Boost your broadband speed for free
Everything you need to know about maxing-out your broadband connection, including interleaving, fine tuning MTU settings, firmware updates, ADSL filters and splitters,and that old chestnut - electrical noise in your wiring
Source: Copyright © PC Pro, Dennis Publishing
A recent Choice Computer survey found that, although broadband users are much happier than their dial-up counterparts, only 26% of ADSL users and 42% of ADSL2/2+ users never experience slow connections.
While there’s often little you can do to improve the physical speed of the line entering your house – especially if you don’t live in a cable area – it’s entirely possible to add 2 to 3Mb/s to the speed of your connection by following some of the measures offered here, substantially improving the throughput of most home ADSL connections.
TEST YOUR TV
You’d probably have replaced your router, rewired the house and spent Dame Edna’s wardrobe budget on your ISP’s technical support line before deciding your TV was to blame for your faltering broadband connection.
But TVs are just one of the innocent-looking culprits that could have a catastrophic effect on your connection. Satellite set-top boxes, microwave ovens and even Christmas lights can put the brakes on your broadband.
It’s generally the power supply – a capacitor that’s gone a bit leaky and started to emit more electrical noise than it used to. A slightly faulty power supply in a television or set-top box can degrade the performance of your line.
The electrical interference can severely hamper the speed of your ADSL connection. PC Authority saw just how debilitating such interference can be in a demonstration showing how an ADSL connection running at 3.8Mb/s was reduced to only 700Kb/s when a nearby fluorescent lamp with a faulty power supply was switched on. One poor Whirlpool forum member even had his ADSL connection keel over each time he opened his fridge door – possibly caused by a faulty light.
So how can you tell if your home electronics are murdering your bandwidth? It isn’t easy, largely because the device with the leaky power supply will probably still be functioning perfectly normally. It’s often a case of trial and error: switching equipment on and off, one by one, until you find the one that’s doing the damage to your connection.
One handy tip is to tune an AM radio to 627KHz and listen for crackling when you turn the device on, as this is a sure sign of excessive electrical interference.
However, it might not even be your equipment that’s dragging your broadband down. We’ve heard of a faulty television affecting broadband services in a 200m radius.
Avoid Extension wiring
Wiring is the number one connection issue; a lot of people suffer simply because of poor wiring in the house. The standout piece of advice from all the experts we’ve spoken to is to plug your ADSL equipment into the Boundary Termination socket – the main point in your home that the cable leads into, and that all other sockets daisy-chain from.
Placing the modem or router on an extension leaves it at the mercy of the internal wiring and, in the same way broadband speeds decrease significantly the further your house is from the local telephone exchange, the same applies in your own home.
However, the boundary termination socket is often awkwardly located in the lounge, and many a domestic dispute has arisen from a desire to place in full view a wireless router that looks like the offspring of Dexter and a Dalek, not to mention the NAS drives, games consoles and other devices that require a physical ethernet connection to the router.
Hooking your router to an extension socket is, therefore, often a necessary compromise. If you must use an extension socket, make sure the wire stretches no further than 3m. Use the estimate of expected line speed, based on your distance from the exchange, as a good indicator of how badly internal wiring may be affecting your connection if your router is plugged into an extension.
If you look at the speed of your router and it’s considerably less than expected, it’s clear something’s going wrong in the home.
If you’re noticing a significant drop-off, check the extension wiring – make sure no tacks have been hammered through the cable, for instance.
“If your DSL equipment is connected to the Boundary Termination socket then the quality of the cabling plays a huge part in the sync speed that can be obtained; the higher the quality cable the better,” said Phil Long, Zen Internet’s technical support manager. “Running network cable around your house can be simplest, but could be messy or impractical.”
TWEAK YOUR WI-FI
With draft-n offering a maximum data rate around 300Mb/s, your wireless router should deliver a few megabits of broadband around your home with ease. However, anyone who’s set up a wireless home network will know that isn’t always the case.
