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August 4, 2020

Internet Speeds Can Be Tricky

In reading over the forums at TenForums.com in general, and in the Network and Sharing forum in particular, I see lots of members grappling with Internet speeds. Mostly, this means expressing unhappiness or dissatisfaction with perceived slow Internet access, and looking for ways to improve performance. With a few notable exceptions, though — I’ll address those in upcoming sections in this story — users really can’t do much on their end of an Internet connection to make things go faster. To a large extent, your speed is a combination of two key factors that will set an upper bound on how fast your uploads and downloads go.

Two Controlling Factors: Carrying Capacity and Local Traffic Conditions

Factor number 1 is pithily expressed as “You get what you pay for” — this describes the best case scenario, and represents what your ISP tells you the maximum speed of your connection will ever be. Thus, for example, when I signed up for the Spectrum CATV-based Internet service for my home office it was described as “Gigabit Internet.” But when the technician came to install the new boundary device that made this higher speed possible, he was quick to inform me that the actual highest-speed possible to the ISP’s own servers on their private, internal network is really 940 Mbps.

Factor number 2 may be succinctly described as “traffic conditions on the local cable segment.” That means you’re sharing the total bandwidth for the cable segment in your neighborhood (or building, or whatever) where the cable plant connects to the ISP’s higher-speed backhaul network outside your location or site. It also means you’re sharing your rated maximum bandwidth inside your location or site with other machines that may also be uploading or downloading stuff to the Internet. Upload speed is only rarely an issue, because ISPs routinely throttle that speed to a small fraction of the download speed (in my case Spectrum guarantees 30 Mbps, and usually delivers something in the mid-thirties to just over 40 in observable throughput).

[Note] Both apps that are checking Internet speed rely on the same underlying code base — namely the Ookla Speedtest app, available from the Microsoft Store (there’s also a non-UWP application version of this tool available from speedtest.net for those who prefer a standalone application).

To me, the lead-in graphic for this story is absolutely fascinating. When the technician came to set up my service, he showed me — through a hand-held device attached directly to my Technicolor GbE Cable Modem — download speeds of 938-940 Mbps. He was connecting to a nearby server at the head-end of our local cable infrastructure when he did this. That’s what’s showing on the left-hand side of the lead-in graphic for this story. I’ve occasionally seen download speeds on my PC as high as the mid-800s, with a rare foray above 900 Mbps. Mostly, I see speeds anywhere from the low 400s to the high 700s (everything is in Mbps). But in the illustration shown above, with both screencaps made within seconds of each other, we see two widely different and counter-intuitive results. Let me explain…

Speeds on the Inside vs. the Outside

In this case, “Inside” means “inside the Spectrum CATV and fiber-optic network;” and “Outside” means “coming from/to my PC on the Spectrum CATV and fiber-optic network and another Server outside that network” (I chose a nearby Sprint server in Austin, TX as the other end of the test connection for the numbers on the right-hand side of the image). The reason why these results are fascinating is that they show the impact of local traffic (inside the Spectrum infrastructure) in stark relief.

Ordinarily the Inside speeds beat the Outside speeds by anywhere from a little bit (10% or less) to a lot (more than 25%). The ratio of outside to inside in this atypical instance is 58% higher for download, and 19% higher for upload. That just doesn’t happen very often, and suggests that there’s lots of streaming going on in my neighborhood right now (not an unreasonable assumption, with kids out of school and it being late enough in the morning for them to up and consuming content). It just goes to show that local usage conditions can strongly affect Internet speeds, and that they can vary a lot even over a short period of time.

What Can Users Do to Boost Internet Speeds

This mostly comes down to hardware and the drivers that interconnect hardware with the Windows networking environment. For those running legacy networks, a quick (and not overwhemingly expensive) upgrade involves using only GbE (Gigabit Ethernet, or better) on their local networks. If you’re using a 100 MB Ethernet interface, switch/router (or that’s how fast the gear you’re renting/leasing from your ISP goes) you can speed things up locally by moving up to GbE. For wireless networks, if you’re still running 802.11 a/b/g/n, it may be time to upgrade to 802.11 ac (or 802.11 ax, if you can afford the hardware on the access point end, and the extra dongles or interfaces on the PC, for those that aren’t ax-capable; warning: this can be pricey). If you’ve got that covered and you want more speed, you’ll have to find out how much more speed you can buy from a local ISP who can hook you up, and then decide if your monthly budget can handle the increase. That’s almost the whole story, when it comes to speeding up Internet access.

Here’s another thing: if reading the TenForums Network and Sharing threads on a more-or-less daily basis for the past 5 years has taught me anything, it’s that matching up the right drivers with your wired or wireless network interface (NIC) can have a profound impact on throughput and network performance. Especially for older PCs, this may not be the latest and greatest driver from the vendor or a reputable drive modder (such as Fernando’s outstanding Win-Raid.com which, alas, concentrates mostly on USB and storage stuff). For those with demonstrable network drivers issues (by which I mean, they experience a measurable improvement in network performance after finding and installing the “right” driver) there’s a lot of trial-and-error involved in getting things “just right.” This is something best undertaken in a community context — like TenForums or perhaps Tim Higgins’ truly great SmallNetBuilder site, which focuses exclusively on networking and networked storage topics.

As a final concluding code to this story, I’ll also give a shout-out to the excellent TCP/IP tweaking toolset available at SpeedGuide.net called TCP Optimizer. For those who know what they’re doing (or are willing to learn, often through extensive trial and error), it’s possible to squeeze a bit of extra performance out of your network by rolling up your sleeves and tweaking various arcane settings in the IP stack. Most of the speed gains you can achieve will be purely local (end-to-end local settings of 4K and higher for “jumbo frame size” can have a dramatic impact on local file transfer, especially for large files), but you may be able to achieve modest improvements in Internet access speeds as well. YMMV, to use a popular Internet acronym for “your mileage may vary” — a polite way of recognizing that results will be all over the place, and different for different settings and circumstances. ‘Nuff said!

Author: Ed Tittel

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year computer industry veteran. He’s a Princeton and multiple University of Texas graduate who’s worked in IT since 1981 when he started his first programming job. Over the past three decades he’s also worked as a manager, technical evangelist, consultant, trainer, and an expert witness. See his professional bio for all the details.

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