Christmas is over, so there's a good chance the number of wireless devices burdening your home network has increased. If you're experiencing more lag with movies and games, ask yourself this: when was the last time you upgraded your equipment?
For cable subscribers, Internet connection speed begins where the coax terminates -- the cable modem. Your wireless router also plays an important role, but users seldom worry about either device unless the service goes down. End nodes, such as PCs, tablets, video streaming devices, and gaming consoles, are routinely updated, but upstream devices are generally ignored.
Upgrading your cable modem, however, isn't always possible. Some ISPs force subscribers to lease their modems or restrict which models can be connected to their systems. Just ask Time Warner Cable's customers in New York, whose recently-filed a class-action lawsuit is based on this issue.
If your cable provider permits using a customer-owned modem, it's always wise to call tech support before making a purchase. In many cases, the NOC (network operations center) will tell you whether an upgrade is advisable and which products work best.
Although better technology often exists, cable companies usually don't force customers to upgrade until equipment becomes obsolete or won't support the ordered level of service. Older cable modems support a standard known as DOCSIS 2.0, while the latest and greatest are certified for DOCSIS 3.0.
DOCSIS stands for Data Over Cable Service Interface Specifications, standards published by CableLabs that allow operators add high-speed Internet access and telephony data to their cable TV systems. The major difference between DOCSIS version 2.0 and version 3.0 is the latter supports channel bonding.
Channel-bonding allows multiple downstream/upstream channels to be combined for greater throughput. DOCSIS 2.0 only provides a single channel with a maximum downstream speed of 38 Mbps. If you're paying for a Internet connection faster than 30 Mbps, your modem is probably DOCSIS 3.0-certified. If your service level is at a lower tier, moving to DOCSIS 3.0 might be a good move, even though a dramatic improvement might not result.
DOCSIS 3.0 cable modems, you see, offer more than blazing speed. A cable modem will sometimes change channels when it encounters congestion or noise. With a DOCSIS 2.0 device, this frequency hopping can cause a momentary loss of service. DOCSIS 3.0's ability to sustain multiple channels can minimize the disruption. Other channels simply "pick up the slack" when a change occurs.
Many DOCSIS 3.0 cable modems, such as the Motorola SCB6121 Surfboard eXtreme (MSRP: $99.95), also feature a gigabit Ethernet uplink interface, which can drastically reduce the possibility that a bottleneck will develop between the modem and your wireless router.
While most affordable wireless routers only provide 10/100 Mbps wired Ethernet ports, prices have dropped for models with gigabit (1,000 Mbps) uplinks and switch ports. One example is the TP-Link TL-WR1043ND Ultimate Wireless N Gigabit Router, which lists for $69.99 (street price: $49.95).
While a gigabit router-to-cable modem connection might seem like overkill, the abundant headroom can mean incremental performance improvements, particularly in situations where a home network is called upon to deliver multiple data streams.
Another common blunder is poor wireless router placement. To maximize range and speed, try to remove as many obstructions as possible between end devices and the router. Putting a router in a cabinet or a closet is a bad idea. Best practices also dictate locating the unit as high as possible and in a central location.
Also keep in mind that WiFi uses specific channels to send and receive data. Free tools, such as inSSIDer or Meraki WiFi Stumbler, scan nearby access points to determine which channels are the least congested. You can then configure your router to use a specific channel, rather than the default or one that is randomly chosen.
Your home network is no different than your car. For top performance, the system must be maintained and tuned. Router manufacturers routinely roll-out updates to fix bugs, increase performance, and boost reliability. Applying these patches is fairly simple, but users rarely bother.
A massive speed boost might not result from every tweak, but network devices left alone seldom improve with age. Using a tool like SpeedTest.net is a good way to maintain a baseline, a yardstick that will let you know whether things are humming along or falling off a cliff.
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