Is my internet slow?

Or…   the Onion of Discontent

There are many reasons why an internet connection may be slow, some of them will be directly under your control, and others will be under the control of the equipment manufacturers of the devices used that the communications pass through. The extent of which is from the device you are using to the server at the far end of the connection. Various services providers share the responsibility of carrying the traffic. It is a complex picture to reconcile.

Where is the problem?

When trying to establish where a problem exists the first person you call is your service provider (BT, Talk Talk, Virgin etc). They will follow a fixed trouble shooting process which will try to prove that the problem is something you are doing, or have done or is within that part of the network you control. They adopt this approach because if nothing is listed as a fault in your area, then statistically it is most likely to be something at your end.

That will include your router/ hub, your phone wiring, the building materials used in your house, the location of WiFi access points, the list is large. They will not be as direct as that, however those are the implications.

I have had reason to escalate issues several times to BT. During the escalation process I have hit many “brick walls” that are difficult to get around. Many would give up at the point where it is likely they are going to incur a cost as part of the process. However I come from a data and telecommunications background, so I do understand some things about the system, and where likely issues may occur. Most people will be put off at the stage where you are told we can send an engineer around but if the problem is found to be at your end we will add £100 + VAT to your bill.

A systems approach

You can consider that a problem where you are trying to access something and it is slow or intermittent; rather like an onion. The device you are using is at the centre of the onion, and the device you are connecting to is somewhere on the outer skin of the onion, it does not matter where it is physically located. Between you and the device you are connecting to, are many layers, or hops of communication. You don’t need to understand what they are or what they are doing. Only appreciate they are there.

The reason why communications may be slow is more difficult to diagnose the further you are away from your device (smart phone, tablet, laptop, desktop computer).  If we accept that the Internet generally works ok, if only because the underlying technology is largely self-healing if a problem exists, then the reason for a slow connection is more likely to be at the server (remote end), or local to you.

Start with the remote end

Is this problem isolated to one service you are trying to connect to or does it affect everything?

Go to the  website. Is that online and does it respond quite quickly?

Try a Google Search on something, does the browser return the search results quickly?

If both of those work ok, then it is most likely that the problem exists between BT Wholesale and the remote webserver. There is not a lot of point trying to diagnose it beyond there. Alert the service provider if you can, and try later. If it is a popular service then others will be reporting it too. Perhaps there is something wrong with the server or the connections within the remote data centre.

All sites are slow

If the problem persists then we need to look at the local network. That is the network that exists from the BT master socket, which is where the telephone cabling enters your house, to the router, through to your local distribution network which  might simply be just WiFi.

Rule WiFi Out

WiFi makes some pretty wild claims about connectivity. There are various types of WiFi connection, each with a different range of speeds. However they all do one thing in common. If there is not a good quality signal between the access point (often built into your router) and your location then the speed will fall back to a slower speed in order to maintain connectivity and data integrity.  I have a situation in my house where WiFi cannot pass through two walls reliably. While WiFi does not always need to work line of site, it relies on reflections to establish the best settings. If there is anything between the sending device and the receiving device other than air, the signal quality will be degraded and the speed will be slower. Distance of course is also a factor, so even if you are line of site, it will have some difficulty working over say 150 feet or more at high speeds.

For internet access slower speeds are not a problem until your wireless speed is slower than your broadband speed. When that happens you may observe intermittent connections or slow connections.

Testing Available Speed

You can test this by doing two checks. The first and the most critical is to use a wired connection to the router, so try to remove WiFi from the equation, or alternatively sit within a few feet (in direct line of site) of the router with a wireless device if you cannot use a wired connection to the router.

Go to this site and check the speeds reported for upload and download. Note that an ADSL connection (aka broadband) is asymmetrical. This means that the download speed is much higher than the upload speed. This is normal. Because most traffic is downloaded to your computer or device. Think about streaming a movie for example, or browsing websites. The traffic is being sent to you.

Read through the checklist and click on the Yes option. (even if you are running over wireless and close to you router).

Two tests will now be performed. One will check the download speed and the other will check the upload speed.  You will get a result similar to this (your numbers will be different, my service is BT Infinity 2).

If your service was OK, and now it is slow this screen may give some clues as to what is happening. It is dependent on what services is being provided to you by your broadband supplier.

Why is BT Wholesale relevant?

You may observe that you are not with BT, your service is with someone else. BT Wholesale is used by many of the service providers using the existing telephone network to pass your traffic through to the Internet. So for example while you may be with Talk Talk or one of the companies they acquired, your traffic goes from your router, through the telephone cabling to the exchange through a device called a DSLAM, then into the service provider network controlled and managed by Talk Talk (or similar companies). A check from your computer through to BT Wholesale checks the raw speed available and will show the best performance achievable. It is also independent of who you are using. If there is an escalation needed to resolve a problem; it could be based on this test result.

What speed should I get?

For all forms of ADSL it will be dependent on how far you are away from the telephone exchange. Ours is opposite Gt Missenden Station.

ADSL (the first form of broadly deployed broadband).

Typically download speeds of 1 to 4Mb/s if you are a mile or more away from the exchange. If you are closer it could be up to 10Mb/s or more.

Upload speeds may be sub 500kb/s

For ADSL2+

1 to 4Mb/s download if you are a mile or more away from the exchange if you are closer over 10Mb/s

Upload speeds may be up to 1Mb/s or better.

