I have worked remote via Windows Remote Desktop Services and Citrix virtual desktops since 2003. Back in 2003, I was using an AT&T aDSL connection that would blink out a couple of times a day but otherwise, I had good experiences working remotely. But back then I did not have to complete with Netflix and Hulu, YouTube and online gaming, or a half dozen smartphones streaming Spotify in my house. Checking DHCP leases recently, I found 21 devices on our home router. TWENTY ONE! Gradually over the past few years, it seems my entire house connected to the Internet. These connected devices have brought many conveniences and more than a little entertainment, but they also brought aggravation when working from home in the form of laggy remote desktop connections, spotty VoIP, and staggering video conferences.
Check Internet Speeds
A few years ago my work from home experiences really started to suffer. My first reaction was to call my ISP and have them check speeds and equipment. It is always the other guys' fault when it comes to spending time troubleshooting! Of course, the answers I got back were that everything was running as it should. So my follow-up questions were, "Can I go faster and how much is it?" At that point, in the back of my mind, I felt like the character Jill Johnson from the 1979 movie When a Stranger Calls knowing the issue was inside my house but . . . more speed, right?
I did spring for the faster Internet connection but it did not help the performance of my virtual desktop and Skype calls.
Here is why more speed may not help. The issue, in many cases, is not your "Internet speed" or bandwidth. The issue is LATENCY. "Latency" is the amount of time it takes for a device, like your computer, to ask for or send data over the Internet and then get a response back. The longer it takes to get a response, the higher your latency, and the slower everything feels. Latency is separate from bandwidth (speed). You can have really high bandwidth but also really high latency and that will create a "slow" Internet connection. The Internet provider sells bandwidth and on their network they try to keep latency low. If an ISP has high latency, they will fix it because it affects their service and all their customers. So if you experience high latency, it is most likely coming from inside your house.
Most people use the ping command to test latency. For a novice, go to a speed test website like www.speedtest.net and look at your Ping result. It is measured in milliseconds (ms). It is important to remember that you are running this test at a specific point in time. So a good latency now does not mean it is not bad at other times. Latency fluctuates based upon the amount and TYPE of Internet traffic going on in your whole house at the moment you check it. So if you have speed issues it is best to test your latency while you are having the problem.
What is Bad Latency?
On the support desk when we test for latency, users like to say "My Netflix works fine". Well, that load screen when starting a movie was the video buffering which covers up your latency issue. On the other hand, activities like Voice over IP calls, Skype calls and video, and remote desktops are greatly impacted by higher latency.
|0 - 40ms||Great for most activities.||Calls and voice should be seamless and virtual desktops should respond quickly with no noticeable pauses.|
|41ms - 80ms||Workable but slight pauses may be noticed.||Calls may cut a part of a word, video might not be smooth, and virtual desktops might feel a pause every now and then.|
|81ms +||No point in breaking it down further.||The higher the latency the less acceptable the performance.|
How to Address High Latency
This is not a "How to Fix My Internet Speeds" article. Addressing every possible cause and solution to latency issues is the subject for a book. But knowing there may be a latency problem and what the likely culprits are may be helpful in your own troubleshooting.
Some possible causes of poor Internet performance are:
- Streaming video such as Netflix, Hulu, Twitch, YouTube or any video over the Internet. While you may have the bandwidth for it, streaming is a constant open Internet stream. Your work has to "get in line" with this wide open stream and compete with a never-ending line of traffic.
- Streaming music like Spotify or Pandora. While music does not require as much bandwidth as video, it is also a constant stream of traffic your work has to cut into.
- Updates on your local computer like Windows Updates and anti-virus updates. In addition to drawing computer resources, it also uses the Internet to pull files and create latency.
- File uploads and downloads like syncing photos, OneDrive, ShareFile, and Dropbox. When a file is being uploaded or downloaded, it consumes a large amount of bandwidth and increases latency as it pushes the file.
- Wireless Internet connections have higher latency than wired connections. When possible, use a wired connection.
- Router and Wifi issues happen over time. This could be the age of equipment, bad firmware updates, a loose cable, or a device that slips behind the bookshelf hampering the signal.
- Bad or poor network drivers. Drivers may need to be updated or replaced.
Some of the things noted above are just a part of working remotely. As long as you know what is causing the latency then you can plan for it and not worry about it. As you may have surmised, the biggest culprits who produce latency are your family. While you toil away on your laptop breaking rocks, they game. They watch videos. They download music. They create latency.
Years ago, while I was waiting for that Internet upgrade, I noticed a pattern. Working from home from 8am to 3pm everything went fine. I scheduled my Windows Updates and anti-virus updates for after 7pm when I was supposed to be finished working. When I moved large files up or down I knew that my remote desktop might hesitate for a moment here and there. But after 3pm the kids came home. No homework? Xbox. No chores? Netflix. Our wannabe YouTube star would upload videos. I started seeing more frequent pauses, call break-ups, and performance went down. The fix? No streaming or uploads until after 5pm. Yes, I still work after five but I don't want to cause a family revolt over the Internet.