802.11n may mean you can now access your wireless network down the bottom of the garden, but it could also mean next-door’s signal is ringing loud and clear in your living room, potentially interfering with your signal.
The excellent NetStumbler (a free download from www.netstumbler.com/) will reveal which Wi-Fi channel your neighbours are using, allowing you to set your router to a different channel using its web interface. Be aware that your wireless router may offer a weaker or even non-existent signal on certain channels, so a brief trial-and-error session is wise to achieve the optimum speed.
Peter Habib, from Telstra, emphasised the importance of placement: “the location of the WiFi device will affect the speed a customer experiences. The range and quality of wireless connections is affected by having to pass through large metal objects like a steel door, large amounts of water (like a fish tank) and even nearby electromagnetic devices. These electromagnetic devices can include televisions, radios, cordless telephones and microwave ovens to name a few. Finally, high density objects like floors, ceilings and walls can also affect the travel of the WiFi signal.”
If you’ve followed our experts’ advice and plugged your Wi-Fi router into the boundary termination socket in the lounge, but now can’t get a decent signal in the back bedroom, a booster may be your best bet. Our tests have shown that a 5dBi omnidirectional antenna can provide an 80% boost in coverage and performance at distance.
Alternatively, wireless repeaters or HomePlug devices may provide a more consistent connection. “Avoid connecting them to surge protectors, as performance can be significantly affected,” warns Zen’s Phil Long.
Your ISP almost certainly knows a lot more about your connection than you do. For that reason, your ISP's tech support should be your first port of call if you're running into speed issues. ISP support staff may be able to see detailed histories of your line’s maximum and average speed, faults and uptime to help identify when and where problems start. They may be able to spot, for example, that your connection slumps at 5pm every day.
While the range of diagnostic tools available to each ISP varies, and some of the more useful data is only available to Telstra, it's still a good bet when it comes to diagnosing hard-to-pin-down problems and your ISP can tweak far more settings than you can.
One thing they're likely to suggest is something you can do at home before calling them: an isolation test.
Put simply, an isolation test removes all telephone interference, and then adds back devices one at a time to find problems. It's normally used to identify why ADSL isn't working, but in concert with speed testing can help find slow portions of your home setup. First disconnect all phone equipment. Then connect your modem to the boundary termination socket, using the shortest possible cable – no more than three metres in length.
Restart the modem and test speed, then switch cables and check speed again. You can continue testing, switching out a single item each time. Try a second modem, other phone sockets around the home and, finally, adding back each of your phone devices.
Sort your system
Surprisingly, the ISPs we spoke to said that your system – and particularly the software you run – is one of the common causes they see for broadband slowdown. The culprits all download in the background, whether they are malicious interlopers or programs you've installed.
iPrimus recommends that you “keep your computer system free from viruses and spyware and checking for background running programs such as file sharing programs.” and an Optus spokesperson added that slow speeds can also be “related to the software running on the customers computer – for example peer-to-peer and other programs that use up bandwidth can sometimes be the cause of slower speeds.”
Most ISPs offer a deal on security software, and there are free products that provide protection, so there's no excuse for a compromised system.
Perhaps paradoxically, software is also a recommended solution for broadband speed problems. Some software gives you easy access to Windows settings that would otherwise require registry hacking, and some just add a cosmetic lustre to your speed.
You could, for example, try adding a firefox extension called FasterFox, which makes better use of your bandwidth through pre-fetching and gives you easy access to many of the tweakable settings of your network connection.
If you have XP, try Unblocka. Input your upload and download speeds, which you can obtain from your ISP, and Unblocka 'tunes' your settings to improve speed. Last but not least, install a good adblocker to prevent adverts from downloading to reduce their bandwidth-sucking effect.
KEEP YOUR ROUTER UP-TO-DATE
Your choice of ADSL router can make a huge difference to the actual speed of your connection. We recently saw different routers connected to exactly the same 8Mb/s ADSL line that varied in speed by as much as 3Mb/s – nearly half the available bandwidth of the line.
