You’ve been there before. You’re about to finish a mission or a storyline and your internet speed takes a nosedive. Maybe you’re playing an MMO RPG and your teammates are relying on you, but here you are lagging. Slow internet leads to lag, and lag makes it hard to do any sort of online gaming whatsoever.
There are multiple reasons why this could be happening. Your internet service provider (ISP) might be throttling your bandwidth because they can see exactly what type of activity you’re engaged in on an unencrypted network. What’s more, you could be dealing with high latency, which is an especially big issue for gaming. And then there’s the fact that companies like Microsoft and Sony are throttling game downloads due to internet congestion.
These are the primary issues responsible for low internet speeds when you’re gaming, but there are more. Find out what you can do to make your internet connection better and enjoy the games you want to play.
Measure How Much Data You Need Per Month
Online gaming can require a lot of data — as much as 300MB per hour — which is why you need to determine your monthly data needs. If you know your data requirements, you’ll be able to determine whether the issue is your current service plan or something else.
Statista reports that U.S. households’ data usage peaked at 400GB per month in March 2020. An average internet user who does two hours of gaming a day will use 160MB an hour, or 4.8GB a month. This figure doesn’t include game installs or patches, with modern games often exceeding 100GB in size.
One way to figure out your data needs is to look at your household’s Internet usage habits. What else do you do besides gaming? Video streaming, music streaming, and social media consume a fair amount of data as well.
Here’s the breakdown of data consumption for internet activities:
- Web browsing: 15MB per hour;
- Social media browsing: 100 to 360MB per hour;
- Standard-definition video streaming: 700MB per hour;
- HD video: 2.5GB per hour;
- 4K video: 5.8GB per hour;
- Music streaming: 72MB per hour;
- Online gaming: 80MB per hour.
Keep in mind that if you’re streaming video on social media, that will up your data usage as well.
You could monitor your internet and gaming habits manually to get a rough estimate of your monthly usage. Or, for Windows 10, go to Settings, then Network & Internet, then Data usage. This will tell you how much data you’ve used on your Wi-Fi network over 30 days. Here are some other ways to track your bandwidth usage:
- Install Glasswire, which is a firewall that will tell you how much data you use on your PC or mobile devices.
- Check your ISP’s website, log in, and search for “usage.”
- Track data usage via your router by installing firmware such as DD-WRT or Gargoyle.
Make sure you find out how much data your whole household is using, not just you. Once you know how much data you use each month, you’ll know whether you need a service plan with no data cap — or one of the other solutions below.
Aim for Low Latency
You want latency to be as low as possible when you’re gaming. Latency, or ping rate, is the time it takes for your device to communicate with a server. If you have low latency, that means your signal is reaching the server quickly and the server is responding quickly as well. If you have high latency, signal transmission is slow.
Wi-Fi typically has a lot of latency because there’s more interference than you’d see with a wired connection. If you want pro-level low latency, switch to an ethernet cable (more on that later). Otherwise, here’s how to get low latency via Wi-Fi:
- Get a dual-band 5GHz router: There’ll be less lag because most other devices are on the 2.4GHz bandwidth and a 5GHz signal travels through objects easier.
- Get a Wi-Fi extender: If you’re unable to be physically close to your router, this will make up for the fact that a 5GHz router has a lower range than a 2.4GHz router.
- Shutdown unnecessary background processes: These increase latency. For example, if Steam and Windows are downloading in the background, you’ll suffer higher latency. You’ll want to disable auto-downloads to avoid this situation.
- Make sure you’re malware-free: Bugs increase latency.
- Restart your router: This is a classic solution. Shutting down your router and booting it back up clears your DNS cache and resets your IP for optimal ping.
- Check your gaming server’s location: Many online gaming networks have multiple servers in different locations. Make sure you’re connecting to the closest server to you.
However, there’s always the possibility that latency isn’t the issue and bandwidth throttling is. Bandwidth throttling is the intentional reduction of your internet speed by your service provider. They may do this to regulate traffic and ensure less network congestion for their customers.
