Archive for July, 2020

Preparing your home network for remote learning

This is a set of guides that is intended to help you ensure your home networking is working as well as possible so that you’re ready for remote learning in the 2020 school year. There are a lot of things that are important that I won’t describe, like getting a good desk, having lighting, and other things like controlling distractions. But if you’re going to attend a virtual class, this should help identify some common problems with your configuration that might be getting in the way.

Before reading:

  1. I would like input on this!  I’d love to know what questions you have, whether this addresses your questions, whether it’s understandable, etc.
  2. If your set up is working for you, then you may not need this guide at all.

My hope is that parents of kids who will be participating in remote learning in fall 2020 can have the best possible experience for their children to participate in the school year, so I’m writing this with that audience in mind.  I hope it’s useful.

The main ideas you want to focus on are (a) understanding how good your network connection can be, (b) measuring how good it actually is, and (c) understanding how you can improve it if it isn’t working as well as it can.

  1. Understand how good your network connection can be (i.e. what are you supposed to get from your ISP?)
  2. Baselining your performance (i.e. what are you actually getting?)
  3. Understanding “performance” of your connection (what do those numbers mean?)
  4. Improving . . . your physical connection
  5. Improving . . . your wifi
  6. Improving . . . your software configuration

I have personally done all of these things and need to do some of them again periodically when things don’t seem to be working ideally, so I will use direct examples when possible with the hopes this gives practical input as you assess your setup.

0. Can’t you just give me a short version?

Sure:

  1. You should double-check what you are paying for from your ISP and then try to ensure you’re actually receiving that at your home because you might not be.
  2. You may want to perform a nightly reset of some or all of your networking devices.  Rebooting these devices is almost never harmful and very frequently beneficial.
  3. Otherwise, if you have a problem, there are lots of ways you can look to see where the bottleneck is that is stopping you from getting good performance.

Without further ado, here’s the full guide…

1. Understand how good your network connection can be (i.e. what are you supposed to get from your ISP?)

This is an important step you should not skip. Go to your account with your internet provider and confirm what you are paying for. Additionally, shop around and ensure the play you’re paying for is the one you want.

Personal stories and tips:

  1. I am currently paying $65/month to Century Link for 940Mb/940Mb (“gigabit”) fiber.  Personally I think this is a screaming hot deal that anyone should take advantage of if they can get it, though I don’t know if CenturyLink currently offers it.
  2. My basic setup is:
    1. A networking modem from CenturyLink that receives a fiber optic signal.
    2. An Asus AC68U wifi router that offers 4 physical connections to my network at gigabit speeds + wifi routing.  All computers connect to this.
  3. Before this, I was paying Comcast about $80/month for maybe 100Mb Cable Modem.  And during that time with Comcast there were at least two times things changed in my account that I did not immediately take advantage of:
  4. One time Comcast made my account better, but it required a DOCSIS 2.0 (or 3.0?) cable modem.  I never leased Comcast’s equipment (note: I believe this was a good idea and it saved me a couple $100 over the years they were my ISP), but I could not get the new, better service until upgrading my modem.  When I did, my performance immediately improved a lot.
  5. Another time something else changed in my billing and I started paying a lot more than I expected.  Quite possibly this was my own goof and perhaps I mentally set the expectation “I’m paying [the intro rate] for my connection” and later I realized my bill was $80, I was unhappy.
  6. You may be more diligent and on top of your account, but I believe my point is valid: it’s important to verify that what you think you’re supposed to get is what you’re actually getting from your plan.
  7. I’ve also found that rumors seem to be true that if you call your ISP and tell them you are thinking of cancelling because you see a better deal, they may offer you better service or may offer a renewed “introductory fee” period offer on your current plan to convince you to stay with them.  Attempting to abuse this probably won’t work, but shop around, look for a better deal, and then tell your current ISP you plan to jump ship and see what they do.

2. Baselining your performance (i.e. what are you actually getting?)

Go to https://www.speedtest.net/ and measure the ping latency, download, and upload that you currently get.  Keep some notes of this because it will help you understand which devices get what speeds, how it compares with what you are supposed to get (per your account contract) and based on other conditions.  You will probably repeatedly visit speedtest.net and from different devices as you work to get your connection working as well as possible.

