Why your wi-fi feels so slow sometimes

In many home wi-fi routers today, you'll find two lanes. One whose waves operate at a frequency of 2.4 GHz and one that ...

In many home wi-fi routers today, you'll find two lanes. One whose waves operate at a frequency of 2.4 GHz and one that operates at 5 GHz.

To get faster downloads, do you ever have to turn off your phone's wi-fi connection and switch over to your cellphone carrier's mobile data instead?

That might sound counterintuitive. After all, wi-fi connects you to your home internet - which you'd think would be plenty fast. So, why does your wi-fi get slow sometimes, anyway?

It all boils down to the airwaves carrying information to your electronic device. You can think of these airwaves as lanes on a highway.

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In many home wi-fi routers today, you'll find two lanes. One whose waves operate at a frequency of 2.4 GHz and one that operates at 5 GHz. Data travels from the outside world into your home and through the router, at which point it's beamed wirelessly through the air and onto your device over these specific lanes.

There are a couple major things that can slow the lanes down, even if you're standing relatively close to your router.

One is outside interference, and the other is congestion.

The first is pretty tightly controlled by regulators, who test wireless devices and impose restrictions to make sure that all wireless devices stay in the correct lane - whether that's wi-fi routers, cellphones or satellites.

The second is more difficult, because billions of people are constantly switching on new wireless devices and demanding more access to the information highways.

Think about the typical home, where over time, PCs were joined by laptops, then smartphones, then tablets, then smartwatches and wearable fitness trackers, then intelligent thermostats and on and on. 

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Many of these devices are, at one point or another, funnelling data through wi-fi connections.

Last year, two-thirds of all information coming and going from mobile devices reached the internet via wi-fi. By 2020, it'll be 70 per cent. Leading much of this future growth will be the proliferation of connected appliances and smart devices, otherwise known as the Internet of Things.

With all these wireless devices clogging the wi-fi lanes, it's no wonder that things might feel a little sluggish.

Just to be clear, bottlenecks between your computer and your wi-fi router have more to do with what else is gobbling up capacity on your local network. Bottlenecks on your actual connection to the rest of the Internet are something else, and might indeed have to do with your provider depending on the situation.

Just like the highway for cars, one of the most obvious solutions for a congested wi-fi highway is to widen it - or switch paths altogether, which is what you're doing when you turn off your wi-fi connection and hop on your wireless carrier's airwaves.

Your cellphone carrier's highway is like a private toll road. Unlike with wi-fi, on cellular plans you pay your provider a certain amount every month for the ability to use its exclusive network.

Your provider's airwaves operate on different frequencies than wi-fi, and in some places there might be more unused bandwidth, which may speed up your downloads.

Cellphone carriers upgrade their networks to be faster and wider by building more cell towers, by upgrading the big, fat pipes that carry data from the towers to the rest of the Internet and by adding more airwaves to the mix to widen the toll road.

But nobody controls wi-fi. It's a public good - meaning anybody can send and receive data over it, free of charge. That's why so many start-ups and new devices start out communicating with the Internet over these "unlicensed" airwaves.

As for whether home internet is always supposed to be faster than mobile internet: Not always, particularly in places where fixed broadband is expensive to build or lacks competition.

Mobile internet has also got a lot more reliable since the early days, especially with the rise of 4G LTE technology. Not wanting to lose that lead, many carriers are currently racing to pilot next-generation 5G data.

 - The Washington Post


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