There was a time when obsessing over internet speed was a niche sport. Just years ago, idle bros were bragging about their Ookla speed readings as a “yardstick of virility,” gamers were trading tips on how to shave milliseconds off their ping rate, and geopolitics wonks were fretting over their country’s place in global internet connection rankings.
But the contest for bandwidth has become more widespread and consequential, with the rise of remote working and homeschooling due to the pandemic. A recent Pew trends survey found that over half of Americans now consider home internet an essential utility. Internet traffic spiked by 25% globally during the early months of the pandemic, but this hasn’t slowed down speeds per se. MIT Tech Review reports that the Covid-19 crisis is driving providers to embark on major infrastructure upgrades to meet the demand. If your internet is still sluggish, the issue may be more local.
Here are a few pointers for supercharging your home set-up:
Disconnect unused apps and gadgets
Brian X. Chen of the New York Times, who claims to have achieved a “work-from-home nirvana,” says limiting the number of devices connected to your wi-fi network will help immensely. “Fewer gadgets and fewer work apps,” Chen writes. “That principle can guide us to a simpler, less frustrating setup that enables us to work well with our colleagues.” If your connection is down to a crawl, try disconnecting your smart appliances or pausing a video download, which tends to take up most bandwidth.
Mind the line of sight
Where you place the router matters, warns Jordan Scoggins, Quartz’s IT director. “The most critical thing you can do when working wirelessly is ensure your mysterious black box is close by,” he says, noting that it’s best to position it at least table height. “If you can visually see your router from where you’re working, that’s ace.” Heavy bookshelves, thick walls, and mirrors tend to block the signal.
Big metal objects, in particular, can be a problem, as Nicole Weigard outlines in the Houston Chronicle. “A wireless signal has no problem passing through a wooden desk but a metal desk can pose a real problem,” she writes. “Other common offenders include filing cabinets, metal shelving, pipes, and walls.”
Upgrade, split, and extend
A newer router will improve your connection. If it’s more than five years old, it’s time to replace it, given that the US Federal Communications Commission redefined broadband in 2015 and allowed routers to transmit signals 20 times faster. In the US, dual-band models with frequencies at 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) and 5 GHz are readily available. The 2.4 GHz channel offers broader coverage throughout the house, making it ideal for smart devices. The more robust 5G band is ideal for work, video calls, or homeschooling, but know that the signal covers a shorter range, so be sure to work close to the router. Boosters or mesh systems like Amazon Eero or Google Wifi can eliminate weak spots throughout your house.
Share and protect
A mess of gizmos won’t improve your internet speeds if there are just way too many users logging on at the same time. The FCC suggests creating a wifi sharing schedule with family members, and anticipate the times when some will need greater bandwidth for “streaming video, play graphics-intensive games, use virtual private networks for work, and video conference.” Be mindful of unauthorized users who are tapping into your connection. Network monitoring apps like Fing, Network Analyzer, or Google’s WiFi Thief Detector reveal the MAC and IP address of “wifi thieves” so you can block them. And of course, be sure that your wifi has a secure password. (Here’s a tip from cybersecurity crusader Edward Snowden if you need ideas on selecting hack-proof security credentials.)
—Dan Kopf contributed reporting to this post.