Note: I first published this article on Aug. 18, 2020, when we were starting to realize we were in for a long haul with COVID-19, lockdowns, and working and schooling from home. Now, after a year of somewhat drastic change, we're coming to terms with our new reality. I've updated the advice to be more relevant to our current situation.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed work/life patterns for many of us. While there are some folks out there on the front lines doing dangerous, essential work and moving around in the world, many of us are locked down at home, doing our part to reduce transmission of the virus.
The home dynamic has changed drastically as well. While some of us have worked from home for years, we've historically been a small fringe of the overall workforce. But since the pandemic hit, working from home has become what marketing folks are calling the "new normal."
Adding to the complexity of our 9-5 home life, many of our kids are home, too. While the debate rages over school reopening, many parents are opting to keep their kids home to study. Many school districts, colleges, and universities have moved to a slapped-together remote schooling strategy.
While there's no doubt this new normal has a huge impact on our sense of well-being and sanity, it's also transforming what we need from our home networks. Prior to the pandemic, the home network and the broadband feeding it was used mostly to stream some movies, watch some YouTube, play some games, and check email.
But now the home network is being put under pressure. Many families have two parents and a bunch of kids, all putting stress on the network by using bandwidth at the same time. The adults might both need to be in Zoom conferences for work, while the kids may also need to be in Zoom sessions for school.
That's a lot of stress on your network. Your network has become mission-critical. You need it to keep the paychecks coming and your kids need it to get through school. In this context, getting the most out of your network is essential. But what does that really mean?
This comprehensive guide will help you answer that, and help guide you toward changes and improvements you might want to make. I'll be covering three major topic areas that are inextricably related: understanding your bandwidth requirements, understanding your broadband provider's offerings, and optimizing your home network.
We have a lot of ground to cover, so let's get started. Keep an eye out for my performance tip callouts. They'll give you great ideas for maximizing performance. I also have some budget tips at the end of the article.
If you've ever tried to drink a milkshake through a straw, you understand bandwidth. Drinking a soda through a straw is simple. Soda is just water with bubbles. It's not thick, and you don't need to apply much suction to quench your thirst. But try to drink a thick milkshake through that same straw and you might have problems. Either you have to suck much harder or you need a bigger straw.
The data we transmit on the internet is like that. Some things, like a simple email text message, require very little bandwidth because there's not much data. But a 4K video stream requires a lot of bandwidth because the data files are so large.
Sure, you could theoretically watch a 4K video stream with any bandwidth capacity (even dial-up), but you'd have to download the entire file first, which could take days. If you want to just click and watch, the internet pipe needs to be wide enough to accommodate all that data.
Let's jump into the specifics. In our new pandemic-driven normal, it's all about the video. Emails and basic web surfing consume a relatively small amount of bandwidth. Photos and music consume more, as do games. But it's video that's the big bandwidth hog. So, that's what we're going to look at in this guide.
Bandwidth is generally measured in megabits per second, written as Mbps (with a lower-case "b"). That's millions of bits per second. As you can see in the following chart, Netflix says the absolute minimum bandwidth it needs is 0.5Mbps. That will be for heavily buffered, very low-resolution video.
By contrast, to watch a movie streamed in glorious 4K, your connection will need 20Mbps. That means your pipe needs to be able to send 20 million bits in one second. As you can see, different levels of resolution require different amounts of bandwidth.
Fortunately, Netflix and YouTube (and most other streaming services) either let you specify the quality of video you're watching (and, by extension, the bandwidth you use) or automatically throttle your video based on your existing bandwidth.
In a world where you're probably only watching one Netflix stream and possibly a YouTube video at a time, this works fine. But when you and your spouse and your kids must all be online at once, all using video, the requirements change.
When you sign up for broadband service, your ISP usually sells you a package based on the upload and download bandwidth you choose. The more capacity, the more expensive. The less capacity, the less expensive. But what, exactly, does that mean?
