You're on yet another Zoom call and...wait what did she say? Dang it...Internet glitching again! You quickly mute your audio and video. "Kids! Get off YouTube...I'm on a call!" With everyone working and schooling from home, your Internet can't keep up. The cable company keeps claiming you're on their "super-fast Internet" but everything keeps lagging. It's all so frustrating and you just want to get your work done.
It may not be the cable company's fault. Use this approach to ensure your household enjoys a super-fast, reliable Internet!
Start with the Source
Run a speed test. Google "speed test". Run that test a few times on a given day. If you're not getting at least 50Mbps download and 10Mbps upload speeds, keep reading.
Check with your Provider and do your Homework
Reach out to your Internet provider. This may be your cable company or telephone provider. Understand your current plan:
- What package are you currently on? What are you being charged?
- What are the expected download and upload speeds?
- Do you have a phone plan? A cable plan?
- What plans or bundles are available above and below your existing plan?
- What competitors operate in your neighborhood? What are competitors offering?
Understand the Household Desires
Now with great information in hand (current provider speeds and potential up/down-grade offers, competitor plans, etc.), map this out into a Google doc or spreadsheet. Set up a comparison between the providers, their offerings, their costs, the contract obligations, the features, and anything else you feel is relevant.
Next, detail out (yes, get it out on paper) everything that's important to each member of your family. Your work and your spouse's work is paramount; your children's schooling (for now, assume virtual classrooms); streaming YouTube and iTunes; your son loves to post XBox videos and play online games with his friends; your daughter is learning how to code Python and is taking online instructor-led courses; your mother-in-law frequents your house to watch the kids and needs to keep up with her business; your oldest watches every minute of Premier League throughout the world; you love to binge watch the latest from Netflix; your spouse needs to DVR shows due to shift work--detail all these needs...and wants.
Expand your Horizons
Now it's time to consider all the alternatives. When I was a kid and throughout much of my life, we had a phone number from the phone company, cable through the cable company, and Internet from an Internet Service Provider (ISP). Gradually, Internet folded into a single provider as has phone service.
A few years ago, we collapsed our home phone service into a device that provides phone service over the Internet (Internet Protocol (IP)). I use an OBITalk device that plugs into my Internet service along with an e911 service from Anveo for emergency 911 calls ($15/year) that allows me to use a regular phone in my house over the Internet virtually for free. Many households just eliminate a home phone altogether in favor of an all-cellular approach. We chose not to take this route at the time as our kids didn't have cell phones and I still wanted to have a phone sitting in a consistent spot within the house for emergencies.
Traditional cable is headed the same direction. Cutting the cord (which is somewhat of a misnomer--you'll likely always have a wire of some sort coming into your household) has become truly viable in the past few years. As my spouse is somewhat of a Luddite, I didn't consider "Internet TV" a viable option--until recently. While you're improving the speed and security of your Internet, it's wise to evaluate your other communication and entertainment providers. We found that almost everything the family wanted to consume could come from streaming providers and the Internet in general.
As an avid book reader, I had enjoyed Amazon Prime for some time. Oddly, I hadn't really leveraged the Prime Video subscription. I installed the app on our smart TVs and began enjoying some of the shows and movies. The family also explored Netflix and enjoyed several shows there. Last year, Disney+ launched which ended up enabling this whole plan. My family enjoys a lot of Disney content as well as ESPN. The Disney bundle of Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu fit perfectly with our needs in the household. We've kept Netflix for now but I keep nudging to ditch that now that we have all the other providers.
Shortly after subscribing to Disney+, my plan hit a significant snag: our smart TVs lacked apps for either Disney+ or ESPN+. Oh no! Never fear, Roku is here. There are lots of "streaming sticks" (Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Google Chromecast, etc.) or essentially small computers on a USB drive which you can plug in to your smart TV to stream content from the various providers. This gets you out from under the mercy of the TV manufacturer app development team onto a more agnostic solution. I chose Roku as it best matched the providers I use and thought we might use in the future. It also seemed to be the most independent. My thought was Amazon would be biased with Fire and Apple with Apple TV or potentially block other providers in the future. Unlikely but I liked Roku's seemingly independent situation.
Negotiate with the Family
Knowing your current situation, what everyone in your household needs (and wants) as well as some modern, viable alternatives, you can start to negotiate. Certain members of my family (who will go unnamed) went kicking and screaming while others fully embraced my Internet-only scheme. As of now, everyone enjoys a great solution to most if not all of their wants and needs.