For BT Infinity users

This uses optical fibre to a green box by the road side close to your location, the last hop to your house is over copper telephone cable.

Up to 32Mb/s download (sometimes as low as 12Mb/s based on my experience as it is dependent on other users at peak times)

6-10Mb/s upload.

For BT Infinity 2 users

Up to 64Mb/s download and 20Mb/s upload.

Applications usage

For applications such as BBC iPlayer or NetFlix standard definition movie streamed to your house: 3-4Mb/s download should be adequate. For High Definition 6Mb/s should be sufficient

Is WiFi the reason for my problem?

If you carried out the test and had to use Wifi (because a copper connection was not available to the router), then you need to go back to where you were trying to use the device in the house over the WiFi network and see what the speeds are like now. So repeat the test at your chosen location.

In practically all cases you will find that the speed drops significantly. That is not a problem until the speed drops below the broadband access speed reported at your router.

So in other words if you have 4Mb/s download speed at your router, and on your WiFi connected device in the upstairs bedroom it is only 1Mb/s then you have a WiFi distribution problem in your house. Your speed issues are to do with your local area network from your router, and not the Internet or your service provider.

This is the most common issue people will be dealing with.

How to Extend your network

Available low cost technologies

WiFi Extenders

A WiFi extender is a device you place in a power socket near the edge of your WiFi network. It connects up to the access point/ router, and repeats the signal to extend the coverage.

While they do work, they halve the available bandwidth to the extended network. As you use these devices to maximise your bandwidth it would seem to be more appropriate to use other technologies that are available.

Powerline Networking

Powerline networking (also known as HomePlug)  is a method of distributing Ethernet throughout your house without having to add long lengths of cables between devices. The technology was developed in the 1990’s. It is now widely available through a number of suppliers. The available bandwidth can be 200Mb/s or 500Mb/s and represents a virtual fat datapipe for communications using the mains wiring in your house. All you need is a pair of adapters to convert the Ethernet signals from the router to run across the power cables in your house.  Like most marketing claims it is unlikely you will ever be able to use all of the bandwidth available. However as it is a shared medium or bus, multiple devices can be used to extend the bandwidth at your router to any socket in the house. As long as the bandwidth is greater than your reported internet speed at your broadband router it will exceed your requirements.

While there is a common standard for this technology, I will look at one manufacturer I have used for both wireless extensions and wired extensions allowing me to use the full bandwidth from my router at any point in the house.

TP Link is a far eastern supplier of networking products for small business and the home. They are also very low cost products which generally work quite will. (I say generally because I have had occasionally reset them.)

You can get these from Amazon as a pair for £29.29 currently. The product is called TL-PA411 Kit. It contains two adapters that allows you to place a high speed wired Ethernet connection anywhere in your house where there is a mains socket. The other end is plugged into the router.

You can buy additional units to propagate your broadband to other rooms as well. So multiple sessions can exist in the same system.

Powerline and WiFi

Another product in the same range and compatible with these allows you to extend or create another WiFi network. The difference here is that the raw high speed data connection is through the mains wiring in your house and then to a wireless access point. This is the best way to extend your WiFi network if you have a dead spot or low speed locations.

This product is called TP-Link TL-WPA4220 kit and is currently available on Amazon at £44.99

Applications: Smart TVs and BT TV

Many of you will be aware that Smart TVs (TVs that can also work over the Internet) and BT TV which seems to be offering a low cost alternative to Sky, both require a cable going to the router, or WiFi. The new BT Set top box comes with a huge bundle of wire to allow you to connect it to your router. There is no WiFi option on this product.

It is not very likely that your BT master socket and router is in your lounge, at least not for everyone. Using a pair of the TP Link products gets around the problem so you do not have to run a data cable from your router to your BT or Sky set top box.

Other things you might want to know

  • It is possible to set up a secure network with these devices by using one as a master, and then as you add other devices they go through a joining process so that they all share the same security credentials. It is easy to set up.
  • You can run separate isolated networks with pairs of these devices, but the maximum available bandwidth is in this case 500Mb/s shared between two networks, so 250Mb/s each, although this may be adaptable depending on the loads for each.
  • It only works on the phase of mains it is plugged into. This  does not affect domestichouses as such. They generally have only one phase of mains supplied. In a business where there may be multiple (3) phase mains supplied, all devices need to be connected to the same phase to work, this system will not work across phases.
  • This technology is available from a wide number of computer network equipment manufacturers and they all follow the same standards, so in theory they should interwork. In practice, and to avoid incompatibility I would suggest sticking to the same manufacturer to avoid compatibility issues.
  • Do not use these devices on extension leads, they are designed to plug into a wall power socket. Because of the electrical characteristics of having a lot of devices clustered together on an extension lead the maximum performance may be impaired.
  • In practical tests I have never got anywhere near 500Mb/s performance, so if you are an “extreme user” be aware of this. For most people they are a simple plug and play solution.
  • If all you are trying to do is extend your router bandwidth to another location in your house, then this is probably the most cost effective way of doing it without adding in wiring.
  • Mains pass through adapters are available, so you do not always have to lose a power socket.
  • If you already use a similar system at 200Mb/s do not mix it with a 500Mb/s. If you do the 500Mb/s system will fall back to the same speed as the slower 200Mb/s system.


Wired and Wireless pair TP Link TL-WPA 4220 Kit on Amazon.

Wired pair TP-Link PA 411 Kit