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What is Internet congestion and how can I test for it?

Internet congestion makes for a bad online experience, so here's what you can do to narrow down the problem.

When I log on to my home cable Internet in the middle of a weekday, I get great speeds. Typically a 10ms ping or less, and blistering 100Mbps speed.

But now that we live in the age of Netflix, around 5pm to 11pm, I will get pings in excess of 250ms and speeds as low as 2Mbps. Not only is this a near unusable pace for most of my needs (streaming, swapping files to and from Dropbox, gaming online), but it’s also well below the speed I’d expect from a cable connection – with the speed booster pack – sold by my ISP.

Does this situation sound familiar?

The cause of this slowdown is Internet congestion and it has become quite a problem for a lot of consumers across Australia since the launch of streaming services like Netflix and Stan. Streaming Internet TV requires a constant and consistent flow of data from the particular service to your device, and as more and more people request movie and TV footage to be pumped through the cables that deliver the Internet at the same time, the slower your speed gets.

With the rollout of the NBN, this issue has continued thanks to CVC, a fee that nbnco charges service providers for bandwidth access to the NBN. Many providers aren't buying enough bandwidth to supply all their customers with high speeds during peak times, and consequently speeds slow down across the board.

If your Internet connection is sluggish and you think it's due to congestion, you can put pressure on your service provider to improve things. First, however, you should gather evidence to support your case.

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How to test if your Internet connection has congestion issues

finder Broadband Speed Test

  1. Bookmark the finder Broadband Speed Test.
  2. Make sure your PC is connected directly to your modem via a cable – not via Wi-Fi or through a router, as this will leave your results open to debate.
  3. Make sure only your PC is active on your home network; deactivate Wi-Fi devices like your mobile phone or tablet, turn off video game consoles and make sure nothing else is connected while you undertake the following tests.
  4. At regular intervals during the day over the period of a couple of days, perform regular speed tests. It should take around one minute each time.
  5. When the test has run its course, record the details, preferably via a screenshot.
  6. Repeat the process regularly at different times of the day and record the results.
  7. Collect a good sample size.
  8. Once you have a collection of screenshots across the course of a day, compare the recorded ping values, download speeds and upload speeds.
  9. Some measure of slowdown at night is unavoidable (around 15% is reasonable) but if there is a dramatic difference then there's a good chance you have a congestion issue. A high speed during the day proves your wiring and home infrastructure is not the problem.
  10. Show this data to your ISP and demand action.

Making sure the problem isn’t on your end

In the age of the NBN and variable CVC, switching providers can be a way of clearing up any congestion issues. But if the problem’s on your end of the line, this might not do much to help.

Before taking your business elsewhere, you'll want to make sure the problem’s not on your end.

Check your hardware

You need to work out whether the problem might be with your home network or even the machine you're using to run the speed test. If you have multiple devices on the same network, this might be as easy as seeing whether they all exhibit the same slowdown.

For accuracy, you should always test your connection by running a cable from your router to a computer, but you can also test using mobile devices to make sure it's not just your Wi-Fi network that's slowing things down.

  1. Check multiple devices in equivalent ways. That might mean testing with a phone and a tablet, both on the same wireless network in the same room, for example. If all tests turn out to be equally slow then you might be looking at a problem with your modem or router.
  2. Reset your modem and router. Turn your Internet off and on again by switching off both the router and the modem. These are the "Internet boxes" that are most likely connected to a cable in the wall. If they have on/off switches, you can push that. If not, simply unplug them. Always leave the devices off for a minute or so before turning them back on, just to be safe.

If resetting your modem and router doesn’t help the performance of your wired devices, it might be time to call your ISP. If you're testing wireless devices, there are a few more steps to take before picking up the phone.

Fix your Wi-Fi signal

  1. Relocate your router: Wi-Fi signals have a hard time going through thick walls and travelling longer distances. To make sure the problem isn’t the location of your wireless router, try moving it to different locations around your house. If things don't improve, consider the age of your router, as it might lack the capacity to deliver consistently high speeds or may simply be malfunctioning. If moving the router does fix your speed woes but permanent relocation isn't a viable solution, you might want to consider purchasing a Wi-Fi range extender or a wireless repeater to strengthen the signal around your house.
  2. Does your router need an upgrade? If you’ve switched to the NBN, you likely got a new modem and router as part of the deal. In this case, it’s probably not out of date. However, if you’ve had the same router for more than a couple of years, it's possible that the router isn't compatible with the latest network technologies or that it simply lacks the power to deliver the speeds you're after. In this case, upgrading to a new router could result in a substantial speed boost.
  3. Try switching Wi-Fi channels: Wi-Fi routers communicate over wireless channels so as to avoid interference with other wireless devices. Most routers support quite a few different channels, but depending on your local network environment some may be more crowded than others and can even overlap each other. You'll need to dive into the settings of your router to change your Wi-Fi channel, but it's worth testing performance across a few different ones to see if that makes a difference. Note that this is more likely to work with older 2.4GHz routers than newer 5GHz ones.

Call your ISP

After all this testing, if you’re sure that the problem isn’t on your end of the line it's probably time to call your ISP. They may be able to offer further advice about identifying the issue. They’ll probably ask you to turn the modem off and on again, so humour them. It can't hurt.

Swap providers

Once you’ve exhausted every possibility available to you and the signs of Internet congestion are clear (fast at day, slow at night), it might be time to think about switching providers.

If you’re currently on a fixed-term contract and looking at hefty early termination charges for switching providers, it might be well worth spending the time to gather evidence of unreasonably slow speeds. Depending on your current provider's terms and conditions, this might help you get termination fees waived, or even a free or cheaper upgrade to a faster connection.

Failing that, you can simply say goodbye and take your business elsewhere. Depending on the state of your area and network, you may be able to clear up any congestion issues simply by switching.

Alternatively, you might look at higher speed plans from the same provider or a different one. There are plenty of providers out there, so there’s a good chance better value for money, and a faster connection, can be found somewhere else.

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2 Responses

  1. Default Gravatar
    ChristopherFebruary 20, 2016

    Kind of useless, my ISP has acknowledged the congestion and just said that there are no plans of an upgrade. They’re just leaving it as is, only problem is. the congestion isn’t just peak hours of the night its from about 8am-2am through the week, and pretty much all hours of the weekend. I’m on the maximum priced 100/40 plan and their offer to fix it, is to discount me $20 from one bill….

    • Default Gravatar
      BrodieFebruary 24, 2016

      Hi Christopher,

      Sounds quite frustrating. What kind of speeds are you seeing for uploads and downloads? If you can’t reach a solution past a $20 credit with your provider I would recommend contacting them via their Facebook or Twitter. You’re much more likely to get a speedy response, and hopefully, resolution that way.

      All the best,

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