Optimizing Your Home Network for Working and Learning
When students reposition to home locations, traffic patterns change. In most cases, the network traffic from the student to the cloud-based learning management systems and video applications will use commercial networks (i.e., the broadband in their home or apartment) and will no longer traverse the research and education (R&E) networks.
The commercial networks are generally designed around peak consumer utilization (ex: Friday night Netflix streaming) rather than the academic schedule or academic applications that R&E networks tune for. The consumer networks also do not support large research data sets and as a result may have less inherent “headroom” for the sudden growth of video and online learning.
A large influx of new traffic for online learning, together with other increases in daytime home use, may take some time for these networks to absorb. Some congestion of these networks and their interconnections to cloud providers may exist on the home networks that could impede performance of online learning in unanticipated ways. Planners may wish to consider contingencies for poor performing online experiences as these issues are diagnosed and capacity is added.
Reduce the bandwidth required. If users are experiencing performance problems with video conferencing, there are ways to reduce the required capacity:
- Using screen sharing instead of video when possible. Screen sharing uses a fraction of the capacity in comparison to video.
- Set your video resolution to SD (not HD). Some video conferencing applications allow the user to select SD (standard definition) as opposed to HD (high definition)
It’s best to connect your computer via an Ethernet cable directly to your home router. Another potential source of performance problems is the home network itself. Video conferencing using a computer or laptop that's directly connected to the home router via an Ethernet cable provides the best network connection. While WiFi may work well for many, it can suffer from interference or network congestion. If your home setup accommodates a wired connection directly to the router, that's ideal.
5G is faster and more efficient, but 2.4G supports a longer distance. WiFi routers offer two bands of radio frequencies over which you can connect devices. Using the 5G band is usually better than 2.4G. The 5G band is more efficient and supports higher speeds; however, it doesn't travel as far. If you're distant from your WiFi router, 2.4G might work better. Using Speedtest.net you can experiment with different locations of your WiFi router and computer to determine what combination results in the best speed.
The Wifi signal can be extended, and today there are many good equipment options. Perhaps your new home office is too far from the router for reliable WiFi, and it's not possible to move the router closer. It's possible to extend the WiFi network. There are many WiFi extension approaches, including piggybacking a wired Ethernet connection over the house power wiring. For many, the simplest solution to extending and improving the WiFi signal throughout a house or apartment is to deploy a mesh WiFi system. This CNET article provides a good overview of the technology and product reviews.
Newer home network equipment can be better. If your home network gear is over three years old, it is likely that performance will be better, especially wireless performance, with more current equipment. If you need to extend the range, a new wireless router might do the job, and if not, a good upgrade option can be to replace the current wireless router with the mesh solution mentioned above. Tom’s Guide has a recent review of home routers. If your cable modem is five years old or order, then consider asking your Internet provider if a new model would be faster.
If you get new equipment be sure to set a good password. It’s best practice to install current firmware, as there’s almost always an update, when you get new gear, as well as set a good password. It’s also good to firmware and password now for your current gear!
Use Speedtest.net to discover what works best. To isolate problems between your home broadband connection and your WiFi capabilities, try running a speed test while plugged into the broadband router with an Ethernet cable with WiFi turned off on your computer. If you obtain better performance when plugged directly into the broadband provider, it may mean you need to relocate or replace your WiFi router.