This is a very common problem with the high bandwidth demands of so many internet users now, plus the high number of devices connecting via Wi-Fi in many homes now. But does the number of users actually affect the Wi-Fi speeds we get in a house?
Here is a general answer:
Wi-Fi speed is affected by the number of users, since the total available bandwidth on an internet package is shared between all the users and is not a per-person allocation. Therefor, the more users are connected, the more the available bandwidth has to be shared out, decreasing the speeds each user can get.
Signal strength, as well as broader network usage across a local area or country can also affect the speeds users get.
The fundamental way in which Wi-Fi works means it is prone to network congestion, as well as degrading signals, which means that we won’t always get the internet speeds we expect in the home.
Thankfully, there are ways around this, like switching to wired connections and using dual band Wi-Fi and other settings to better manage traffic on Wi-Fi networks so users get an adequate speed. There are also products available now to boost Wi-Fi coverage in the home for better signals further away from the router.
Let’s look at all these factors in turn, plus some solutions and explanations if your Wi-Fi speed is slower than you’re expecting right now.
Bandwidth is Shared By The Number of Users on The Network
This is the crucial point to mention first. The headline advertised maximum speeds on a Wi-Fi package (eg. 100 Mbps) are for the entire package, not for every single connection to that router. In other words, if you have 4 users in the house on a 100 Meg package, then that 100 Megs is shared between the four, not 100 Megs each.
Internet plan speeds are per household connection/router, not per device.
Therefore, if all 4 users are connecting at once, perhaps two of them streaming in HD, and another one downloading, the downloader may wonder why his file is taking so long to download when he has such a fast internet package. It’s because he won’t be getting the full amount, because it’s having to be shared between all the users.
Routers have to share total available bandwidth between all connecting devices
Speeds Can Be Slower During Peak Usage Periods
Another external factor that can affect internet speeds is the more general traffic demands in the wider local area, not just within a home. ISPs may have to reduce the speeds available to each individual home at peak usage times (generally considered to be weekday evenings 7pm – 11-12pm, plus weekends), when more people are at home using the internet.
This is one reason why we don’t always get the internet speeds we pay for, since internet providers can’t always provide the maximum possible speeds at all times due to traffic demands. Regulation has been tightened in some countries to account for this and force ISPs to only advertise average peak time speeds, and not theoretical maximums they’ll rarely if ever be able to deliver.
In other words, it may not be your own Wi-Fi network signal or congestion that’s causing poor speeds, but a more general throttling of bandwidth in your area because current demand is very high. Or it may be a combination of both factors. It can be hard to separate the two out sometimes, but we’ll cover some tips to best solve congestion within your home in the following sections, so at least that’s covered.
Managing Traffic on Busy Home Networks
There’s not much we can do about external factors like bandwidth restrictions at peak times, but there’s plenty we can do to optimize network connections within the home to get the best possible signal, and manage traffic demands, so users get the best speeds they can at any given moment. Let’s look at some best practices to achieve this.
Tip #1 – Get crucial devices onto Ethernet Connections
A crucial factor in understanding why wired connections are much better than wireless ones is to understand how Wi-Fi works, and why it is so prone to congestion.
Basically, Wi-Fi works on a Half Duplex system, meaning devices on a Wi-Fi band can only send OR receive data at any given moment, and only ONE device at a time can send or receive. In other words, devices have to “queue up” and wait in line for the router to process their requests when on Wi-Fi, and whilst routers do process data very fast, it can cause delays and lag/buffering on busy home networks, as the router is having to “juggle” everyone’s requests at once.
By contrast, wired connections operate on a direct, un-congested connection to the router via an ethernet port, and operate on Full Duplex, meaning they can send and receive simultaneously with no delays, and multiple devices can do so through the multiple ports on the back of a router. There’s nowhere near the same congestion and delay issues than with Wi-Fi, which is why wired is always recommended for gamers especially.
This is why it’s always better to get on a wired connection if possible, especially for streaming or gaming. You can easily get ethernet cables of 10m, or longer on Amazon.
For users too far away from the router to be running a cable directly, then the next best option is a powerline adapter, which delivers ethernet connections via a pair of plugs installed in two wall sockets around the home.
The data is sent over the existing house circuitry and powerline technology can be an excellent solution in homes with good wiring. They can be a clever way of bypassing Wi-Fi if the signal is weak and switching to wired, even when a long way from the router.
Tip # 2 – Use Dual Band Wi-Fi to Split Your Network
This is another trick to try for users who have to stay on Wi-Fi, but at least want to better manage Wi-Fi traffic. Most modern routers and Dual Band now – meaning the Wi-Fi is split into a 2.4 GHz and 5GHz band – so it can be a good idea to spread out traffic across these bands, so that no one band gets too congested with too many devices.
If dual band is already enabled, then it’s all good – you should have two separate access points (one for 2.4 GHz and one for 5 GHz) with their own SSID and password – so you just need to connect some devices to one band and some to another so no one band is clogged up with too many users.
If Dual band isn’t enabled, here are the steps to turn it on:
- Log into your router by typing it’s IP address into a browser address bar. The most common are 192.168.0.1 (or 192.168.1.1 or 192.168.1.254). Then type in the admin/password which will be on the back of the router if you haven’t changed it.
- Once logged into your router, you are looking for Wireless Settings or something similar. Or possibly go to Advanced Settings then to Wireless
- There is usually a toggle/switch/option somewhere to set Separate Bands on or off. Or it may say “Use different names and passwords for 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz Wi-Fi” or something similar.
- However it’s worded, make sure it is set to On, or the box to allow splitting is checked.
