The Wall Street Journal

Why You're Probably Paying For Faster Internet Speeds Than You Use


In the age of high-speed internet, encountering a spinning wheel when you try to stream a video can be maddening. But before you call your provider, know that you're probably already paying for faster speeds than you use.

Illustration: Timothy Wong

#WSJ #InternetSpeeds #Buffering

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- [Narrator] We've all been here.
You wanna stream a show, but when you go to load it,
it does this.
In the age of high speed internet
the circle can be maddening.
But before you call your provider
know that you're probably already paying
for faster internet speeds than you actually use.
We'll explain.
This is your computer, it connects to your router.
Your router is one of many routers
which make up your provider's network.
Your provider's network is one of more than 70,000
such networks that make up the internet.
When you try to load a video or type really anything
into your browser,
your router sends the request on a journey
across the internet.
Often, it's the journey back where things can
get a little complicated and crowded.
Imagine a network of highways
with delivery trucks running across it.
Each of these are packets,
the basic unit of internet traffic.
Some are Amazon, some are Netflix
and some might be a photo you're e-mailing to your aunt.
And they're all taking different routes
based on agreements the networks have with each other.
Your video might be passed from one network to another
until it gets back to you.
Or the content provider might pay a transit provider
to carry the request back.
Either way, it's sharing the road
with a lot of other content.
So there are plenty of places were things
can get jammed up.
Anytime one network hands off content to another
there's potential for a traffic jam,
which can slow down your video
and cause a spinning wheel.
The important thing to understand
is that you can't fix a bottleneck out here
by paying your provider for higher speeds
within your own network.
Your network is only responsible for this leg
of the journey.
Paying for faster internet just because
you encountered a spinning wheel
is kind of like getting a bigger driveway
in hopes you'll get to work faster.
So, what does all of this look like in real life?
In real life, these networks are made of
millions of miles of fiber and cable
running around the world and connecting
with each other in big data centers full of servers.
Here's an actual request for the homepage
of a local broadcaster in New Zealand,
provided to us by researchers at The University of Chicago.
It starts in Vienna, Virginia,
outside of Washington D.C. with a Verizon Fios user
and travels across the country on Verizon's network.
In California, it connects to a different network
which sends it to Austin, Texas
and then back to California.
It then gets handed to a transit provider
which sends it across the Pacific Ocean
to Auckland, New Zealand.
It likely takes a similar path back.
See all the opportunities for traffic jams?
Other trips have few or even no hand offs.
Powerful tech companies like Google, Netflix and Amazon
and content delivery networks have rolled out thousands
of servers spanning the globe
to get copies of popular content closer to you.
Smaller sites can rent space from some of these companies
to speed up their journey.
Here's a request for
that starts in Los Angeles, California.
It goes to a server in Calipatria, California.
That's it.
So why do you sometimes get a spinning wheel
when you request content from Netflix
or other big tech companies?
Well, sometimes their servers can crash
and cause an outage,
or maybe they took a longer route that got congested.
But the problem could be closer to home.
Are you trying to stream video during peak evening hours?
In many networks
you're sharing bandwidth with your neighbors.
Or maybe it's your WiFi.
Maybe you're leasing an out of date modem or router
from your provider that isn't capable
of receiving the speeds you're paying for.
It might be worth an upgrade.
You may also have an interference problem
from another device, like your neighbor's baby monitor
or maybe you're just too far away from your router.
Or it just could be your own device.
Are you using an old laptop or phone,
or an outdated streaming box?
Your device could be slowing you down.
It could help to restart your modem or router
or even invest in a better one.
Same for your devices.
But a lot is still out of your control.
Like if your neighbor's son is downloading
15 video games one night.
Or a traffic jam out in the internet.
So next time this happens and you call your provider,
they'll likely try to sell you more speed
for your connection,
but now you know better.

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