For a long time, we enjoyed phone, Internet, and cable from AT&T U-verse. I'm pretty sure I was the first customer in my neighborhood back in 2006. The Internet was fast (for that time), reliable, and the television offering broad. Eventually though, they kept raising prices. I would call, threaten to switch, and they would lower my bill back down or put me on some new "package"--until they wouldn't. When AT&T acquired DirectTV, they would only drop my price if I got satellite TV. Seeing the writing on the wall with streaming content, I didn't want to adopt satellite TV. Eventually, I dropped U-verse in favor of a newer cable provider Wide Open West (WOW). For several years, we leveraged the phone, cable, Internet bundle from WOW without issue. Then they started the price raise game too. We went back and forth with the cancellation threats and price reduction for a few years until I decided to "cut the cord"--but I couldn't do this in a vacuum without buy-in from my family.
Armed with our current costs, my families preferences and needs, along with the incredible options and flexibility available, you can now negotiate with the family. I thought about what's most important to that person and how best to sell them on my approach.
- My wife: money talks. She loves being frugal but she also loves Disney and some specific shows. I led with the cost savings (over $1,000/year!) and the Disney+ subscription. She's also a safety advocate and having the existing Internet-based phone with e911 service brought comfort
- My oldest son: lives for watching sports. Glued to ESPN. The ESPN+ subscription appealed to his sports appetite and won him over. He has an iPhone now and likes to stream ESPN--constantly
- My youngest son: plays online games with his friends, watches a lot of YouTube (much to my chagrin), and wants to upload his gaming videos fast. He plays/streams in the basement away from any wired connections so he wanted fast Wi-Fi in particular
With my approach and sales pitch, I earned buy-in from the family. Now on to implementation...
Build it and they will Come
I first built out a purchase list. There were a number of items I needed to buy to make this all work:
- Satellite Wi-Fi access points. After extensive evaluation (which is outside the scope of this write-up), I chose the Orbi RBK50. ($300) One of the access points plugs into the router while the other two act as wireless satellites. If I'm moving throughout the house and the signal decreases, it automatically moves me onto one of the other satellites. It's just like what you've grown to expect while moving around at your office with your laptop. It also eliminates the dead-spot problems in your house. If you place a single access point in a particular room in your house, the locations within your house furthest or behind thick walls (or below ground) from the device will suffer slow speeds or won't even connect. I experimented over time with the location of these devices--improving their performance leveraging the provided tools.
- Streaming TV devices. As detailed above, I purchased Roku devices for all our smart TVs. I chose the Roku Streaming Stick+. They were fairly inexpensive ($50), streamed 4k, and have a really solid on-screen user interface and remote control. They were easy to install (plugs right in to the USB and HDMI input slots) and join to my Wi-Fi. There are also no on-going costs or subscription.
- HD Antennas. These got me some of the local channels my family said were a must-have. What are they watching the local news? Heck no. Local sports. We're big Buckeye fans and often the non-conference games are shown on the local stations. Living in a major metropolitan area, we're within 30 miles of a half-dozen stations broadcasting strong HD signals. I bought two HD antennas off the shelf. ($30). You can find your local HD stations on the FCC site.
- Streaming providers. We already had Amazon Prime and Netflix. Keeping the peace, I decided to keep those for the time being. Disney offered early subscribers the Disney+, ESPN+, Hulu bundle for around $10/month.
- Cable modem. This device takes the Internet signal from the cable coming into the house and transforms it to Ethernet (standard networking protocol/wire). I could have rented/leveraged a cable modem from WOW but I didn't want the garbage that included. Often, cable companies place a ton of garbage apps on their modems/routers causing traffic to slow. My brother-in-law tripled his Internet speed at one point by replacing his cable company provided modem/router with a store-bought one. I went with the Arris SB8200 cable modem ($150). Ok, why this one? Without getting into the details, it uses something called DOCSIS 3.1 which enables Gigabit speeds. I didn't want my modem to be a bottleneck to the speed of the cable Internet. It would be a waste to get say 200Mbps from the cable company to a cable modem that only supported 100Mbps. More on that later.
That was it. I already had the OBITalk Internet phone device and actual physical phones, smart TVs, and other networking equipment (more on that later). Even adding the Disney+ and calculating in the Netflix costs ($13/month...I didn't account for the Prime cost as it provides other benefits...good market positioning, Amazon), we would still save over $1,000 a year!
Next, I soft-launched the family. I set up my new satellite Wi-Fi access points (Orbi) and the streaming devices (Roku). Despite using the same network name of my previous Wi-Fi access points, it took a while and some effort to move our almost 20 (seriously?) Internet-enabled devices onto this new Wi-Fi network. With voice devices, smart phones, TVs, tablets, computers, and the one-off devices, we have a lot of connections. I then educated the family on using the new streaming TV devices and let them play around and get used to the new solution for a few weeks. I urged them to avoid the old cable and other systems to see what it would be like when we went Internet-only. When they encountered an issue, we worked through it. Some of these included missing apps or subscriptions as well as education opportunities.