- If this option is available, then your router will create separate names for your 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands.
- Note these two SSIDs down, plus the passwords for each.
- Save settings and exit router.
- You then connect devices to whichever of these two SSIDs (2.4 or 5 GHz) you want, spreading out traffic evenly over both bands to reduce congestion on any one band.
- See the video below for a demonstration for Comcast routers. The general process is similar for all routers and brands.
Tip #3 – Use Quality of Service (QoS) to Prioritize Network Traffic
This is another clever trick to help prioritize traffic on a busy home network. Some routers have a Quality of Service or QoS setting that allows devices to be prioritized on the network in order of importance, so that the router handles their traffic requests first.
Here are the quick steps to set up QoS:
- Find the MAC address of your devices in Connection Settings/Status of each device
- Log into your router (type 192.168.0.1 or 192.168.1.1 into any browser, plus the router admin/password)
- Find QoS Settings if they are available
- Select your devices using the MAC addresses you found earlier.
- Set the appropriate priority for each device (Low, medium, high, maximum – see below)
- Save settings and exit router.
- See our full article on QoS for much more detailed steps.
- QoS is not available on all routers.
Here is the general order of importance of devices on a home network:
- Gaming devices – need maximum priority because they need low network delay or latency/ping to keep lag down.
- Streaming devices – need reasonably high priority to prevent buffering, but not quite as much as gamers.
- General browsing – email, social media, general website browsing. A little bit of delay doesn’t ruin the experience, so can have moderate to low priority
Tip #4 – Adjust Streaming Settings
This is another quick trick that can reduce bandwidth demands when it’s busy on the network. You can easily adjust the quality/resolution of YouTube videos by clicking on the settings cog at the bottom right of videos. Turning the quality down can save on bandwidth.
For Netflix streamers, see here for their required and recommended connection speeds for streaming at different resolutions, and here for changing settings to use less bandwidth. Streaming at 720p or above is considered HD/UHD and is the real bandwidth heavy setting. Going down to 480p (SD) or less can save a lot of data.
Other Factors Which Affect Wi-Fi Speed
Now we’ve covered the impact of network usage and congestion on Wi-Fi speeds, let’s look at some other factors that can influence the speeds you’ll get from your Wi-Fi.
1. Strength of the Wi-Fi Signal – A huge factor, perhaps the most important. Wi-Fi naturally weakens over distance as do all RF waves, and weakens further the more obstacles like walls and floors are in the way. In other words, the further you are from your router, the weaker your signal and the slower the speeds will be on Wi-Fi.
Here are some things to try to refresh or improve the signal for better speeds in this regard:
- Move closer to your router.
- Move obstructions out the way.
- Reset router and devices.
- Update router and devices
- Disable and re-enable network adapters (PCs and laptops)
- Update network adapters
- Change DNS servers (see here for games console and here for PCs).
- See our full guide on fixing disconnecting Wi-Fi for steps on how to do all these things.
- Use home networking solutions to boost the Wi-Fi signal or switch to wired. Your three main options here are Wi-Fi repeaters/extenders (capture and boost existing router signal), Powerline adapters (send a wired connection through house wiring via a pair of adapter plugs), and Wi-Fi Mesh Systems (more advanced and expensive versions of simple extenders, with multiple nodes to install around the home for widespread Wi-Fi coverage in large properties). See comparison articles:
2. Network Infrastructure – General speeds can also drop not just due to congestion and peak time demand, but also due to server errors or faults from your ISP. This can be a diagnostic issue – you might sometimes have slow speeds thinking it’s an internal issue, but it can on occasion be an external issue with service disruptions from your provider.
- Storms can take out power and internet infrastructure, affecting speeds or cutting the service off altogether.
- Heavy rain and moisture can affect the Wi-Fi signal between buildings and from cell towers.
- See our full article for a look at the full impact of wind and other weather on internet speeds.
- The submarine cables which transmit internet data between countries and continents can sometimes get damaged, meaning traffic has to be re-routed, lowering internet speeds in different parts of the world.
Getting Faster Internet
If you find the bandwidth demands in your home have outstripped the current package you’re on, then it can make sense to upgrade to a better package with high speeds, so each user gets access to potentially more bandwidth.
However, it is also a good idea to make sure you’ve fully optimized your current network (switching to wired, boosting signal, managing congestion) before paying for sometimes expensive package upgrades. We’ve tried to provide some tips to do this above.
However, if you want to get faster internet, there are always packages available, with higher and higher top end speeds every year. See the table below for higher speed packages from the main American internet providers.
|Provider||Package 1 Download Speed (mbps)||Package 2 Download Speed (mbps)||Package 3 Download Speed (mbps)||Population Covered (Millions) 2018|
|Comcast Xfinity||100||150||250||100 million*|
|Verizon Fios||100||300||940||34 million*|
|AT&T Fibre||100||300||1000||15 million*|
|Century Link||40||100||1000||11 million*|
*Not all providers are available in all areas. They have a ZIP code tool to check availability in your area.
UK readers can consult our article on top fibre packages from the main ISPs there. For Brits living in major city centres, check out Hyperoptic for a superfast Fibre to the Home (FTTH) provider, with ultra fast packages.
There are also search engines available that can find you some excellent deals on standard and fiber broadband, from other providers away from the usual big players.
For American readers, check out this excellent search tool for different internet packages in the USA (readers in other countries click the links for search tools for UK, Canada and Australia instead).
Click the blue Filter button and from there you can filter for what you’re looking for in terms of speeds, cost, contract length and many other factors. It’s an excellent tool and you can find some great deals, though you may have to shop around to find a service available in your area.