by Mikhail Seregine, the speediest cofounder at Outschool

It’s so frustrating when technology gets in the way of learning. You’re trying to open a Khan Academy video, or installing Minecraft, or just clicking links on Wikipedia, and it’s taking forever to load. Is something wrong with the link you’re using? Your laptop? Your Internet connection? The great cloudy Internet itself? Why can’t this stuff just work?

At Outschool, we’re obsessed with perfecting our online classes for teachers and learners. We want to get the technology right so it gets out of your way. Most of the time, it’s amazing. Hundreds of group live online classes are meeting this week. Kids from around the country and beyond are learning together: math, songwriting, falconry and more. These live classes would have been infeasible just a few years ago, but demand for streaming video services and smartphones pushed Internet infrastructure forward.

Still, we do occasionally hear from parents who have trouble joining the class. Sometimes it’s miscommunication, or a computer problem. Most commonly, though, it’s about the Internet connection.

Today, let’s focus on your Internet connection speed. If your connection is slow, then everything you do online will slow down. We’ll measure your speed and figure out what it means. We’ll look into some possible causes. Then we can consider what to do about it, and what else we can learn while we’re at it.

Measurement: how slow is it?

The short version: just go to fast.com and wait for the test to finish.

The detailed steps:

  1. Choose your device: phone, laptop, tablet, anything works.
  2. Make sure it’s connected to the same connection you’re trying to measure. So, if you’re using your phone, make sure you’re connected to your home WiFi. Otherwise you would be measuring the data speed of your mobile network (also interesting in its own right).
  3. Open a Web browser on your device.
  4. Go to https://fast.com in the browser on your device.
  5. Wait for the test to finish (the spinner will stop and the text will turn black).
  6. You should see something like this:
     
  7. Record the result, the time and date, what device you used and where you were located.

Analysis: what does this number mean?

“Mbps”, or “megabits per second”, describes how much data can be received by your device in one second. Confusingly, a megabit is 8x smaller than a megabyte, so these speeds are not quite as fast as you might think. Here’s how I suggest thinking about them:

 

Below 2 Mbps. Do consider an upgrade. In 2017, most websites are designed for faster connections, so you’re viewing the Internet in slo-mo.

2 – 5Mbps. Expect delays. This can still be a good experience for one user, but will quickly slow down as you add more people and devices.

5Mbps – 15Mbps. Below average, but pretty usable most of the time.

15Mbps – 50Mbps. Reliable with a few hiccups.

Over 50Mbps. You’re living in the future!

 

A few points for comparison: Akamai’s 2017 “State of the Internet” report says that the average broadband connection in the U.S. is 18.7 Mbps. I measured 3.6Mbps on a busy day at my public library, and 260Mbps on a fast fiber connection at night.

 

At Outschool, we recommend at least 1.2Mbps for group video chat. If your speed is close to that, take care to avoid streaming movies at the same time, and generally limit competing usage.

Research: Why is it slow?

Let’s understand that number better. Can you get different results by changing how you measure it?

 

  • Is the Internet slow, or your device? Repeat the test with another device and compare results.
  • Analyze WiFi interference. Measure your internet speed from the same WiFi-connected device in different locations around the house, to see whether/how the signal strength varies as you get further away from the router. And read on for more advanced WiFi tools.
  • Is it always slow, or only when the game is on? Measure your Internet speed (with the same device in the same location) at different times of day and night to see how Internet congestion (or other users at your home) affect the results.
  • How slow can you make it?  Measure your Internet speed when no one else is using the Internet at your home. Then open two separate browser windows and start the test simultaneously in both of them. Next, run a speed test while trying to watch a YouTube or Netflix video. It’s a race!

 

Action: how can you make it faster?

Here are a few specific ways to make your connection faster.

 

  • Try a wired connection.
    A common cause of slow connections is the distance between your WiFi router and your device, especially if there are solid walls or large metal objects in the way. Connecting your device to the router with a cable rules out all of those possibilities. Most computers and routers can be connected with an Ethernet cable (you may need an Ethernet/USB adapter for your computer).
  • Compare with other broadband providers.
    If you haven’t shopped around lately, you may have new options in your area. This tool lets you look up all of the Internet broadband plans available for your address:
    https://www.whistleout.com/Internet
  • Consider using your mobile data plan for your home internet.
    Most cell carriers offer “unlimited” data plans and let you add an extra line with a wireless modem that replaces your ISP’s modem. Do keep an eye on the fine print: these data plans often “throttle” your speed after you exceed some data usage in a given month, e.g. after you use 4GB of data. The throttled speed is much less pleasant. You can usually ask your current Internet provider how much data you’re using.

 

But should you make it faster? One danger of quantitative measurement is that it’s easy to take the numbers too seriously. You probably wouldn’t notice a 20% improvement. It’s only worth the effort to switch plans if you at least double the speed, or get a much better deal. And if your connection is already fast, say 50Mbps, then going to 100Mbps won’t feel that much faster.

Learning more

This often happens with scientific inquiry: the first simple experiment creates more questions, and more ideas for more experiments.  Here are some questions to explore, maybe even as a lesson plan:

 

  • Has your speed gotten worse this year? Do a long-term study: repeat the measurements monthly and keep a record of the results. Your speed can change significantly when your ISP adds capacity or more users are added to a shared line.
  • What’s the fastest result you can get? Find the optimal time of day, day of week, and location (if you’re using a wireless signal).
  • Is your phone faster? Compare the speed of your home Internet to your mobile phone’s data plan (be careful if your data plan has limited data caps, as the speed test can consume).
  • Can you trust your tools? Why did Netflix build and release fast.com? What do its critics say about it? And who pays the critics? Start by Googling “why Netflix built fast.com”.
  • How does the Internet work? Step back and learn about how networks work. We have some great classes about the building blocks of the Internet on Outschool.
  • Try other tools. For WiFi issues, you can download “WiFi analyzer” apps that show you more detail and can help troubleshoot interference issues.
  • Share your results. Post a comment and tell us what you measured!

Mikhail Seregine is a co-founder of Outschool, the marketplace of live online classes for K-12. He owns 4 WiFi routers, spends half of his days online, and is very sensitive to slow connections.