• 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.

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Mobile Broadband

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One of the primary reasons why your internet connection might be slow is because you’re using a mobile broadband service. This type of broadband uses your phone’s network to connect to the internet, and as such, the speed will be affected by how good your phone reception is. Even if some mobile networks can offer speeds at the same level of a fixed-line connection (such as  Telstra’s BigPond), the speeds are often not as consistent, and you might find that certain activities - such as streaming video - will be more difficult to do on a mobile broadband connection. This means that you’re still going to be limited by your phone reception.

Any interference can drop a connection out, 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.

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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. Otherwise, you can also purchase a fixed location home broadband service – it’ll cost more, but the speeds will be better and more consistent.

NBN and Cable

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More mysterious than weak mobile connections are the poor speeds experienced by customers on stable, fixed-line connections like NBN or Cable (fibre-optic connection). Mobile Broadband is a sprinkler - NBN 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. For a fixed-line connected in the NBN, distance is the biggest determining factor of your speed. The connection will come out of the ground, into your house, and connect to a wall-mounted NBN Box. This box is what connects everything together – but it has limits as to how far it will work. If you’re right next door to the NBN box, you may get a service that runs at 100Mbps - but if you live further away (say 50m or 100m), your speed could drop to 20Mbps, or even less.

What can be done? Well, if you’re in the middle of a build and are finishing off walls – put the NBN box somewhere that is convenient for everyone. If you already have a connection installed and it doesn’t reach where you want it, you can purchase a Wi-Fi range extender. These devices will connect to the NBN box (via Ethernet cable), and then broadcast that signal across your house. You’ll still be connected through the NBN Box, but there won’t be any distance penalty for being further away from it.

Cable has none of these limitations, though it does have its own issues. For instance, if your connection is slow and the cable that connects to your house is old (like more than 20 years old) – you may find it’s simply worn out. The copper wires can only carry so much data, and over time they will end up carrying less. In these situations, a technician needs to be called in to replace the cable, and your speeds will be back to normal.

2. Congestion on the network. Another common problem that can affect your speed is congestion on the network. This happens when too many people are trying to use the internet at the same time, and can be caused by something as simple as everyone coming home from work and turning on their devices all at once. What can be done? Unfortunately, not much. You just have to wait it out, or try to use the internet at a different time of day.

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With Cable, congestion 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.

With Mobile, congestion 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 with 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!

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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 number of cables under your desk. None of these issues will cripple your connection by themselves, but over time, they will impact 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.