Once I was confident the Internet-only plan would succeed, I re-contacted WOW. I liked WOW, had had a good experience with them, and didn't really want to switch. I compared their just-Internet plans and found theirs to be the best in my area ($45/month for 200Mbps). Even in 2019, Internet-only was unusual despite the WOW offering. As such, this involved some additional conversations and negotiating. Eventually, we set a date to cut over and discussed how I should return all their equipment. Incidentally, I saved a ton of monthly costs here. The cable company makes a lot of recurring revenue off monthly set-top box and router "rental" charges.
The cut-over date arrived and I plugged in my cable modem. I then connected the cable modem to the existing network. We had a few snags but everything started working and seemed great.
Life went on. The family enjoyed our new streaming services and despite a few challenges, everything seemed to work just fine--until it didn't. In March of 2020, COVID-19 hit and the entire family began to operate out of the house. We relied heavily on the Internet. Blessed to be in a position to work from home, I was grateful beyond belief at putting my Internet-only plan into action just months beforehand. The kids were able to connect to their schools, my wife delivered video instruction from home, and I was able to connect and work remotely. Using Zoom extensively, I began to notice lag on some calls. I attributed it to the family and would ask the kids to stop streaming. Then it started to get worse--and at times when I knew I was the only one using the Internet. I ran a quick speed test: 45Mbps?! What?
I assumed this slow Internet was my Wi-Fi connection or a cable company issue. I restarted my access points and the cable modem. No better. Next, I checked my Wi-Fi signal. I noticed my laptop was on 2.4GHz instead of 5.0GHz. For some reason, my laptop has to be right next to the access point when first connecting to get a 5.0GHz connection. Fine. I re-tested the speed. It was a little faster but not much. It should be at least 3-4x faster. On to the cable company. The cable company tested speeds to the modem claiming 200+Mbps. They could come out for a service call but it they determine the issue is mine, I would have to pay for the visit. No, I can figure this out.
I updated the firmware on all my devices. No improvement. I bought a new managed switch (distributes traffic from Internet cable modem to other devices via Ethernet) for $35. Connecting this between my cable modem and devices yielded no improvement. What was going on?
Finally, I plugged my laptop straight in to the switch. Jackpot. 220Mbps! Crazy fast Internet--and even more than what my cable provider guarantees. I had determined the issue was inside the home network and downstream of the cable router and the switch. I next plugged my laptop into a jack in my home office connected via Ethernet to the switch. (My home builder wired the house with CAT-5 Ethernet cables.) It was the slower speed. Ok, now we were making progress. By narrowing the problem with troubleshooting, I knew the issue was somewhere between the jack and the switch.
When I first moved into the house, Wi-Fi speeds and connectivity were fairly slow (in general). I decided I would split part of the Ethernet cable (it's comprised of 4 twisted pair--one pair can carry a signal...just not as fast) to create both a data and a voice jack to various points of the house. At the time, this was a great solution which enabled me to plug in phones and devices to a faster, wired connection. It also enabled me to place my previous Wi-Fi access point upstairs (my Internet/cable enters the house through the foundation in the basement) where it could enjoy improved connectivity and signal strength. The Ethernet cable twisted pairs split with one pair for voice and the other three for data. Using a networking board/panel in my basement "networking closet" (where all the cables come together) I converted those wire pairs into plugs. Those plugs connect to the switch to carry the data over the cable modem and out onto the Internet.
There are two problems here (both of which were my fault): CAT-5 Ethernet cables lose speed as you repurpose the twisted pairs (I had essentially cut the horsepower by 25%) but perhaps most importantly, my converter/patch panel equipment was quite old and only supported 100Mbps (or something...not really sure...just think slow). I felt like a knucklehead. My slick home network I built 15 years earlier was stifling my Internet. As Tony Stark says, it was time to go "...back in hardware mode".
On the jacks, I moved the one wire pair over to the data jack and punched down the wires. Now all four twisted pairs connected to the data jack. I did the same for the converter/patch panel in my networking closet. Bingo! Plugging my laptop into the Ethernet jack and running a speed test, I saw speeds in excess of 200Mbps! I plugged my Orbi access point into the Ethernet jack and witnessed Wi-Fi speeds almost just as high. Mystery solved! ("I would have gotten away with it if it hadn't been for you meddling kids!" -- Old-guy Scooby-Doo 1970's cartoon reference.)
Reliability...your Livelihood now Depends on It
Achieving fast Internet granted me hero status with my family, I got a promotion at work, met Mark Cuban...and they all lived happily ever after. Ok, none of that happened. In truth my family stopped griping about the Internet and chose to find grief with other concerns: it's hot, I'm bored, do something useful, etc. I on the other hand recognized an immediate improvement in video calls and Internet performance.
