How to speed up your internet connection

Man's hands hold a tablet with buffering video.
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Internet connections can always be faster. Whether your downloads are crawling, streaming feels like a slideshow, or you just want to maximize your speed, here’s how to speed up that connection.

Depending on your internet service provider (ISP), you can often get faster speeds by calling them (or visiting their website) and upgrading to a more expensive plan. Your monthly bill goes up, but so does your speed. But before you do, here are some tips that can speed up your connection for free.

Optimize your WiFi and local network

Many problems with local networks, especially those with Wi-Fi, are the cause of poor internet speeds. Before looking at your internet connection, it’s worth making sure that your local network is fine.

The simplest solution to poor network performance is to turn off your router (and modem, if separate), count to ten, and then turn it back on. This is called “power-cycling” your router and it can often speed things up.

Choose a Wi-Fi channel from a basic router configuration menu.

If you’re using Wi-Fi instead of wired Ethernet, it’s a good idea to minimize interference from nearby networks, which can cause speed drops and network outages. If you see a lot of other networks on your devices when you connect to your home Wi-Fi network, you’ll probably benefit from choosing a Wi-Fi channel that has the least interference.

If you have a modern router that supports the 5 GHz band, you should use it whenever possible. Using the 5 GHz band results in faster speeds and less interference. If you have an 802.11ac-compatible dual-band router, you will see two networks appear when you connect. You can name them accordingly under your router configuration. Most routers have instructions for accessing this interface printed on the side of the device.

Router menu with both 2.4 and 5 GHz Wi-Fi bands checked.

While logged in, it’s worth downloading and installing any new firmware available for your router. Where to find this depends on the manufacturer and model you’re using, so look for “Software Update” or something similar.

Do not use an unsecured wireless network. If your network is open, anyone can jump on it and sap your bandwidth. Make sure your network is secured with WPA2 (AES) where possible. When enabled, all devices require a password to connect.

Bypassing wireless completely and using a wired Ethernet connection provides the best local network performance. You can also try moving your router to a better location, closer to the area where you use your wireless devices most often.

Finally, if your router is old (anywhere from two to five years), consider getting a new wireless router. Network equipment rarely gets a break and problems can arise depending on how heavily you use it. Newer routers support faster Wi-Fi standards, such as 802.11ac. For the best coverage, consider a mesh Wi-Fi system.

An old modem could also be your speed problem. If you’re not getting the speeds you pay for and you bought your modem a long time ago, it might be time to upgrade.

Test your speed

Now that your local network is working optimally, it’s time to test your internet speed. You can do this using a service such as Speedtest.net, Fast. comor even Google. If possible, run the test from a laptop with a wired Ethernet connection or move the device you are testing as close to the router as possible.

Make sure to run the speed test while not actively using your connection. If you’re streaming or downloading at the same time, you’re likely to get a lower result.

The results of an internet speed test on Fast.com.

You can run the test a few times to get the most reliable set of results. Now compare the speed you get with the speed you have should to get. It’s rare for real-world internet speeds to match those advertised by your service provider, but during off-peak hours you should get somewhere close.

Sometimes poor speeds can indicate a problem that only your service provider can fix. Think of replacing cables or installing new access points. However, before you pick up the phone, it is best to try the processes below. This way you can let your service provider know that you have tried everything to solve the problem.

Limit how much bandwidth you use

Your Internet connection provides you with a limited amount of bandwidth, which must be shared between all devices on your network. The more devices use the internet at the same time, the less bandwidth is available. Limiting how much you do at once can greatly improve your internet speed.

Certain activities consume a lot of bandwidth, for example:

  • Big downloads
  • Streaming content, especially 4K or 1080p video
  • Wi-Fi cameras and doorbells
  • BitTorrent transfers, including upstream traffic on some connections (e.g. ADSL)

Try to isolate any device that might be using more than the right amount of bandwidth. Ask other family members or roommates if they stream a lot of video or download files via BitTorrent. You may be getting the internet speed you pay for, but you’re trying to do too much at once with your current plan.

