Oct. 8, 2020

Upgrading your internet? make sure you've got the right gear


An upgrade to our home internet lead me down the path to realizing just how much goes into ensuring getting the best connection possible.

Transcript

Opener

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Words of Tim Podcast. My name is Tariq Monther, you can call me Tim, I hope you’re all doing well and you’re staying safe and staying sane. 

Intro

Let me tell you a story. We’ve had a 100 Mb connection at home for a couple of years and we recently upgraded to a 500 Mb connection about a month ago. The problem was that after the upgrade, no one at home noticed any difference; downloads and load times were all the same. Something was obviously wrong. We ran speed tests, rebooted our devices, tried different downloads, and everything was the same. Long story short, I finally realized what the problem was. Our devices were just not compatible with high-speed internet. So, if you’re upgrading to a high-speed internet plan, there are vital things that you need to know about first. Let me break it down for you.

Internet Bandwidth

The first thing I want to say is that not everyone knows that their internet bandwidth is actually measured in megabits and not megabytes. There are 8 bits in a byte, so a 500 Mb plan from Du or Etisalat gives you download rates up to 62.5 megabytes per second, not 500 megabytes.

So if you have a 500 megabit plan like I do and it’s taking more than a few seconds to download the gigabyte of work files, then don’t worry as that’s normal and there’s nothing wrong with your internet.

Megabits is always written as “Mb” with a lowercase B, while Megabytes is always written as “MB” with an uppercase B. This can be very misleading to the general public as megabits is not a commonly used unit. So right off the bat, you need to be aware of what your internet plan can do for you.

Supported Hardware

I had a network switch in my room which I used to connect my PC, laptop, PS4, and wireless router. A switch allows you to connect multiple devices to a network using a wired connection. Routers also have that functionality, but the one I had only had 2 ethernet ports on it and that wasn’t enough for all the devices I wanted to stay connected with a wired connection. What I didn’t realize after we upgraded to the 500 megabit plan is that the switch was old and only supported 100 Mb connections, so that had to go, and since my router didn’t have enough ports, that had to go too and I ended up getting a new router with enough ports for all my devices.


10/100/1000

If you’re using a wired connection, you must make sure the ethernet ports on your router or network switch support your internet bandwidth. You can find this out on the website, the box, or on the backside of the router above the ports, and it should say something like 10/100 which means the ports have support for 10 and 100 megabit connections, or 10/100/1000 for support of 10, 100, and 1000 megabit connections. It could also just say gigabit, which means the ethernet ports on the router support gigabit internet, which is 1,000 megabits. If I’m not mistaken, most of the time the speed mentioned applies to every single port in the router or switch and is not actually shared between all of them. 

Since my network switch only supported up to 100 Mbps, none of my devices were able to utilize the new 500 Mbps plan, and that’s why I saw no difference in my download speeds; it was bottlenecked by my network switch. The new router I ended up getting is the Asus RT-AX56U which had 4 gigabit ports, which means each of my connected devices are able to get up to 1 gigabit of data per second.

Ethernet cables

Besides that, you need to also make sure you’re using the right ethernet cable. There are different categories, and they’re denoted as the word cat and then the number that corresponds to the generation, and those are usually written on the cable itself. Cat 5 cables support up to 100 megabits per second, while Cat 5e cables max out at 1 gigabit. Cat 6 cables support 1 gigabit connections too, however if the cable is shorter than 55 meters (not that the average person would need anything longer than that), then it can support 10 gigabit speeds. 

If you happen to have anything lower than a Cat 5 cable, then you definitely need an upgrade. Newer cables are available everywhere and you shouldn’t have a hard time picking one up with a length that’s suitable for you. I had a bunch lying around so I had no problems there, but I thought it would be a good idea to mention it here. 

How much internet can your device handle?

The ethernet port on your computer or laptop will also need to match your internet plan. I believe that shouldn’t be a problem if you bought anything in the last couple of years as gigabit ports have become the standard these days, but if you’re using a laptop or PC from over 4 or 5 years ago, then there’s a chance that it maxes out at 100 megabits. 

That was the case with my brother’s laptop and my dad’s computer he uses for work at home. Both of them had ports that only supported 100 megabit connections. Until they upgrade their devices, there’s nothing they can do to enjoy the awesomeness of a 500 megabit internet connection.

What if you’re on WiFi?

If you use WiFi, then you’ll also need to make sure your router is compatible with your internet plan. You can easily tell which router is the right one for you based on the WiFi standard which should be clearly visible on the box. WiFi 4 or 802.11n has a theoretical max speed of 450 megabits per second, while WiFi 5 or 802.11ac can go up to 3.46 gigabits per second, and WiFi 6 or 802.11ax can reach speeds of 9.6 gigabits per second. They all have support for MIMO which stands for Multiple Input, Multiple Output and that basically means they use multiple antennas to send and receive data to and from multiple devices at the same time. MIMO is the same technology that is used with the very fast 5G mobile networks and is a primary component in what makes it so fast.

Note that the speeds that I just told you about are the theoretical maximum speeds, and those will not match the real world speeds of the routers, so you will always have to check what is the rated maximum speed that your router supports, as that will change from model to model.It should be clearly stated on the box if you want to pick one up, or if you want to check your current router and what the maximum speed it can actually handle, just look up the model number and check it out on the website.

