By Nicole Nguyen
April 18, 2022
After fiber-optic internet finally arrived in my neighborhood, I did what any broadband nerd would do: brag about my new superfast speeds on social media. Screenshots showed downloads of nearly 1 gigabit per second, about 10 times faster than my previous connection. That is the equivalent of streaming over 200 Zoom calls at 1080p, high-definition resolution—all at the same time.
To my surprise, I started receiving disappointed DMs from friends and family. “I have the same provider. Did you pay extra?” “How did you get that speed? Mine’s so slow.” “Ugh, I’m having a lot of connectivity issues with my fiber.” I put my personal-tech-support hat on and got to work. The root of their issues? Old home-networking equipment.
An estimated 25.1 million U.S. households had fiber service in 2021, according to the Fiber Broadband Association. Providers are rolling out gigabit (1,000 megabits) and even multi-gigabit internet to more cities. President Biden’s infrastructure bill aims to expand fiber-optic networks across the country. (Many rural areas are waiting for any high-speed option at all.)
Fiber-optic internet speeds can be significantly faster than cable, DSL or satellite. To experience the advertised bandwidth, however, you need specific gear. Your equipment, or where it is installed in your home, could be contributing to those slower data rates.
If you want to get the most out of your fiber internet, here’s what you need to know.
Get the Right Gear
When setting up your connection, your internet service provider installs a little box, called an optical network terminal. Some people can connect the terminal right to their own router with an Ethernet cable. Others, such as many Verizon FIOS customers, might need to connect their router to a modem-like gateway offered by the service provider.
The router and cables you choose could slow you down.
Look for text printed on the side of your Ethernet cable. You’ll need at least a Category 5e cable (abbreviated as “Cat 5e”), which supports a gigabit connection for up to 100 meters, said Dane Jasper, chief executive of Sonic, an independent internet-service company in Northern California. (It is also my fiber broadband provider.)
Category 6e cables can support even faster multi-gigabit connections at longer lengths. If you’re looking to future-proof your house, he advises deploying Cat 6e cable. Monoprice is a good source for budget-friendly cables in a variety of colors.
Your router also needs to support high speeds. Visit the manufacturer’s website and look for “gigabit” in the model’s name or description. If not, you’ll need a new one. (More on that below.) Also, if you are relying on equipment from your service provider, you should consider buying your own, which could be better, and even cheaper over time.
Go Wired Where You Can
The most reliable way to get the fastest internet possible? Connect your device to Ethernet. You can check your speeds at speedtest.net.
When my laptop is connected to Wi-Fi and I’m sitting right under my gigabit-capable Eero Pro 6 router, my best download speeds are up to 600 megabits per second. Uploads peak around 320 Mbps. But with an Ethernet cord, both are much closer to the one-gigabit target.
For devices that don’t move around your home but are in fixed locations, use Ethernet, Mr. Jasper said. This includes TVs, game consoles or the computer at your desk.
Most routers have an extra port for an Ethernet connection, but that might not be enough. You can add ports to a router with a network switch hub, such as Netgear’s GS308 ($28). (Don’t forget, it must be gigabit-compatible, too.) A switch allows more gadgets to access an Ethernet connection and also creates a local-area network, or LAN, where the devices can talk to each other.
So your setup could look something like this: fiber-optic terminal > Ethernet cable > router > Ethernet cable > network switch > Ethernet cable > computer/TV/game console.
If you want to connect your laptop via wired Ethernet, you’ll likely need a dongle. I like OWC’s USB-C Travel Dock E ($65), which also gives you additional USB and HDMI ports.
Running a bunch of cables doesn’t have to mean tearing up your walls. But it can be a pain, and the cords are unsightly. Cord covers that attach to walls with adhesive can help. Some are even designed to look like baseboard molding.
Plot Your Wi-Fi Plan
The rules of Wi-Fi engagement are simple: “As you move farther from the router, your speed will go down,” said Sandeep Harpalani, vice president of product management at network-hardware maker Netgear.
Wi-Fi is also susceptible to interference. Where your router is placed can make a significant difference in speed and signal strength. That is why we generally recommend mesh Wi-Fi router systems, which repeat Wi-Fi signals through multiple routers, sometimes called nodes or satellites, blanketing your house in coverage for fewer dead spots.
My colleague Joanna Stern liked Netgear’s Orbi and the Amazon-owned Eero best in her test of mesh Wi-Fi systems. The Orbi AX4200 ($549 for a router-and-node pair) is a solid Netgear option for most people, though there are many models to choose from based on your bandwidth and the size of your home.
Eero has two new products: the Eero 6+ ($239 for two) and the Eero Pro 6E ($499 for two). Only the latter device is compatible with Wi-Fi 6E devices, a new wireless standard that operates in the wider 6-GHz band, but most devices don’t support that yet. The best bet for most homes is the 6+, the brand’s most affordable gigabit offering.
Eero’s app is the most user-friendly, but its routers come with just one additional Ethernet port.
The placement of the main router is often confined to the basement, where service providers often install the optical network terminal. If you are getting fiber installed, ask your technician if the terminal can be in a more central location.
According to Mr. Harpalani, routers and nodes should be:
- Three to 4 feet above the floor
- Out in the open, not in a cabinet
- Away from electronic equipment, metal or major appliances
- Ideally separated by a couple of rooms or different floors for multiple-node setups
Additionally, he said, if the router has antennas, they must be aligned in a certain manner to provide the best coverage, so follow the manufacturer’s directions.
If things are still slow, follow tech support’s golden rule: Turn everything off and on again. Seriously. A networking expert said so! “Traffic does get trapped in the router,” Mr. Harpalani said.
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