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.

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What you need to know

  • Internet congestion occurs when customer demand exceeds the capabilities of an Internet provider. This is especially common during the evening when the largest proportion of customers are accessing the Internet at the same time.
  • An Internet provider's typical evening speeds are a good indication of how susceptible it is to Internet congestion.
  • If you're experiencing Internet congestion, running speed tests and recording the results can help you present a compelling case to your Internet provider.

When I log on to my home cable Internet in the middle of a weekday, I get great speeds. But now that we live in the age of Netflix, from around 5pm to 11pm, my Internet speeds drop dramatically. It's bad enough that many of my standard Internet activities (streaming, swapping files to and from Dropbox, gaming online) become impossible.

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, especially 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 each person's speed gets.

Fortunately, there are a few steps you can take to diagnose and potentially fix the issue.

Step 1: Confirm you're suffering Internet congestion

  1. Bookmark the Finder Broadband Speed Test page.
  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 a speed test. It should take around one minute each time.
  5. When the test has run its course, record the details, preferably via a screenshot.
  6. Collect a good sample size, ideally from both weekdays and weekends and spanning morning, midday and evening periods.
  7. Compare the recorded ping values, download speeds and upload speeds you've recorded to see whether they change dramatically throughout the course of the day.
  8. 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.

Step 2: Make sure the problem isn’t on your end

If your speed test results show a significant decline in the evening hours, it's time to rule out the possibility that the problem is on your end.

Check your hardware

If you have multiple devices connected to your home network, perform speed tests on all of them to see whether they all exhibit the same slowdown. If not, your Internet woes may be due to a problem with the hardware or software of a specific device.

When testing different devices, ensure that your testing process and environment is consistent. This 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.

In that case, the first step is to reset your modem and router. 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 Internet provider. 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.

Step 3: Call your Internet provider

If you've thoroughly tested your home network across multiple devices and they all exhibit the same performance issues, it's time to call your Internet provider. Its technical support team may be able to offer further advice about identifying and resolving the issue. They’ll probably ask you to turn the modem off and on again, so humour them. It can't hurt.

Step 4: Find a new Internet provider

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Typical peak evening speed

You've tested, documented and discussed the issue with your Internet provider to no avail. It might be time to bite the bullet and think about switching to a new Internet provider.

Thankfully, it's a lot easier to see how well different providers handle Internet congestion these days since most advertise the typical evening speeds their customers experience during the hours of 7:00PM to 11:00PM. By comparing plans based on these speeds, you can choose one that delivers a level of peak-hour performance sufficient to meet your needs.

Before you make the switch, however, be sure to check whether you're on a fixed-term contract with your current Internet provider. If so, you may have to pay hefty termination charges to end your contract early. In this case, it might be worth presenting the results of your Internet congestion speed tests to your provider since it could help you get your termination fees waived, or perhaps a free or cheaper upgrade to a faster connection.

Compare high-speed NBN plans in the table below


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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,
      Brodie

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