Take a look at the following diagram. Notice the point marked A. That's the connection between your home and your ISP's data connection point, and that's what your broadband provider is selling you.
Everything after your ISP (indicated to the right in the diagram) is generally out of the control of your ISP. Every web access travels beyond your ISP across many different machines, often by many different routes, to the service you use. And then, of course, the response travels back. You and your ISP both have absolutely zero control over that part of the experience.
This next diagram illustrates it in some more detail. You control the network inside your house. That's indicated by A on the diagram. Your ISP controls all the hardware between their data center and your home, indicated as B.
But you also have some control in that area as well, because you can choose the bandwidth plan, and that determines how big a data transmission pipe you get into your home.
Not all is as it seems, however. While your ISP may sell you a certain amount of bandwidth, they may not be able to deliver it. The Comcast page where you can order services calls this out explicitly. It says, "Actual speeds vary and are not guaranteed."
This could be for any reason ranging from their desire to throttle you if you use too much data to too many people on the network at once.
Also: A customer experience story: After a year of Comcast, my verdict
A few years ago, I actually had to pay Comcast $600 a year in extra fees just to make sure it wouldn't throttle me because I used so much data. In a chat with a Comcast rep recently, I was told that fee went down to $30 per month, or $360 per year.
Performance tip: Be sure to check with your ISP to make sure you avoid any bandwidth throttling, either by paying the bandwidth tax or controlling your usage.
Take a look at this next diagram:
When you're purchasing bandwidth, you're purchasing it at point A, to and from your home. Whether your ISP has implemented dedicated fiber lines to each house, or shares a feed among a cluster of homes, could determine how much flow you actually get. If everyone in your cluster is consuming capacity at the same time, you may experience a slowdown simply because the connection point B from the ISP may become overloaded.
That, too, is out of your control. But it helps to find out if you are on a shared connection (usually cable modem) or a dedicated fiber connection.
Performance tip: Generally speaking, dedicated fiber will provide you with more reliable service than cable modem.
Of course, even with fiber, your ISP's upstream connections can become overwhelmed if all their customers are in Zoom conferences at the same time. And let's be clear. Fiber isn't available in many communities, so you're likely to have to live with cable.
Let's talk about upload and download bandwidth. Until recently, home internet providers have rarely spent much time discussing the upload bandwidth they allocate to each customer.
Here's a quick bit of background. I'm someone who has needed considerable upload bandwidth across the years for my work projects. I upload terabytes of backup data, lots of 4K video files, VMs for testing, and finished videos to YouTube. I've also done a lot of video conferencing where my face-for-radio has been uploaded and then broadcast to TV audiences.
Working from home, getting that upload bandwidth has been problematic. The various broadband reps I've spoken to over the years have told me that very few people ever even ask about upload bandwidth, which is why ISP's have never offered much capacity.
Of course, because of COVID-19, all that is changing rapidly.
Before COVID-19, most users were surfing the web, watching YouTube or Netflix, or playing games. Little upload capacity was needed. Now, everybody's on Zoom all the time. When you're on Zoom, you need broadband capacity to send video upstream just as much as you need broadband capacity to watch video.
While all ISPs are different, here's what a local Comcast rep told me was their suite of offerings as of this month:
Notice the very big difference between the download capacity (the larger blue) and the upload capacity (the lighter blue). Comcast (and most ISPs) offer upload capacity that's only a mere fraction of the download capacity. I don't use Comcast anymore. I'm fortunate to have very fast local community fiber.
For now, though, let's focus on download capacity. The following chart shows (roughly) how many simultaneous activities you can perform online with a 100Mbps pipe.
Note two things. First, I've labeled a section "overpromised or unavailable bandwidth." In my experience, the average usable bandwidth is only about 60% of what the broadband provider claims they're selling you. Since you have to work and function based on what bandwidth you actually have available to you, it's important you understand the numbers quoted are always optimistic.
