, and how much your ISP is willing to spend. Let’s say you have a top-speed 100Mbps NBN service. You certainly aren’t using that full 100Mbps 24 hours a day, and neither are any of the other NBN customers of that ISP. It doesn’t make any sense, then, for your ISP to pay for a full 100Mbps of bandwidth for each and every customer. If they did that, you’d be paying hundreds of dollars per month for access. Instead, they make a calculation based on how much speed is needed in total, then pay for enough bandwidth per user to meet that number.
But then the amount of users increases, or their download usage does, and the result is like trying to force a boiled egg through the neck of a bottle. It’ll get there, but it’s going to take a bit longer! Your ISP can see when this sort of slowdown happens, and a good ISP will respond to it by simply buying more capacity to open up the pipes some more. Unfortunately, not every ISP is quite so responsive, and in some cases (especially ISPs offering unbelievably cheap “unlimited” plans) the congestion is by design. The fact is that by law, they’re only required to hit your promised speed once every 24 hours. So as long as you could download at 100Mbps at 5am, it’s perfectly fine for them to have you downgraded to a tenth of that during peak. Increasingly, ISPs aren’t even quoting speed numbers for their NBN plans – instead describing faster plans as things like “Turbo”, so you don’t have a promise of any top speed at all. What you do get now, thanks to the intervention of the ACCC, is a quoted “typical evening speed” – be sure to look for it before signing up to make sure it meets your needs.
What can you do about congestion? Well, call your ISP for starters. It can’t hurt and if they’re keen on keeping customers, it may very well do some good. But you might need to consider moving to a different ISP – something made easy to do on the NBN, as long as you’re not under contract. Some ISPs, like Skymesh, offer a free trial period, while others like the well-liked Aussie Broadband let you connect without signing a contract. Those are the providers to go for.
The cable squeeze
Fibre to the Node and Cable customers share another point of potential slowdown – and it’s right in front of your nose. That ugly green box in the street where you and all your neighbours hook into the NBN or cable internet can only handle so much data at the one time. And at peak hours, it’s these services that are the most likely to become congested (long-time cable customers will know this phenomenon from years of experience).
FTTN nodes can be upgraded to increase capacity if they’re the culprit (usually NBNco will be the ones responsible for this happening). However, cable internet users might have to hold on for the handover of their service to the NBN as part of the rollout. The NBN plans to use newer technology on those old cables to boost speed and capacity, though for many that’s a few years away yet – and for many, it now looks like they’ll be getting the superior Fibre to the Curb (FTTC) instead.
And don’t forget, if you’re on FTTN, that the distance between you and that big green box on the street has a direct impact on the maximum speed you can get. If you head into your modem’s settings pages in a web browser you’ll find it’ll usually report what the maximum available speed is. There’s no point being on a 100Mbps plan if your connection is only capable of 25Mbps, so be sure to check before upgrading to a faster plan.
How do I test my speed, anyway?
There’s a fairly comprehensive range of speed-testing services online – your own ISP may even have one of their own – but the goal when doing a speed test is to connect to the closest server to your location as possible. Veteran speed testing website Speedtest.net can do exactly that automatically, and it’s become the go-to for millions of people. It downloads and uploads test data to and from your computer or device, then gives you an easy to understand result for both speed and latency, as well as a rating for how you compare to the rest of Australia’s internet users. You can sign up for a free account and it will then save the results of all your tests. Potentially useful if you’re trying to convince your ISP that the evening slowdown is their fault!
Some have suggested that there are ISPs who deliberately prioritise Speedtest.net traffic to make themselves look better than they are; try a few other speed test services as well to get a better overall picture. A great alternative is offered by Netflix – Fast.com – which uses Netflix’s own servers to give you a quick speed result that means something in the real world!
Will it get better?
The very structure of the NBN has been blamed for much of the “peak hour slowdown” problem, but it’s taking steps to improve things. The prices charged to ISPs are being reduced to encourage them to buy more capacity, and any good ISP will be right onto that. If yours stubbornly refuses to do anything about congestion – and you’re sure it’s not a problem at your end – then all you can do is vote with your feet and move to another ISP. And remember, you do get what you pay for; if that low low price for unlimited NBN sounds too good to be true, it probably is!