Why is my internet connection so slow?

  • A look at what can slow down your connection
  • Pipes VS Sprinklers
  • Why your service provider matters

Advertising for internet connections would have you believe that you’ll be flying along the information superhighway at light speeds on a magic carpet made of pure magic. But this bag of mixed metaphors is an illusion- speeds can be affected by a number of factors, regardless of how good the underlying technology is.

Mobile Broadband

Most customers by now have had an experience at one time or another of a seriously compromised broadband connection that is either slow or drops out on a regular basis. The most frequent issue is with Mobile Broadband – this is a connection that is transmitted via a mobile phone network, to a ‘dongle’ (USB modem) or other plug in device. The answer for this one is simple enough- despite the fact that some mobile networks can achieve speeds upwards of 20Mbps, the simple fact is that any interference can drop a connection out, or interrupt a download, or slow down a YouTube stream. A tree, a flock of birds, double brick housing – all wireless connections rely on line-of-sight to achieve a signal, and anything in the way can complicate that. If the internet is a water supply, mobile broadband is like trying to fill your cup from a sprinkler. Even if that sprinkler is chucking out a LOT of water, it’s still everywhere but in your cup.

This issue can be assisted with a bit of work. Though they’re not often advertised, most providers will be able to set you up with a proper gateway modem, which runs on AC power and stays in a fixed location in your home. This modem will be able to gain a stronger signal, thanks to a bigger antenna, and will be able to provide a short range Wi-Fi connection in your home, so everyone can wirelessly connect. What’s more, these modems can be connected to an external antenna, which can be mounted to a roof and grab an even stronger signal.

This can set you back three or four hundred dollars. For people in ADSL black spots or far regional areas, it’s pretty much the only option right now. For people who have a mobile service to use while they’re out of the house, there are fixed locations modems that you can plug your USB device into, to get the most out of your connection at home. Vodafone (1300 106 571) has a Wi-Fi sharing dock that can do this, as do Optus (1300 768 194).

ADSL and Cable

More mysterious than weak mobile connections are the poor speeds experienced by customers on stable, fixed line connections like ADSL (copper telephone line) or Cable (fibre-optic connection). Mobile Broadband is a sprinkler- ADSL and Cable are pipes, with internet flowing directly to your computer- so what could go wrong?
It turns out plenty can go wrong. Here’s a short list of the most common issues that will affect your data speed.

1. Distance (ADSL only). This is the single biggest determining factor of your speed. The connection will come out of the exchange at the top advertised speed, but on the way to your house (the dreaded space known as “the last mile”), the signal will degrade. At 2000m, your speed will be cut nearly in half; at 3000m, by a third, and at about 5km, the signal will degrade altogether. Most people live within 4km of an exchange, but in regional areas, many do not.

2. Contention. A telephone wire is made of copper, which offers little resistance in comparison with its price. But even a solid gold wire would peter out eventually. The same can’t be said for Fibre Optic Cables, which are made of glass, and will bounce around an electrical signal for dozens of kilometers with no loss. So distance is almost a non-issue with a cable connection. But Contention is a speed killer for both ADSL and Cable. In fact, Contention hurts mobile broadband as well.

Contention is the issue of competing with your neighbours for internet speed (bandwidth). On ADSL, contention begins at the exchange, where some companies use a Contention Ratio of 50:1 (the pricier providers are usually using a contention ratio of 20:1). That’s 50 of your local neighbours, competing for the same slice of internet. Of course, not everyone gets on at once and does the same thing at once – but at 7pm, when everyone is online and downloading their favourite program off ABC’s iVew, things can get choppy.

With Cable, Contention begins in your street. A Cable connection is faster out of the blocks, so even if Telstra or Optus are using a 50:1 contention ratio, your slice is still a little bigger. And besides, finding 50 people in the same neighbourhood is easy; 50 people using Cable in the same street is less likely. So Cable wins out for the most part. But in some rare cases, everyone in the street is on that cable point, and things can slow down below ADSL speeds.

With Mobile, Contention begins right at your hand, because there’s no pipe at all carrying you back to the network- it’s all wireless, so you’re fighting for bandwidth every step of the way. No matter how fast or strong Mobile gets, this is going to be the big issue facing mobile broadband users.

3. Your equipment. As time goes by, this gets to be less and less an issue. Most people rock a computer that has enough power in it to overcome many issues. Other people are using a computer built elegantly enough to not have to overcome those problems in the first place (*cough* Mac *cough*). But it all plays a part in how you experience your connection at your desk. Let’s go back to the water analogy – let’s say you have clean, sturdy pipes, ferrying water at high pressures right up to your door, where it then travels along another set of clean, well made pipes. Then it gets to your tap (in internet terms, this would be your modem), which is also well made. You turn on the tap and let the water pour into a broken plastic cup with holes and spiders in it. When you drink that water…It’s all spiders!

Yep, nothing about how your service provider sends you your signal will be worth a damn if your computer is full of ‘holes’. This can mean a slow processor, lots of viruses, or (and we say this with love for our readers) a bad case of PEBKAC: Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair.

Thankfully, these issues can be fixed with a bit of practice and some smart hardware management.

Things to Avoid

1. NEVER install a program that promises to 'speed up your computer" or your internet connection, without first consulting technical support. These are often just smokescreens for viruses- hackers know that everyone wants a faster connection, so it's an easy way to get unsuspecting users to install malicious software.

2. ALWAYS check with your ISP first to make sure you're not a low speed profile. These are sometimes used to provide a more stable connection in areas with poor overall line speeds. And sometimes you can just be put on these by accident.

3. DO make sure your computer, and the surrounding area, are clean. This means the obvious - have an up-to-date anti-virus program, install Windows updates and get rid of any programs you don't use - and the not-so-obvious. Cat hair settling on the blades of the fan at the back of your computer WILL slow down the computer's operation. Make sure there's room for ventilation between your computer and the wall, and limit the amount of cables under your desk. None of these issues will cripple your connection by themselves, but over time, they will impact on the performance of your system, and make your connection feel slower.

Are there other issues? Sure. But these are the big ones. Your service provider can do lots of little things behind the scenes to make your experience better, and things are getting better all the time. Here’s some providers that address these issues well right now:

MyNetFone – A lot of companies offer Naked Broadband (that’s ADSL with no home phone connection at all) as an afterthought, because they like the extra revenue that comes with people making telephone calls. That’s fair enough. But MyNetFone are focused on providing great Naked deals, like their 500GB plan for $59.95 – with free connection and free modem on a 12 month contract. What’s more, they specifically advertise a low contention ratio. Call MyNetFone today on 1300 106 571 for more info.

TPG – One of the issues that’s a little tricky to get into is ‘backhaul’. When your connection gets to the exchange, it has to be carried back out to the big undersea cables that terminate in Sydney, and connect to the rest of the world. Not only does TPG have a big backhaul network of its own – it also owns its own undersea cables! This gives TPG a lot more control in making sure your speed is satisfactory – and lets them give you an amazing amount of data at low prices. TPG’s $60 Unlimited Bundle (with a phone line) or $70 Naked Unlimited (with no phone line) are still industry beaters. Call on 1300 106 571 for more details.

Eftel At the telephone exchange, your little copper wire is plugged into a company’s DSLAM (“Dee-Slam”), basically a big wall of equipment with another connection behind it. A newer technology has come along, called an MSAN. Putting aside the alphabet soup, this is..um..”more good”. Eftel is rolling this technology out to provide faster connections, and offers some excellent deals on it- like Unlimited internet and calls (including mobiles) for $80. Call Eftel on 1300 106 571 to see if you’re on their network today.