More devices mean more WiFi

If you plan on picking up a new router, then the rule of thumb is that the higher the WiFi standard, the more devices you can connect to it, even if your internet plan is much lower than the rated maximum speed of the router. Also, the more antennas on the router, the better as that will help keeping all your devices connected efficiently. So think of all the computers, laptops, tablets, phones, smart TVs, consoles, and whatever else you or your family might have connected to a single router at all times, and make sure to account for those devices.

The Asus router I got is a WiFi 6 router capable of delivering speed of up 1,800 Mbps. I don’t have many devices connected to it and my bandwidth as I said before is just 500 Mbps, but I wanted to make sure I got something that I may not need now but may need in the future. It also helped that it wasn’t that expensive at just 600 dirhams. I think it’s one of the cheapest WiFi 6 routers I found on Amazon from a reputable company and it also supports mesh networks.

Mesh Networks

Mesh WiFi systems are pretty handy if you’d like to expand the range of your current network. The way it works is that you would buy a mesh WiFi router, which would typically be bundled with one or two nodes. You set up the router where you want, and then you spread out the nodes throughout your house as long as the nodes are within reach of each other. What the nodes then do is expand the reach of your router’s network to the otherwise unreachable areas of your house. You can add as many nodes as you want and all of them will be part of and broadcast your WiFi’s network, meaning you will stay connected to the same WiFi as you move throughout the house, as each node will know which devices are connected to it and will send it the data it has requested.

Do not mistake this to WiFi repeaters or extenders, as they operate in a different way. Repeaters create their own network, so you will have to keep manually connecting to them as you move from one network to the other, and they broadcast everything from the main WiFi router. They also tend to be slower and less efficient than a properly setup mesh network, however, they are also considerably cheaper.

My brother and father couldn’t get faster internet on their computers, but I wanted to make sure that they could do so on their phones and tablets. Since a lot of Asus routers can be used as nodes to create a mesh WiFi network, I ended up buying another one just like mine and put that in my brother's room to act as a node and expand the fast WiFi my router was broadcasting.

The difference between 2.4 and 5

The other cool thing about mesh networks is that they can broadcast in both 2.4 and 5 GHz channels, which helps in making the transfer of data between the routers and devices faster and more efficient. 

The Asus router that I got, like many others, can create networks on the 2.4 and 5 GHz channels, and the difference between the two is speed and coverage. 2.4 GHz networks have slower speeds but a better range than the much faster 5 GHz networks. 

I did some speed tests to check this and my Lenovo Yoga C930 laptop was able to get a download speed of around 306 Mb while connected to 5 GHz , and just around 83 Mb when connected to 2.4. My phone which is the Huawei P30 Pro actually reached 513 Mb on 5 GHz and around 102 Mb on 2.4 GHz. 

On the older WiFi 4 router I had which only supported 2.4 GHz, I averaged 72 Mb on my laptop and 75 Mb on my phone. So as you can see, the 2.4 GHz network on my WiFi 6 router gave me better speeds than the 2.4 GHz network on my older router.

Seeing how these two devices came out a year and a half ago before WiFi 6 was a thing, we can conclude that newer routers will still have you see a benefit in your download speeds even if your devices only support older wireless protocols. If you have high-speed wireless internet and want to utilize it to its fullest potential, make sure you get a new router that lets you create a 5 GHz network and use that while you’re closer to it, and if you have to move far away and the 5 GHz network isn’t cutting it, then switch to the 2.4 GHz network instead.

Location, location, location

Whatever you do, do not place the router on the floor and behind or under furniture, as that’s going to affect the signal strength. Ideally, your router should be in a central location to try and reach as many devices around it as possible. You should also try to keep it as elevated as you can so that it has less obstacles in the way. Metal objects and concrete walls are going to damper your connection, too, so make sure you keep the router far away from any excess metal or walls.

Keep the router away from devices that emit signals such as microwaves and fluorescent lights as those signals will cause an interference with your WiFi. The same thing applies to any other wireless devices such as phones, controllers, remotes, wireless keyboards and mice, wireless speakers, and also other routers as they will interfere with your network.

Conclusion

In the end, I am now able to enjoy very high-speed internet with practically all my devices. It’s still a work in progress for the internet in my brother’s room and my father’s office, and we do have faster internet in the living room with the router that is set up there, so my mother can utilize that for her work and when she’s using the YouTube app on our TV.

If I am to leave you with one lesson, it’s that your internet is going to be as weak as the weakest link in the pipeline; the devices you’re using, be they computers or laptops or phones, their connection to the router whether it’s wired or wireless, the capabilities of the router, and the ethernet cable connecting the router to the modem. All of these components need to be compatible with the plan you have or are thinking of upgrading to. It never hurts to go over what you need as internet plans are getting cheaper and faster every couple of years so why not future proof yourself now and maximize whatever you have?

Questions

So let me know, have you had a similar problem to mine? Did you upgrade your internet one day and realized your old gear is just not fit for high-speed internet? Do you even need high-speed internet?

Outro

Please reach out to me on Twitter or Instagram, my handle is @tmonther, and let me know your thoughts on the episode and on this show. You can also check out the rest of my episodes on the website wordsoftim.com.

Thanks for tuning in, and I’ll catch you in the next episode.