Welcome to Tech 911 week. Since a lot of us are stuck in our homes or apartments, I’m answering at least one of your questions about working from home each day. (And I might even do one big rapid-fire wrap-up if you keep on peppering me in my inbox or the comments.)
So, without any more delay, here’s today’s question. I’m going to paraphrase it, because a friend posed it the other day over Facebook and I’m not sure they’d want their name associated with the issue. So, in the interest of privacy, here’s what they wanted, as retold by me.
I have to work from home for a fancy tech company and it takes too long to download and upload my work. I upgraded my internet plan with Comcast, but does that mean I also need to get a new cable modem?
I’m going to go with the good ol’ “It depends.” However, I first want to commend you for actually owning your own cable modem instead of coughing up $14 or so each month for Comcast to rent you one of their meh modem/router combinations. There’s no reason you should be paying a fee to rent that which you can purchase yourself. Of course, this also means that you’ll have to buy a new cable modem if, or when, your internet plan exceeds your modem’s capabilities.
In this case, I asked my friend for more information, and he mentioned that he had bumped up to a 300Mbps plan from Comcast. He didn’t mention what his service plan was before that, so there is the possibility that he would need to buy a new cable modem to be able to max out on those speeds—download speeds, that is, since “300Mbps,” as we know, doesn’t mean 300Mbps both ways.
As it turns out, his Netgear CM500 cable modem was more than up for the task. A quick Google search confirms that it supports speeds of up to 680Mbps—more than enough for a 300Mbps plan. And while I could get into the technical details of what “16×4″ means as part of its configuration, that’s irrelevant for most people. It’s compatible with Comcast and, most importantly, Comcast itself certifies that it’ll support 300Mbps speeds.
That bit is important, because you should never assume that a manufacturer is correct when it comes to cable modems. Double-check with your ISP’s list of compatible cable modems to confirm that whatever you own, or are looking to purchase, works with the company’s service and can handle whatever speeds you’re expecting. If you don’t see your modem on the list, or don’t see a list at all, give them a ring.
To note: If you also get phone service through your ISP, the kind of thing where you’re actually connecting a VOIP phone to your modem, then you’ll probably need a more souped-up (and expensive) cable modem. Them’s the breaks; don’t buy a new, cheap, typical modem and assume that it’ll work with your VOIP setup.
I also think it’s important to know that upgrading your service plan through your ISP, and buying a new cable modem, might not actually give you the speed boosts you’re expecting. If your wifi setup at home is crappy or underpowered, or if you’re trying to access your files from a location that’s fairly far away from your primary router—or there’s a lot of stuff (including walls) between it and you—then your wireless setup might be more to blame than your service plan.
Honestly, I’d investigate that first. Look up whatever service tier you’re paying for on your ISP’s monthly bill, and walk around your house—running either fast.com or speedtest.net at various points—to see whether you’re getting that maximum speed in the places you usually use your various devices. If not, fixing your wireless setup should be priority one, then worry about faster internet services from your ISP.
And how do you do that, you ask? To start, make sure your router is in a central location within your house. That might involve you stringing ethernet cable along floors and ceilings to get it there, rather than the tiny closet in the extreme corner of your house that’s farthest away from your work-at-home desk. This will pay dividends, trust me. (And if you’re quarantined, you have plenty of time for projects like these!)
Beyond that, if you’re extending your router’s signal with a wifi extender or mesh setup, know that each “hop” you make in the chain—from a router, to an extender, to another extender, to your laptop—can cut your throughput in half each time. Unless your mesh setup has a dedicated backhaul connection, and your access points are located close enough to one another to benefit from a strong connection, simply extending your network to where you need wireless coverage can get you online, but it might be painfully slow.
As always, use wired Ethernet wherever possible for the best possible speeds. Grab a dongle and connect your laptop to your wall’s Ethernet port (using a solid Cat6 cable, since I like to future-proof and it’s hardly more expensive than a Cat5 or Cat5e). Use Ethernet cables to connect your access points and router to one another, annoying as it might be, rather than extending your wireless network using wifi.
It’s a pain in the butt, I know. But I just converted a house from an all-wireless setup to wired, and now the family can finally enjoy the gigabit ethernet speeds they’ve been paying for—speeds they never had, since they were relying on a crappy cable modem/router and extender “pods” to try and fill their house with wireless connectivity. They could have saved a ton of money by dialing back their internet plan to match the capabilities of their network; that, or they could have upgraded their network, as I did, with access points connected to a primary switch (and router) via Ethernet cable and actually enjoyed the super-fast speeds they were paying for.
That’s just my long-winded way to say that your internet plan might not be what you should first blame for slow internet speeds at home. It’s a part of the equation, sure, but you’ll want to make sure your wireless network is up to snuff, too. If, or when, you upgrade your plan and get a new cable modem that supports it (if applicable), make sure you’re doing the same process—walking around your house, testing your speeds, and fixing up your wifi network—to make sure you’re not just paying your ISP for service you’ll never see.
Do you have a tech question keeping you up at night? Tired of troubleshooting your Windows or Mac? Looking for advice on apps, browser extensions, or utilities to accomplish a particular task? Let us know! Tell us in the comments below or email email@example.com.