Personal stories and tips:

  1. Don’t reset your router, wifi, etc. before you get this baseline. You may learn something useful.
  2. I currently get 2ms ping, 8.76Mbps down, and 9.41Mbps up.  That sure doesn’t look like I’m getting the 940/940 I previously mentioned, does it?  Results like this are part of why I just said not to reset all your devices.
  3. This is usually best to do with a computer that is physically (with an ethernet cable) connected to your internet connection.  Your wifi devices may be limited due to wifi dead spots in your home, wifi configuration issues, or other issues.

3. Understanding “performance” of your connection (what do those numbers mean?)

OK, so you have seen a latency, download, and upload for your connection, but what do they all mean?

Latency: is how fast the network responds to your requests.  High latency = slow responsiveness = worse.  I actually don’t know how to fix bad latency if you see it, but if your speedtest results tells you that your ping latency is >10ms, you should search the web for tips on how to improve this.  If you just want to start a Netflix or YouTube video stream, then this might be OK.  Typically, though, you are doing something interactive in your computer and latency can make the experience very painful.  Think of online chat where you type messages back and forth.  Perhaps every keypress has some small, but non-0 overhead associated with it.  Bad latency == death of a thousand cuts.

Download: Is how fast traffic can get to your computer.  High download = fast = better.  This is pretty straightforward and well understood and you should just expect your measured speed (from speedtest) to be about what your advertised speed (from your ISP) says.  You will probably never see faster measured speed than your ISP says you should get.  Depending on the kind of network connection you’re paying for, you may very frequently see really irregular performance with typical speeds much slower than your advertised rate.

Upload: Is, again, pretty well understood.  High upload = fast = better.  Most ISPs forbid people from running servers off their home residential networks and you typically see an asymmetric configuration with high download, much slower upload.  It usually doesn’t matter if this is pretty slow, though video conferencing typically video upload, which can be fairly expensive.

4. Improving . . . your physical connection

First, if your measured speeds reflect what you expect to get from your plan, then your work is mostly done.

If not, congratulations!  You have found you probably have a bottleneck that you may be able to diagnose. It could be in your networking devices (cable modem, DSL modem, some other routing device), or your networking card(s) in your computer.

  1. I have needed my ISP to improve the attenuation (signal strength) of my internet connection.
  2. I have worked with my ISP to learn that signal strength was impaired due to a tight bend in a cable somewhere in my internet installation.
  3. I mentioned previously that I needed to upgrade to a more current DOCSIS-compliant device to get faster performance.
  4. You probably have a wifi router between all your computers and your internet connections.  Your wifi router may only have 10Mbps or 100Mbps physical connections (which may be stopping you from getting 100Mbps or 1Gbps speeds)
  5. You might simply need to reset your networking devices for some reason.
    1. Previously I stated that I got 2ms ping, 8.76Mbps down, and 9.41Mbps up.
    2. While composing this post I rest my wifi modem and ran speedtest again.  Now I get 3ms ping, 806Mbps down, 773Mbps up.  I don’t know why, but I need to reset my wifi router about weekly to restore my gigabit speeds.  I should learn what the problem is or fix this, but simply knowing a quick fix for a problem is useful.
  6. Your computer may have a 10Mbps or 100Mbps network card which could also present a bottlenck.

5. Improving . . . your wifi

Now you’re ready to test your wifi speeds with speedtest.net, so go ahead and do that.  Again, you might be getting the advertised speeds for your plan and there is nothing to do.  Otherwise, again, you’ve found a bottleneck.