In the case above, though, you can comfortably download four Zoom sessions, a 4K Netflix session, and either another 4K video session or a bunch of HD video sessions. With 100Mbps down, your entire family can function together online -- at least when it comes to download performance.
Things get tighter for those on a lower budget or who just can't get as much bandwidth in their area. If you drop to 25Mbps download bandwidth, you can really only support two Zoom streams and one HD video stream. 4K video is out.
Fortunately, 4K video is unimportant in the context of working at home or homeschooling. It's nice to have on family movie nights but is simply not mission-critical.
Performance tip: Default to having all 4K video streams turned off. Most of your streaming services will allow you to disable 4K, and doing so is an easy way to regain bandwidth and reduce data usage. You will probably never notice the difference in quality.
Budget tip: Some streamers charge extra for 4K, so cancel that upcharge.
If you recall from the earlier chart showing broadband plans, even the Comcast plan that offers 1Gbps download capacity provides for only a mere 35Mbps upload. I've been fortunate. One of the reasons I chose the small historic rural farm town I now live in was because the community built out its own fiber-based internet service and offers 1Gbps both up and down.
That matters, especially if you're concerned about productivity. One of my most recent videos was a 2GB file I had to upload to YouTube. The next chart shows how long (assuming optimal conditions) it would take to upload that video based on the different upload capacities.
As you can see, the difference between a full 1Gbps upload speed and the bottom-level 3Mbps offering is a full two orders of magnitude.
Now, let's be clear. Uploading a video file isn't the key problem in our new normal. What I used to do before I had good upload bandwidth was set my files to upload when I went to bed. That way, they didn't tie up my bandwidth and I didn't have to sit and wait for the upload to complete.
Also: ZDNet Recommends: The best products for every office
Instead, the really big issue you should be concerned about is upload capacity when it comes to online learning and work-based video conferencing. I know families of six where the two adults and four kids all used to go to either the office or school -- and who are now all at home, and who all need to be in Zoom conferences at the same time.
As the following chart shows, it doesn't matter that you have 100Mbps down, according to your plan, if all you have is 5Mbps up. With 5Mbps up, you can -- barely -- sustain one Zoom stream.
Worse, those with even lower upload performance probably can't even get one stream to function reliably.
Even as you go up in plans, upload bandwidth might not be enough. Those with a 15Mbps upload capacity might be able to run three Zoom conferences concurrently, four if all other upload activities are shut down. It's only when you get to upload capacities in the 35Mbps range and above that, you can sustain family-wide Zoom activities.
As you can see, the bottleneck for many families working and learning at home is going to be the upload capacity offered by their ISPs. Some families may not have access to higher upload capacities, either because it's not offered in their areas or because they can't afford it.
Performance tip: For those with limited available bandwidth, know what's using your bandwidth at all times. Shut down everything not needed while on video conferences.
If you're not using your phones for video conferencing, put them in airport mode. Power down (not sleep) TVs and any computers not in use.
When it comes to cloud-based backup, Yev Pusin, director of strategy at cloud backup vendor Backblaze says, "A good backup client is neither seen nor felt." He says that his backup client (and many others) will allow you to set throttle limits, limiting how much bandwidth your backup clients take.
Performance tip: Whether at the router or in your backup client, limit upload bandwidth usage or schedule uploads during sleep time.
Performance tip: Buy the plan with the most upload bandwidth you can afford.
My experience has been that I've generally not run into problems with download performance, but upload performance has almost always been a challenge.
Managing upload bandwidth may need to be a team effort. For years, my wife and I would coordinate bandwidth usage so one of us didn't hog the pipes when the other needed capacity.
You may need to schedule blackout times where Netflix and YouTube are off-limits. You might also need to set up a central calendar where each family member records when they'll need to do video conferencing, and the others try to work around that time.
Educate your family members, and if that doesn't work, consider using one of the many parental control options out there. You might need to simply block Facebook, Netflix, YouTube, and all the other streamers during certain times of the day or for certain family members.
