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Despite the high price you pay for internet service, it’s easy to find yourself frustrated by slow speeds. That’s especially likely if you’re one of the many households cutting the traditional pay-TV cord and streaming more entertainment—including Ultra High Definition (4K) movies and TV shows.

If your internet seems slow, it’s time to make sure you’re getting the speed you need, both from your internet service provider and the WiFi setup in your home. But the first step is to have a realistic idea of how much broadband you need.

More on Streaming

Broadband speeds are expressed in megabits per second (Mbps), or how much data travels to your home each second. A typical email contains barely any data, and the bit rate doesn’t really matter. A 4K video consists of tons of data, and you need decent broadband to stream it. You can see the bit rates needed to stream a few types of entertainment in the chart below. (“Kbps” indicates kilobits per second.)

Even if you are paying for fast internet service, the speed you get can fluctuate, with the speed dropping at peak viewing times, such as right after work.

During these times, services such as Netflix may compensate for a slower connection by downgrading the video quality you see. And if most of your streaming devices are connected to the internet wirelessly, the WiFi network in your home—which is created by your router—can also affect performance. (See “How WiFi Makes Waves,” below).

A graph showing internet or broadband speeds needed to stream different types of entertainment
There's a huge range in the bit rate needed to stream different kinds of entertainment.

Today's Broadband

Broadband networks of just a few years ago would have sputtered and stalled if faced with today’s consumers and their appetite for streaming services.

Netflix and other streaming companies say your internet service needs to run at least 5 Mbps for streaming high-definition shows and movies, but that’s sufficient for only one user at a time. As you can see from the chart above, 18 Mbps is really the minimum speed most homes will need for streaming 4K movies and TV shows from Amazon Prime Video and Netflix. (Netflix recommends a 25 Mbps speed for streaming 4K, while Amazon says you’ll need at least 15 Mbps for the highest-quality video.)

That means many homes with multiple active streamers will need internet service that can provide at least 50 Mbps speed.

The good news is that networks are getting faster. The average download speed in the U.S. jumped 35 percent last year, topping 95 Mbps, according to Ookla. That’s the company behind Speedtest, a tool consumers can use to measure their home’s internet speed. Fast download speed is critical for watching streaming movies and TV shows at home.

Upload speeds also jumped, to more than 32 Mbps, according to Ookla. That matters if you play online games or share a lot of photos or videos online. 

Both those average speeds are high, but many of us still use ISPs that deliver slower broadband, or we just pay for a lower tier of service.

And if your household has a separate 4K video streaming in every room, things may slow down considerably no matter how fast a connection you have to your ISP.

You can check your speed using Speedtest or another website. Space out the tests over a few days, and at varying times of day, to get an accurate measure of how consistent those speeds will be. You want to make sure your ISP is providing the speed you’re paying for and that it’s fast enough for your needs. If not, call your ISP to ask why your speed is slower than promised or to ask about upgrading to a faster tier of service.

Diagram showing how a home's broadband connection and WiFi network contribute to the internet speed on a smart TV or other device

Slowdown Culprits—and Solutions

Assuming the broadband speed coming into your home is satisfactory, there are other reasons you may be experiencing slow service. One culprit might be an older modem or router. Most of us now connect several devices to our network using WiFi, so wireless gear that was fine a few years ago might no longer be up to snuff.

WiFi technology advances steadily, with each new generation providing better capabilities. For instance, this year a new WiFi standard called 802.11ax is beginning to roll out, and the first routers to comply with it will soon start appearing at retailers.

“The new standard brings higher speeds, especially in situations where lots of users are online at the same time,” says Rich Fisco, who leads router testing at Consumer Reports. However, devices such as laptops and tablets can’t take advantage of those capabilities yet. So, he says, “There’s no need to worry about it for a couple of years.”

The current standard is called 802.11ac. If you rent a router from your ISP, ask for a newer model that supports 802.11ac. If you own your router and it’s an older model, consider replacing it with one that supports 802.11ac. 

If WiFi reception in your home is spotty, try moving the router to a more central location. Also move it away from obstructions, such as walls or ceilings, and never place the router in a closet or cabinet.

If you believe that interference is a problem—say, from a microwave oven or a cordless-phone system—consider using a dual-band router that can operate on both the 2.4-gigahertz and 5GHz frequencies. Switching to the higher 5GHz band can help avoid interference from other devices that operate in the 2.4GHz range. Some models let you use both frequencies simultaneously, so you can stream videos using the 5GHz band and email and text using the 2.4GHz frequency.

If you think your wireless connection is to blame, try using a wired connection to see whether performance improves. Another way to isolate WiFi problems is to connect your computer directly to a speed-test site before the connection reaches your WiFi router and compare it to the speed you get connecting via WiFi.

Finally, if you’re having intermittent problems, try rebooting your modem and wireless routers by unplugging the power connections for about 30 seconds. Sometimes simply restarting these devices will help clear up performance problems. And make sure to keep your router’s firmware updated, too—that can help with performance and with security.