"Download restrictions" in Steam settings, schedule downloads between specific hours.

If you suspect this is the case, you can change some behaviors to try to help. Leave large downloads late into the night when no one is awake (you can schedule most BitTorrent clients). Set your smartphones and tablets to update automatically so they download the files they need while charging overnight.

If your router supports it, enable Quality of Service (QoS) in the control panel. This feature shares bandwidth more efficiently and prevents certain activities (such as torrent downloads) from bringing everything to a halt.

Change your DNS servers

The Domain Name System (DNS) is like the Internet’s address book. DNS resolves domain names (such as howtogeek.com) to the IP addresses of the server where data is stored. The speed at which DNS servers operate varies considerably. A slow DNS server means longer delays (more latency) when visiting websites.

Sometimes your choice of DNS server affects the IP addresses you receive, especially when websites spread the load of their traffic using Content Delivery Networks (CDNs).

Change DNS servers on a Mac.

By default, you use your service provider’s assigned DNS servers. These are probably not the fastest available to you. A better choice is to use DNS servers from Google (8.8.8.8 and 8.8.4.4) or CloudFlare (1.1.1.1). For best results, run a simple test to find the best DNS servers based on your geographic location.

The best way to make DNS changes is on your router. By changing the DNS server on your network hardware, you will see the improvement on every device that connects to it. The alternative is to change your DNS servers on every device you use.

Be mindful of software

Software can also cause internet speed problems. Something may be using your connection heavily while it’s running in the background. Windows users can launch the Task Manager (Ctrl+Alt+Del) to view a list of running processes. Sort by the “Network” column to see which processes are using your network connection. Kill everything you don’t need.

On a Mac, you can do the same thing by launching Activity Monitor, going to the “Network” tab, then sorting by “Sent Bytes” for upstream or “Rcvd Bytes” for downstream. For both Windows and Mac systems, it’s important to identify the processes so you understand why the software is using your connection. Search the web for process names that aren’t immediately obvious and decide if you need that app or not.

Activity Monitor window on a Mac showing all incoming and outgoing processes.

Malware and viruses can also be the source of unwanted network activity, especially on Windows machines. Regularly run a virus scan on Windows to protect yourself. Mac users can check out the anti-malware tools designed for Mac. Linux users generally don’t have to worry about malware.

If your computer is generally slow, browsing is probably slow too. Limiting the number of tabs open at the same time helps with this. You should also maintain a buffer of 10-20 GB of free space on your hard drive at all times. Learn how to create free space on Windows or how to keep your Mac tidy.

On mobile devices, Opera mini provides a faster browsing experience, especially on older devices.

Are you pinching off? Use a VPN

“Throttling” is when your ISP restricts certain types of traffic. For example, it may try to limit data-intensive activities such as file sharing and video streaming. It can also restrict certain types of traffic (such as BitTorrent transfers) or entire domains (such as youtube.com).

If performance is particularly poor when you do some things online and not others, your ISP may be throttling your connection. For example, you may experience slow streaming when you try to watch videos, but web searches load in an instant. You can easily test whether you are being restricted by using a virtual private network (VPN) to hide your online activities.

The drop-down menu to connect to a Virtual Private Network on NordVPN.

If you connect to a VPN, your internet speed will slow down slightly. How much depends on how far you are from the server. You can overcome this by choosing a VPN provider with servers closest to your geographic location.

Try to isolate what activities are causing the slowdown. Connect to your VPN and then try those activities again. If there’s no discernible difference, you probably won’t be choked. However, if you find that things run a lot smoother behind a VPN, you may want to have a firm word with your ISP.

When is it time to call your service provider?

If you’re convinced that slow Internet speeds aren’t your fault and that the speed you’re getting is significantly less than you’re paying for, it’s time to talk to your ISP. Likewise, if you suspect you are being throttled, you should discuss the issue with them as well.

Let your ISP know if you are not satisfied with the level of service you are receiving. If they are not receptive, threatening to leave can persuade them to solve the problem. However, if you don’t get anywhere and have the option to choose another provider, consider switching.

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