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

Is your Internet going too slow when you try and watch Netflix? You may be suffering Internet congestion, so let us help you identify 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 100MB/s 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 2MB/s. 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 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 data demand from those devices that connect to the service, 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 something called CVC, a fee that nbn charges service providers for bandwidth access to the NBN. Many providers aren't buying enough to supply all their customers at peak times so speeds slow down across the board.

If your Internet connection is sluggish and you think it's congestion, you can put pressure on your service provider to improve things, but first, you should gather evidence.

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45 Mbps

Typical peak evening speed

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 connected 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 or tablet, turn off consoles, and make sure nothing else is connected while you undertake the following tests.
  4. At regular intervals during the day, and over the period of a couple of days, perform regular speed tests. It takes 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 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 ping, the download speed and the upload speed.
  9. You can expect some slowdown at night (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, switching providers might clear 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 might 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 network, or even the machine you're using to test. If you have multiple devices on the same network, this might be as easy as seeing whether they’re all performing the same.

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 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 it has an on/off switch you can push that. If not, simply unplug it. Always give it a minute or so just to be sure, then switch it back on.

If that doesn’t help the speeds of your wired devices then it might be time to call your ISP. If you're testing wireless devices, you should try adjusting your Wi-Fi signal first.

Fix your Wi-Fi signal

If you’ve already tried turning your router off and on again, there might be other culprits behind slow speeds on your home network.

1. Try moving your router: Wi-Fi signals might have a hard time going through walls and travelling longer distances. To make sure the problem isn’t the location of your wireless router, try moving the placement of it. If things don't improve, consider the age of your router, as it might just be out of date. If distance or location is what’s getting your connection down, then moving the router is likely to help. If this isn’t really an option then extenders or network accessories may be the way to go.
2. Does your router need an upgrade? If you’ve switched to the NBN, you likely got a new modem and router when you switched. 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, there’s a good chance you can get a substantial speed boost with a new router.
3. Try switching channels: Wi-Fi routers have different channels, and some are fuller than others and can even overlap each other. You probably need to dive into the settings of your router to select different channels and try a few to see if that makes a difference. Note that this is more likely to work with older 2.4GHz routers than 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 might be 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’s probably worth a try again anyway.

Swap providers

If you’ve tried everything and it doesn’t work, and the signs of congestion are clear (fast at day, slow at night) then it might be time to think about switching providers.

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

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

Or, 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 reasonable chance improved 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….

    • finder Customer Care
      BrodieFebruary 24, 2016Staff

      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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