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Is your Internet service fast enough for streaming?

Make sure you're getting the data speed you need—and pay for

Published: June 17, 2015 04:20 PM

Despite the high price you're paying for what's supposed to be blazingly fast Internet service, has your Netflix started streaming as slowly as a three-toed sloth? If yes, it's time to make sure you're getting the speed you need, both from your Internet service provider and the setup in your home.  

Netflix and others say your Internet service needs to run at at least 5Mbps for streaming HD shows and movies—streaming 4K videos requires much greater speed—but 5Mbps is sufficient for only one user at a time. And given how much data Americans consume, 5Mbps isn't going to cut it since performance can suffer as your broadband speed is split among more simultaneous users and/or activities. Deloitte LLP’s recent Digital Democracy Survey of 2,000 consumers age 14 or older, 90 percent of respondents said they multitasked—browsing the Web and texting, for example—while watching programs. 

The FCC considers 10Mbps to 25Mbps reasonable for households that stream video, but heavy data users might want even more robust connections of up to 50Mbps or more. The good news is that often you can upgrade from 25Mbps to 50Mbps service for as little as $10 more per month. 

But even if you pay for faster broadband, you might not get that speed boost all the time. Cable Internet service can slow down during the evening when more people in your area are also streaming. Congestion can also occur farther up the line when data travels though third-party networks, which can also get bogged down by traffic.

Check your speed

You can check your speed using websites such as Ookla's 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. And note that most of the focus is on download speed, which is important for streaming movies and shows at home. If you share a lot of photos, post videos on YouTube, or play online games, you might want to consider upload speeds as well, which are generally much slower.

Check our buying guide and Ratings for wireless routers. And if you're unhappy with your streaming speed service, find a a new Internet service provider.

Slowdown culprits

Even if the broadband speed coming into your home is satisfactory, there are other reasons for slow service. One culprit might be an older modem or router. Most of us now connect several devices to our network using Wi-Fi, so be sure your wireless gear is also up to snuff.

At the very least your router should support the 802.11n standard; if it doesn’t and you rent a router from your ISP, ask ifor a newer model. Many routers now support a newer standard, called 802.11ac, which is capable of faster speeds and more directional signaling.

If Wi-Fi 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 an issue, say from a microwave oven or a cordless-phone system, consider a dual-band router that can operate on both the 2.4GHz 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 e-mail 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 Wi-Fi problems is to connect your computer directly to a speed-test site before the connection reaches your Wi-Fi router and compare it to the speed you get connecting via Wi-Fi.

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 any issues.

Hopefully, all these tips will help ensure a faster, more reliable Internet connection.

—James K. Willcox

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