Why your Wi-Fi feels so slow sometimes
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.
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.