Use a VPN
A VPN is a virtual private network that empowers you to eliminate bandwidth throttling. ISPs are free to throttle your bandwidth based on the type of data you’re using. A study from Northeastern University showed that the four major ISPs in the U.S. throttle streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, even though they deny doing so.
If an ISP can throttle bandwidth based on data type — which is called traffic differentiation — then it can throttle your gaming data. This is especially likely to happen when a ton of people are downloading game data or playing a big-data game — like Destiny 2, which uses 300MB per hour — at the same time. ISPs are allowed to do traffic differentiation because the Federal Communications Commission no longer enforces net neutrality.
You shouldn’t just choose any VPN. Make sure the VPN has servers with unlimited download speeds and is set up to help you avoid throttling. Additionally, follow the low-latency tips above, and remember that your location matters for maximum gaming efficiency.
Move Closer to Your Router
As we mentioned in the low-latency section, your router’s location makes a difference. The closer you are to the router, the better. Once you’re running a dual-band router, which is the optimal router for gaming, you’ll notice that the signal isn’t as strong when you’re farther away. If you don’t want to fork out the extra cash for a Wi-Fi extender, locating your router in the same room as you is your best bet.
Use an Ethernet Cable
An ethernet cable is the sterling, grade-A way for gamers to connect to the internet via a local area network (LAN) and maximize speeds. This is because you won’t get any of the interference inherent to Wi-Fi.
An ethernet cable transfers broadband data between your gaming device and your router or modem. It’s a direct connection that decreases latency. According to Firefold, the fastest ethernet cables are the Cat6, which can process 10-gigabyte speeds, the Cat6a, which provides twice the bandwidth of the Cat6, and the Cat7, which is fully shielded and has even more bandwidth.
If you opt for a Cat6a or Cat7, ensure they’re grounded. Also, Firefold points out that you should make sure your network cards and router are compatible with the cable.
Close Background Applications
Closing background apps and processes is another surefire way to increase your gaming speed and decrease lag.
If you’re using Steam, you’ll want to ensure it’s not downloading titles or updates while you’re gaming. Simply go to Settings, then Downloads, then uncheck the box that allows downloads during gameplay.
Next, if you’re using Windows, check your task manager. This will tell you which apps you have running in the background. Your antivirus software itself may be consuming a lot of data, and it’s okay to turn it off while you’re gaming, especially if you’re using a VPN that protects your privacy. You’ll also want to stop torrent downloads and exit your torrent app.
Furthermore, if you’re on Windows 10, tell it to stop the automatic updates. These take up quite a bit of your bandwidth while you’re gaming.
Turn Off Other Devices
If you have other devices on your Wi-Fi network, it’s a great idea to turn them off or disconnect them from Wi-Fi. Tablets, cell phones, laptops, and PCs will all run interference and increase the latency of your Wi-Fi signal. You might even have smart appliances running interference.
However, it may not be possible to turn off everything and exist in a gaming bubble. This is especially true since many people are working from home, so you may have roommates trying to work at the same time. If this is the case, connect to the router via ethernet cable or get a Wi-Fi extender. Additionally, use the optimal VPN for multiple devices, as some VPNs will restrict your bandwidth when multiple devices are connected.
Play on a Local Server
Another option for optimal internet is to do your gaming on a local server. The closer you are to a server, the lower your latency. But most game publisher’s servers are going to be far away from you, and you’re still subject to the ISP’s whims. What’s more, peer-to-peer hosting — think Team Fortress 2 or Rift — is only as good as the hosts’ connections. Therefore, it makes sense to do your gaming on a local server, otherwise known as a dedicated server.
You could either build your own dedicated server or rent one. Just make sure you have quick upload and download speeds. Otherwise, your friends and other players may experience connectivity problems and lag. To avoid this issue altogether, set up a LAN. Also, make sure the games you’re planning on playing are compatible with a dedicated server.
Upgrade Your Broadband Package
While upgrading your broadband package is often the last resort, it’s still a good option. If you’ve determined that the amount of data you use is just not supported by your current plan, find out if the carrier has an unlimited plan or one that will support your needs. If they don’t, it may be time to switch providers.