With the current and ever-changing situation, we spend a disproportionate amount of time at home. That time often involves the Internet. Connectivity and reliable connectivity has never been more important. Your career, your livelihood, the perceptions of others, and your kids' education may rely solely on your Internet connection. If, like me, you're blessed to be in a situation where you can work from home, your success and your family's success (and emotional state) may hinge on a reliable Internet connection.
I helped advise a senior leader in my firm last month on improving his Zoom conferencing speed. Every time he spoke (and he's a smart guy--he usually says some really intelligent things), he cut out. I could just feel the other participants cringing. His messaging got lost and the perception of his capabilities dropped. Is this fair? Certainly not. It doesn't matter. Perception is reality. If your connection isn't performing, it's a poor reflection on you. Right or wrong (wrong...but again, it doesn't matter.)
My family and coworkers didn't appreciate my fast Internet. They didn't appreciate it because it's now an expectation. They expect it to be always available, secure, and fast. I didn't get any credit for getting it all working but I certainly got grief and my colleague's perception and effectiveness suffered when the Internet was slow.
If you simply use what your cable or Internet provider gave you when first starting up with them, evaluate your speed (run a speed test) and how you consume content. Do you really need cable? Is your Internet fast enough for your household? What is your current plan? Could you save money while getting superior service and content? Periodically, perform a speed test. Track your speed over time. If you witness a dip, look into it. What's changed? Are you online more often? Kids back "in school" (at home)? Neighbor stealing your Wi-Fi (don't laugh, I've seen it)? Maybe your modem or router is just acting up. Give it a restart.
We haven't discussed security but it warrants a conversation. With the shift to work from home, nefarious actors have begun to shift their focus to consumers and those working remotely. It's a lot easier to attack your employer through a home network than directly into the company. It's always a game of cat and mouse with escalating attacks and protections. We must stay constantly vigilant in our defenses:
- Updates. Check all your networking equipment (modems, switches, Wi-Fi access points, etc.) and devices (computers, phones, etc.) at least every other month for available updates. Often, you can (and should) subscribe to manufacturer email alerts about vulnerabilities and firmware patches. If possible, set your devices to update automatically.
- Anti-virus software and firewalls. Make sure you enable and/or install anti-virus and firewall software on all your devices. If the device didn't come with this software, you need to install and configure it.
- Backups. On all devices, maintain a cloud-based, automated backup solution. This software automatically backs up your work to a cloud storage location. It should work with all your devices: computers, phones, etc. In the event your device is lost, stolen, or worse infected with ransomware or unrecoverable malware, you could recover all your documents and photos from the cloud backup.
- Privacy. I've been considering options here lately. For all work, my company has a secure, encrypted connection. There's no reason why you can't do the same. You may want to consider a VPN solution to encrypt all your Internet traffic. This may help in keeping your personal data safer.
- Respond don't react. The criminals on the Internet keep getting more and more clever. You'll get emails or even phone calls to click or call about an account issue. Don't react to these prompts. Instead of clicking, log on to your account by opening a browser and typing in the address. Get a voicemail about an account issue? Call the customer service number of the company using their web site contact or number on the back of your credit card.
- Wi-Fi. Set the security to the highest level on your Wi-Fi access point. Some devices may not function or connect as a trade-off. Make your password complicated. Change it occasionally. Don't allow anyone on your home network--or if you must, enable a Guest Wi-Fi network with a separate password (make sure your Wi-Fi access point has this feature before you buy).
Have a Backup Plan
Despite all your efforts, stuff happens. With your Internet provider, you have a single point of failure. The service can go down. Your landscaper cuts the cable. It happens. What's your backup plan? Prior to COVID-19, my backup plan was a local coffee shop or even just to go into the office. This may no longer be a viable option. Do you have a friend with a business or a family member who lives in another part of town (with an alternative Internet provider)? A co-working location? Talk to them ahead of time to work out a contingency plan. If all else fails, most cellular providers let you use your phone (or even provide separate devices) as an Internet access point / mobile hotspot. Until 5G proliferates, treat this solution as a temporary plan with limited bandwidth.
If your work and connectivity is mission-critical, you should consider redundant Internet connections. Perhaps you have multiple Internet providers. For this to work, you would also need power-interruption solutions and a lot of practice runs. As an advanced solution, you likely would want to find a network professional in your area.
In these new and challenging times, your family, your career, your livelihood, and your sanity may hinge on the reliability and performance of your home Internet connection. Use my experiences and the plan here to establish reliable, high-performing home Internet at a very reasonable cost. Post any questions below. I would love to help you.