Most ISPs will sell or recommend specific models, and in some cases, even specify the firmware revision that offers the best speeds on their network. If you don’t have a recommended model, and you’re wondering whether your router is to blame for slovenly speeds, there’s still a few things you can do.
It’s critical that you keep your modem/router up-to-date with the latest ADSL standards. Many people have had problems with their modems when their ISP upgraded their DSLAM to ADSL2+, because they needed new firmware to achieve the maximum speeds.
With Telstra expanding its ADSL2+ coverage, you should check your router’s spec to ensure it’s compatible with the standard. When people move from 8Mb/s to ADSL2+, a non-compliant modem will only work at a reduced speed.
Most routers introduced within the last year or two should be capable of ADSL2+, but it’s clearly a good idea to consider upgrading your hardware every time you upgrade your connection. It’s also worth upgrading your router firmware regularly – check your router manufacturer’s site for updates.
A lot of the difference between routers comes down to the chipset – Whirlpool maintains a wiki of router and modem information that can help troubleshoot speed issues that arise from modem/router causes.
FINE-TUNE YOUR MTU SETTINGS
One of the more technical obstacles to broadband clipping along at its expected rate is a setting called the maximum transmission unit (MTU).
When your PC requests data from certain websites, they use Path MTU Discovery to check what size packets to send back to your computer. If the site can’t check what size packets to send, it reverts to the default of 1500, but if any of the gateways or routers along the path have a smaller MTU the data packet will be dropped.
You can tweak the MTU settings on both your PC and your router, but you must ensure you use the same figure on both. iPrimus offers what they call an MTU eyechart that can help you identify whether you have MTU issues – check their instructions here. DSL Reports provides a clear guide on how to adjust MTU at www.dslreports.com/tweaks/MTU. Whirlpool is another source of advice – you can ask people using the same ISP and/or modem about the settings that work best.
The free Speed Guide TCP Optimizer will determine the optimal MTU and other settings for your XP machine. Make sure you back up the Registry before changing anything.
ASK FOR INTERLEAVING
If you can’t solve an electrical interference problem, asking your ISP to switch on interleaving might improve the performance of your connection.
Excessive noise on your line can cause packets of data sent over your connection to corrupt, leading your router to re-request the data, which affects your overall data throughput.
Interleaving takes those data packets and hacks them into smaller pieces, leaving your router to reassemble them. “Interleaving can significantly improve stability and speed by correcting errors that would normally cause a loss of sync and reduction in speed,” said Zen’s Phil Long.
But while iinet and Internode, for example, offer interleaving for their customers as a customisation option, other major ISPs such as Telstra and Optus don’t. If interleaving is such a great idea, why don’t all ISP’s offer it?
“The downside is that latency is sacrificed, which may be seen as a problem for some online games,” explained Long. Interleaving can reduce the maximum throughput of the line, and slow down data transfers, although anecdotal evidence on internet forums suggests many people find their connections still achieve the same speeds after interleaving is applied.
If you’re suffering from an erratic connection, talk to your ISP to see if it can switch on interleaving on your line.
REPLACE YOUR FILTERS
ADSL filters and line splitters are a surprisingly common point of failure for home broadband connections. These seemingly innocuous little devices separate the low-end frequencies required for voice calls from the high-end frequencies needed for your ADSL connection. However, the poorly made freebies dished out by some ISPs are prone to fail, leading to excessive noise interfering with the speed of your connection.
In addition, filters that are adequate for ADSL may not be optimal for ADSL2/2+ – a spokesperson for Netcomm told us that you may get only two thirds of your possible speed. Ditch any old filters you have and buy new ones that meet the ADSL2+ standard – look for AS/ACIF S041:2005 and Telstra RCIT-0004 certification on the packaging.