  1. The first places to look for bottlenecks are, again, the problems with the physically connected computers (networking setup, networking device capabilities, resetting your networking devices).
  2. Next you should look at the capabilities of the wifi antenna in the device you are using.  For phones, laptops, and tablets, you probably need to look up the device you have to learn what wifi card is in it and what the maximum capabilities are for your device.  Your device may not be able to take full advantage of the network that comes to your home.
  3. You should look for whether you have dead spots for the wifi in your home.  You can typically just look at a wifi signal strength icon on your computer/laptop/tablet/phone and tell whether your wifi connection is good in the places you need it to reach.  If it is not, you can try a few things:
    1. Avoid dead spots.  This is probably the easiest.
    2. Move the wifi router.  You should try to have it centrally located in your home to have the greatest reach throughout your home.  Don’t put it in a cupboard or closet because wifi range is impaired when it has to travel through walls.
    3. Adjust the antennae.  I’m not a radio-frequency engineer, but every wifi router I’ve owned has antennae that can be aimed, so I trust the guidance to aim them orthogonally to one another.
    4. Does your router offer 5GHz and 2.4GHz wifi and can you choose to connect to a 5GHz connection?  You’ll probably get better performance if you can connect to a 5GHz connection.  This is because the 2.4GHz band has become increasingly “congested” with other devices that run on that frequency.
    5. Maybe your house is just too big for a single router?  I don’t personally have this problem, but there are “mesh” wireless router sets (Google, Samsung, and Eero make them – probably others) that create larger wifi networks.  I hear these are pretty great.

You should keep running speedtest.net to measure whether you’re happy with your performance or not.  Here’s a summary of what I tested so far, what I found, and some notes:

Test Latency Down Up Notes
Advertised by ISP n/a 940Mbps 940Mbps This is the advertised speed for my plan.  These are the numbers I really want to see.  My ISP does not tell me what latency to expect
First wired test 2ms 8.76Mbps 9.41Mbps This was my first test.  Something was wrong because the down/up are so low.
Wired after reboot 3ms 806Mbps 773Mbps Rebooting my wifi router immediately put my network performance in range of what it should be.  This is not 940Mbps so perhaps I can do more to make it better.
Phone WiFi (after reboot) 5GHz 2ms 342Mbps 287Mbps I never get, over wifi, the same speeds I can get from a wired connection.  I am usually OK with this performance after eliminating the other bottlenecks.
PHone WiFi (after reboot) 2.4GHz 2ms 89.3Mbps 95.0Mbps The 2.4GHz connection is always much slower than the 5GHz network.  I *don’t* configure my devices for the 2.4GHz connectino
Final wired test 2ms 850Mbps 842Mbps I ran speedtest again from the wired connection and found it closer to the 940/940 rate advertised by my provider (though still 10% shy of the advertised product).
Phone LTE 42ms 8.16Mbps 2.98Mbps For fun, I turned off wifi on my phone to see the comparable performance from my phone carrier. Those are pretty poor numbers (that ping is terrible).

6. Improving . . . your software configuration

There are still more things you can do and more things you should be aware of.  So far, everything I’ve discussed has to do with understanding, measuring, and changing things in your network infrastructure, and those are the right first steps.  In 2020, most modern computer software is written to try to make smart decisions based on your network performance to try to respond to changing network conditions and give you an experience that is (a) consistent and (b) as high quality as possible.

  • “Consistent” usually means it will try to understand your sustained throughput and latency and give you an experience that is not constantly changing (buffering, dropping) because it *thought* you could support XMbps, but for a 20 second period, your network could only sustain (X-1)Mbps.
  • “As high quality as possible” means you’ll get the best quality possible, but probably not fully utilizing your network (because it doesn’t want to sacrifice consistency) and video will degrade before audio (because humans tolerate video degradation, but “your ears don’t blink” and people freak out when audio is poor).

Despite this:

  1. You may have enabled a quality setting that overrides your software’s ability to auto-select the quality level where you said “give me a high-quality audio/video/both experience.”  You should probably leave these settings on “auto”
  2. You may be competing on your network with someone watching streaming video, games, or even a hacked device that is conducting a denial of service attack elsewhere on your network.  The other device(s) may be constraining your (possibly limited) network resources.  Try to understand if something is hogging the network and to stop this.  The best way to measure which devices are doing what on the network will probably be from an admin interface in your wifi router.

Final comments

I hope this is useful and accessible.  It got somewhat long, but all of it has been important to me at some time or other.  If you know me and have feedback, drop me a line and I’d be happy to try to improve this article.

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