Why your Wi-Fi feels so slow some­times

The Denver Post - - FEATURES - By Brian Fung

Ran­dall Mun­roe, cre­ator of the pop­u­lar we­b­comic XKCD, is just like the rest of us: He strug­gles with In­ter­net re­li­a­bil­ity. In a new strip, Mun­roe ex­plains how weird it is that to get faster down­loads some­times, he has to turn off his phone’s Wi-Fi con­nec­tion and switch over to his cell­phone car­rier’s mo­bile data in­stead.

For some, that might sound coun­ter­in­tu­itive. Af­ter all, Wi-Fi con­nects you to your home In­ter­net — which you’d think would be plenty fast. So, why does your Wi-Fi get slow some­times, any­way?

His strip offers a won­der­ful op­por­tu­nity to talk about the de­tails of a tech­nol­ogy we all take for granted — Wi-Fi — and what kinds of poli­cies we could put in place to make things bet­ter.

It all boils down to the air­waves car­ry­ing in­for­ma­tion to your elec­tronic de­vice. You can think of these air­waves as lanes on a high­way. In many home Wi-Fi routers to­day, you’ll find two lanes. One whose waves op­er­ate at a fre­quency of 2.4 GHz and one that op­er­ates at 5 GHz. Data trav­els from the out­side world into your home and through the router, at which point it’s beamed wire­lessly through the air and onto your de­vice over these spe­cific lanes.

There are a cou­ple ma­jor things that can slow the lanes down, even if you’re stand­ing rel­a­tively close to your router. One is out­side in­ter­fer­ence, and the other is con­ges­tion. The first is pretty tightly con­trolled by reg­u­la­tors, who test wire­less de­vices and im­pose re­stric­tions to make sure that all wire­less de­vices stay in the cor­rect lane – whether that’s Wi-Fi routers, cell­phones or satel­lites.

The sec­ond is more dif­fi­cult, be­cause bil­lions of peo­ple are con­stantly switch­ing on new wire­less de­vices and de­mand­ing more ac­cess to the in­for­ma­tion high­ways. Think about the typ­i­cal Amer­i­can home, where over time, PCs were joined by lap­tops, then smart­phones, then tablets, then smart­watches and wear­able fit­ness track­ers, then in­tel­li­gent ther­mostats and on and on. Not long ago, many of these gad­gets were a rar­ity; even to­day, there are only about 1.5 mo­bile de­vices for ev­ery Amer­i­can, ac­cord­ing to the net­work­ing com­pany Cisco. By 2020, that fig­ure is go­ing to dou­ble: For ev­ery Amer­i­can, there will be three mo­bile de­vices.

Many of these de­vices are, at one point or an­other, fun­nel­ing data through Wi-Fi con­nec­tions. Last year, two-thirds of all in­for­ma­tion coming and go­ing from mo­bile de­vices reached the In­ter­net via Wi-Fi. By 2020, it’ll be 70 per­cent. Lead­ing much of this fu­ture growth will be the pro­lif­er­a­tion of con­nected ap­pli­ances and smart de­vices, oth­er­wise known as the In­ter­net of Things.

With all these wire­less de­vices clog­ging the Wi-Fi lanes, it’s no won­der that things might feel a lit­tle slug­gish.

Just like the high­way for cars, one of the most ob­vi­ous so­lu­tions for a con­gested Wi-Fi high­way is to wi­den it — or switch paths al­to­gether, which is what you’re do­ing when you turn off your Wi-Fi con­nec­tion and hop on your wire­less car­rier’s air­waves.

Andy Cross, Den­ver Post file

Ray Kel­logg, left, and Eric Fiss use the free Wi-Fi at the BookBar in­die book­store and wine bar in Den­ver. By 2020, mo­bile de­vices fig­ure to dou­ble — for ev­ery Amer­i­can, there will be three mo­bile de­vices — and de­mands on Wi-Fi routers will lead to slower dig­i­tal speeds.

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