Why is your internet never as fast as they say?

The cable company tells you that you’re getting speeds of “up to 100Mbps.” The key words there are “up to.” In most cases, and especially when there’s no competition for services, those numbers can be a total lie.

If a cable company were actually to guarantee 100Mbps service to every home, they’d need a lot more fiber. Let’s say for example that your average chunk of 15-20 homes is served by a single fiber channel of 1000Mbps. Of course, your neighborhood may be better and yours may be worse. If everyone’s trying to stream at the same time, and keeping in mind the extra traffic that comes from people searching and tweeting and snapchatting, each home may have as little as 15Mbps available for streaming video. Keep in mind that there may be two or three different streams coming into the house because the kids may not want to watch what mom and dad watch, and all of a sudden your 100Mbps service feels like 5Mbps. What happened?

What happened is that cable companies stole a strategy from airlines. For decades, airlines have routinely sold about 115% of the seats on busy flights, because believe it or not there are a lot of people who don’t actually fly even though they buy tickets. Personally I have never done this or even met someone who has, but that’s what they tell me. In the same way, cable companies oversell their internet because most of the time, you don’t actually have everyone trying to stream at the same time. In fact if you’re willing to get up at three in the morning you’ll find your internet speed is fabulous, that is unless others in your neighborhood are reading this article as well.

In cable company parlance, they call this “oversubscribing” and it’s legal. It’s also kind of a drag if you and everyone you know are trying to watch Luke Cage at the same time. You see a lot of buffering and you wonder why you’re paying so much for something that doesn’t work the way they say.

Of course, some providers are better than others, and and some neighborhoods are better than others. Every single provider struggles to keep up with capacity, because the demand for fast internet keeps growing. Even the definition of “fast internet” keeps changing. Just a few years ago, 15Mbps was fast enough for most homes, and today most homes do well with 50Mbps. It won’t be long though before we routinely need 100Mbps, especially if 4K streaming becomes common. Netflix and Amazon’s “4K” streams don’t need that much bandwidth today, but that’s because their quality is really poor when compared to something like DIRECTV 4K. They’ll have to increase the bitrates of their stuff in order to make it actually look like 4K.

In the meantime, there’s really nothing that can be done if you’re in an area where there isn’t any competition. If you find your internet speeds are slow and there is competition, look at your neighbors and what they’re using. If the competition suits your needs, go there. In many cases, I know people with AT&T internet are finding very high levels of satisfaction compared to other companies, and of course there are great opportunities if you choose to bundle with TV service and cell phone service. But the real point is, no matter who you choose you’re sometimes going to get slow internet. Eventually supply will catch up with demand, but who knows when that will be?

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 8,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.