But before you pop down to Officeworks and buy a job lot of filters, there are a few basic checks to perform first. Make sure there’s a filter fitted to every socket in the house where there’s telephony equipment attached – be that the telephone in the back bedroom, the Foxtel box or a fax machine.
The filter should plug directly into the wall socket. If you have a two-way splitter coming off the wall socket (to serve a phone and a fax machine, for example), make sure the filter is plugged in before the splitter.
A tell-tale sign that one of your filters has gone wonky is noise on the line when you’re making voice calls. Zen Internet provides a comprehensive guide to testing your ADSL filters at www.pcauthority.com.au/links/129broad2, but it essentially involves plugging each filter into your boundary termination socket in turn to eliminate the faulty unit.
If you’ve ever wondered what the inside of an ADSL microfilter looks like and why some are better than others, the UK-based ADSL nation website provides a terrifyingly detailed example, and while there’s no Australian site evaluating filters, Whirlpool’s filter recommendations are a good place to start.
Alternatively, you could invest in a central splitter. This is usually done when all other methods of getting a reliable ADSL connection have failed, and involves paying a technician around $150 to install a splitter on the telephone line before the first phone point in the property.
A central splitter means that you don’t need filters for phone lines in your house, but your ADSL modem can only be connected to the specific phone point created at the central splitter for the ADSL modem.
WATCH OUT FOR AR7 ROUTERS
Can’t understand why your ADSL line doesn’t hold a connection? Don’t worry, neither could thousands of others until diligent work by an ISP technical support team discovered a fault with the Texas Instruments’ AR7 chipset, found in many brands of ADSL router.
In short, the AR7 routers were found to be the common factor among customers who reported that their connection kept dropping every few minutes, making video streaming and online gaming nigh-on impossible. It seems the chipset has a problem dealing with electrical noise on the line.
The AR7 isn’t ADSL2+, so if your high speed broadband connection works, it’s unlikely you have to consider the AR7 as a possible speed hurdle.
Finding out whether your router contains the AR7 chipset is no picnic. Router manufacturers often neglect to specify which chipset is built into their equipment. You’ll find a list of some of the models containing the AR7 chipset at www.linux-mips.org/wiki/AR7
Does this mean you should throw out your AR7-based equipment? Not necessarily. Some manufacturers, such as Netgear, have released firmware updates that have reportedly solved the problem. Check your router’s software interface to see if there are any firmware upgrades available for your model.
If that fails, borrow a non-AR7 router to see if that improves the reliability of your connection, before investing in new equipment.
How to measure your broadband speed
Determining the true speed of your internet connection isn’t as easy as you may think. There are several, often contradictory, measures of your ADSL connection speed. These include:
Sync speed (or line rate)
This is the speed at which your router connects to the local telephone exchange – the theoretical maximum speed your line could achieve in perfect conditions with a following wind and a deadly virus wiping out your entire neighbourhood. This is the figure that pops up in the little bubble in the Windows System Tray when you first connect to your router.
Attenuation and noise
Attenuation and noise regulate the maximum throughput you’ll receive on your connection. Attenuation is a measure of how much signal is lost through your connection.
Line attenuation is a measure of how healthy the wiring is, and Telstra can perform a signal qualification test that should give you some idea of what speeds you can expect.
Signal attenuation is about the quality of connection through your modem, and it changes constantly. Noise is generated by electrical interference, whether from telephony devices or other causes.
The ratio of signal to noise (SNR) determines ADSL sync speeds. SNR margins are set at the DSLAM, and only your ISP can adjust them.
This is the “true” speed of your connection – taken by measuring the actual rate at which data is downloaded and uploaded. Naturally, this is slower than the sync rate and often well below the mythical ‘up to 24Mb/s’.
Sites such as www.speedtest.net will accurately determine your actual throughput. If you’re running your router off an extension socket, try performing a speed test and then connect your router to the house’s master socket and run the speed test again to see how much speed you’re losing.
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Interested in Naked DSL? Also see our Naked DSL Buyer's Guide