Up until now, almost all we've talked about is the connection between your ISP and your house. But there's another aspect of network performance: your internal network.
Keep this in mind: Performance between your ISP and your home is up to your ISP. Performance between your computer and your router is up to you.
Many families have a very simple home network like this:
But once you start working and learning from home, many family's home networks have blossomed, looking more like this:
This diagram represents a network with both wired and wireless connections, as well as a wide range of devices on the network, using network capacity.
Before I dig into ways you can optimize your home network, let's talk about what a speed test really measures. If you use Fast.com or SpeedTest.net (or anything similar), you may think you're measuring your ISP's performance at point A. But you're not.
In reality, you're measuring performance from your test machine (B) to the test server (C). Everything in between contributes to that measurement, so if there's a TV show being watched, that takes bandwidth. If there's an automatic download, that takes bandwidth.
A speed test will give you a good indication of overall network performance, but it won't really help confirm that your ISP is meeting its performance claims.
By the way, note the disparity between download and upload reported in the speed test shown. That's a test run by one of our editors working from home. With 11Mbps upload, our editor can probably handle two or three Zoom streams at once, but not much else.
While optimizing your network feed from your ISP is really a function of the luck of your location and how much you're willing to pay, optimizing your home network is something else again.
Let's get the variables out of the way first. How you use your home network may well be different from how I do. I fling very large video and VM files all around, from my various desktops to my server. That's a very different level of demand than making sure your connection to Zoom and Gmail reliably works.
For this article, I'm not going to discuss optimizing home networking for the extreme pro. Instead, I'm going to focus on what you could do to make your network more suitable for working and learning from home, assuming relatively basic use of productivity and learning apps.
Performance tip: A wired connection is always going to be more reliable and usually faster than a wireless connection. If possible, run wires.
Buying my home was a big change for me, in no small part because I could finally run Ethernet cables through the walls. But even if you're renting, you might want to consider running wires from your router to your desks. For years, as a renter, I ran wires next to baseboards, and over and under doorways. It was ugly, but it worked.
Performance tip: If you need to optimize productivity, let your setup be a bit ugly if it'll help you get the job done.
When configuring wired internet, look for gigabit Ethernet devices, and that includes your router. This brings me to another performance tip.
Performance tip: If your router is more than a few years old, consider upgrading it. Super cheap routers (and older routers) can't handle much video throughput.
When you run cables, you might need to create branches. Use Ethernet switches rated for GigE and avoid Ethernet hubs.
First, let me clarify something that confuses a lot of people. If you have crappy Wi-Fi performance, it's usually not your ISP's fault. Wi-Fi is all about how you've set up your network inside your home. Your ISP (as we've discussed at length here) only manages the connection between your home and the internet.
Wi-Fi can suck for oh, so many reasons. It's a radio signal, so the metal in walls, appliances, even the electricity in the air can affect it. My house has been a Wi-Fi nightmare, which I finally resolved with a mesh wireless network, wired connections where possible, and a lot of testing. I talked about that, along with some very useful optimization tools in another article. If you're having Wi-Fi issues, this is a must-read.
Performance tip: Consider adopting a mesh network for your Wi-Fi to reach far-flung areas of your home.
I've used two mesh networks. The first was the Google WIFi system (now called Nest WiFi). This worked great in our rental house. Not so much in the house we bought after that. For where I'm living now, the Synology router and mesh I discussed here have worked more reliably.
The idea of mesh is that rather than your Wi-Fi radiating from one point, a mesh of router access points creates a blanket of Wi-Fi throughout your home. It's got its own issues, but it definitely helps.
So far, I've talked about increasing the bandwidth you buy from your ISP, adding a mesh router, and running cables and switches throughout your house. That can get expensive. Let's look at some ideas for saving money and improving performance.
Well, that should get you going. If you have any great suggestions for optimizing network performance or getting more done on a budget, please post in the comments below. Let me how you're doing online in these crazy times. Hang in there, folks!
You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.