You May Not Be Getting the Internet Speed You Paid for—Here’s Why

Companies overpromise, but there are things you can do, too

  • The internet speed you pay for isn’t always accurate, according to a recent study. 
  • Many ISPs take on too many customers to the detriment of their internet service. 
  • You can move your Wi-Fi router to a better location to improve your internet speed.
Closeup on a smartphone with SpeedTest internet speed testing results displaying on the screen.

Mika Baumeister / Unspalsh

If your home internet connection doesn't seem as fast as it should be, you might not be imagining things. 

 A new study finds that home internet speeds routinely fail to match the advertised "up to" speeds of several ISPs. Experts say that numerous issues on the ISP side could be the culprit for slower than advertised speeds.

"Most ISPs oversubscribe their connections," Ritesh Mukherjee, the senior vice president for enterprise networking at Inseego, a 5G networking company, told Lifewire in an email interview. "As a result, every customer in the area does not get the advertised rates during peak usage periods. Network congestion, time of day, type of network (fiber vs. cable vs. DSL), oversubscription ratio, and distance from the ISP all affect how slow the connections may get.

Sluggish Surfing

Consumer Reports recently conducted a study that found that many users have broadband speed limitations. The nonprofit consumer organization found problems for consumers paying for 'premium' plans purporting to offer download speeds of between 940 and 1,200 Mbps, who actually experienced median speeds of between 360 and 373 Mbps.  

"In addition, we found that a large number of consumers who participated in our study pay as much or more for a sub-broadband plan (which is generally defined as a download speed of less than 25 Mbps) as other consumers pay for advertised speeds of 300 Mbps or higher," the organization wrote in the news release. 

A hand holding a smartphone on the beach with internet speed test results displayed on the screen.

Frederik Lipfert / Unsplash

Mukherjee noted that your ISP is not always at fault for slower-than-advertised speeds. He said the problem could include older routers, poorly configured Wi-Fi connection, distance from the Wi-Fi access point, many devices sharing a single ISP connection, and carrier plans purchased. 

But numerous issues on the ISP side could be the culprit for slower than advertised speeds, he said. "Due to rising competition, ISPs advertise higher or the best possible speeds," he added. "These speeds may deteriorate during peak usage when the technology shares throughput upstream (like cable) with many households and is oversubscribed."

Michael Miller, the CEO of VPNOnline, said in an email interview that ISP speeds are often not what they promise because of how the companies measure their speed. He said ISPs use a process called "traffic shaping" to slow down certain types of traffic, such as torrents. 

"In this way, they can guarantee that all customers have a certain level of service at any given time, no matter how much bandwidth they've been using up," Miller added. 

Speeding Things Up

You aren't helpless when it comes to improving your connection speed. Mukherjee suggested you update your router and Wi-Fi equipment to support the latest standards and speeds. For example, if you have a cable gigabit plan, you should use a DOCSIS 3.1 modem. If you are using Wi-Fi, ensure your router supports Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax).

One thing to try is moving your internet equipment to the correct location, Mukherjee said. "If you are using 5G Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), moving the CPE to an area with a stronger signal will improve speed. If you are using Wi-Fi, then make sure it is in a central location, so you are closer to it at most times. Switching to a wired connection may help if the Wi-Fi signal is poor," he added. 

Regulate applications and users who might be hogging the bandwidth. Streaming applications or downloading large files can result in a giant bandwidth hog. A router with QoS capabilities to manage application usage of bandwidth can help. Changing the DNS provider may also help.

Miller said the one thing users can do to speed up their internet connection is to identify the kind of connection they have. Is it a wired or wireless connection? If it's a wireless connection, users should ensure that there are no other wireless devices connected to the same network. If there are other wireless devices connected, disconnect them.

"If it's a wired connection, users should check if the cable running from their modem to their computer is plugged in properly," he added. "They should also check whether or not a surge protector is preventing electricity from reaching their modem."

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