Slow downloads? Look to Wi-Fi first, then blame your ISP

Q. My download speeds seem much slower than advertised. How can I verify that I’m getting what I paid for, and what can I do if I’m not? 

A. In most cases, you’re debugging not one connection but two: the access your Internet provider brings to your house, and the Wi-Fi network that distributes it to most devices in your home.

Start by getting third-party measurements of the download and upload speeds your computer sees at the bandwidth-measurement sites Speedtest.net and M-Lab. Those two, like Netflix’s more recent, download-only speed gauge Fast.com, run in your browser. Speedtest and M-Lab, along with OpenSignal, also offer mobile apps.

If they all agree that your downloads are dragging, you might as well start with your Wi-Fi, because that’s both more likely to cause problems and easier to debug.

The simplest way to see if your wireless network is letting you down is to cut out of the connection: If you have a laptop or desktop with an Ethernet port, run a network cable directly from your router to that computer.

But since many laptops and almost all tablets don’t have an Ethernet port, you may have to start by moving the device closer to the router and then tinkering with the router’s settings. For instance, if it offers 5 Ghz Wi-Fi, try switching to that faster but shorter-range frequency to avoid congestion in the more widely-used 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi frequency.

Are you getting what you paid for out of your Wi-Fi speeds?© Thinkstock Are you getting what you paid for out of your Wi-Fi speeds?

If your router is more than a few years old, you may want to replace it with a newer model. “Routers have gotten much better in the last three or four years,” observed Dave Burstein, a telecom analyst and editor of Fast Net News.

If you can’t find a fault in your Wi-Fi, it could very well be your Internet provider at fault. The Federal Communications Commission’s most recent “Measuring Broadband America”study found that phone-line-based DSL was especially unreliable compared to cable and fiber-optic connections, but not all of the cable and fiber providers surveyed were as reliable.

For instance, that December 2016 report found Frontier’s fiber varied much more than Verizon’s. Among cable operators, Charter, Comcast, Optimum and Time Warner Cable delivered advertised speeds more often than Cox and Mediacom.

Ralph Brown, chief technology officer at CableLabs, said cable operators should have the technology to stay ahead of growing appetites for data. “It’s relatively easy to add capacity,” he said. That wasn’t always the case: “Early days, understanding the capacity requirements and peak capacity requirements was a bit of an art.”

It wouldn’t hurt to check with neighbors, especially within a block or two, to see if they’re seeing the same issues. The more evidence you can bring to your provider, the better your odds of convincing them—the only people who can fix the problem—to address your concern.

“Give them as much detail as possible, such as when and how often you see the problem as well as what lights come on the modem,” advised Burstein.

He added one bit of advice you’ll probably hear the first time you call, and maybe every time: “Turn off everything and then turn things back on. That resets everything and surprisingly often makes a difference.”

Rob Pegoraro