Online learners: What to do if you have a bad internet connection

Whether in kindergarten or college, slow, unreliable internet can make daily life frustrating. Here's some advice on working around a bad connection.
Written by Nate Delesline III, Staff Writer

After the start of the pandemic, access to high-speed internet quickly became a basic necessity. Participating in business, healthcare, and education now often requires internet access. For online learners — or anyone who supports an online learner — it's frustrating to be digitally disconnected. 

Federal data shows that 43% of fourth and eighth graders were in remote learning in early 2021. Twenty-one percent of those students were in hybrid learning at that time. And about 52% of all higher education students took at least one online course in the 2019-2020 academic year.

Is your internet acting up on a day you have an important video call or assignment due? Frustrated? Panicking? Continue reading for suggestions on what to do if you have a bad internet connection. 

What to do if you have a bad internet connection

First, how do you define a good, bad, fast, or slow internet connection?

For speed, the Federal Communications Commission says 25 megabits per second for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads is the standard. At this speed, the internet should support three users or devices at the same time. You should have the capacity to stream HD video, make video calls, browse web pages or stream a podcast. But the government also acknowledges that this baseline speed is too slow for modern demands.

Next, check your internet speed. It's free, easy, and takes only a few moments. You don't need to download any apps or use special equipment. Simply type "internet speed test" into the search bar of your preferred web browser. You'll get several options back. They include Measurement Lab, Speedtest, and national or regional internet service providers. Running this test is also a good opportunity to verify with your internet service provider that you're getting the level of service you're paying for.

If you're still in panic mode, try running through this five-step checklist:

  1. Unplug everything: As basic as it sounds, sometimes unplugging your modem and router (and restarting your devices) is all you need. This reset might be enough to get reconnected.
  2. Check your device: Is it connected to the internet and to the correct network? Is the operating system up to date? A temporary fix might be as simple as using another device, if you have one, if you can't immediately solve the problem.
  3. How's your Wi-Fi signal? Do you get good service in the same room as your internet router but your Wi-Fi cuts out if you're in another part of the house? It could be a Wi-Fi-related problem. Note that your internet service and Wi-Fi network aren't the same thing. Your internet connection comes from an internet service provider — the company you pay to provide a connection to the world wide web. Your Wi-Fi network is inside your home only.
  4. Where's your router? If it's behind the sofa or on the opposite side of the house from where you normally work, moving the router (or moving yourself) closer might solve the problem. A Wi-Fi extender might also do the trick. Alternatively, if you're able to plug your computer directly into your router, that may fix internet problems (though it means no more Wi-Fi).
  5. Look outside: If you can safely, easily access it, PCMag recommends checking the physical cable that provides internet to your residence. Make sure it's not damaged or disconnected, and if it is, call your internet provider. 

Where to find fast internet

If those fixes failed to identify or solve your problem, consider an outside approach. These national restaurants and retailers usually offer free, fast Wi-Fi:

  • Starbucks: PCMag ranked Starbucks' Wi-Fi second-best among large, nationwide coffee chains in 2019. Although many Starbucks are situated close to another location, the chain boasts more than 15,000 US locations overall. Here's the corporate guide on how to access their Wi-Fi. 
  • Dunkin': PCMag awarded Dunkin' (formerly Dunkin' Donuts) first place for fast, free Wi-Fi. The company has about 8,500 US locations and 3,200 international locations in 36 countries. 
  • McDonald's: One of the world's largest and best known brands has free Wi-Fi available at 11,500 locations. AT&T provides the Wi-Fi at McDonald's, according to this corporate FAQ page
  • Subway: The world's largest fast food chain had about 40,000 locations in about 100 countries in 2020. About half of them are in the US. Subway offers a third-party app that allows you to start using their internet for free. No further registration is required.
  • Walmart: This mega-retailer had more than 5,342 US locations in late 2021. Most have free Wi-Fi. Many full service Walmarts also have a McDonald's, Domino's, or a Taco Bell location with seating inside the store.
  • Target: Most Target stores have a cafe with indoor seating. There are nearly 2,000 locations in the US. This corporate webpage provides a guide to accessing Target's complimentary Wi-Fi.
  • Your local library: If you don't have one of these national chains close by, consider the library: Most public, K-12, college and university libraries offer free high speed internet. According to one source, the US has more than 116,000 libraries. If the library is closed, many libraries also have strong Wi-Fi signals that reach outside the building. Also, unlike restaurants or retail stores, there's no need to buy anything in order to use the free internet.

In addition, some US libraries lend wireless internet hotspots to anyone with a library account. In Virginia Beach, for example, the city's public library system loans hotspots for three weeks at a time. San Diego public libraries let patrons borrow a Wi-Fi hotspot for 90 days.

How will 5G affect education?

Fifth generation wireless technology may improve connectivity for millions. 

Also known as 5G, this newest wireless technology may provide a smoother, faster, more reliable digital connection for education. 5G technology may enhance virtual learning and allow students access to more personalized learning experiences.

Connectivity from anywhere is important. In America, younger and lower income adults who have a high school education or less are more likely to rely on a smartphone for internet access. A recent Pew Research report found that 15% of Americans primarily use a smartphone to access the internet. A 2018 report predicted nearly 75% of people globally will use only a smartphone to access the internet in 2025.

In mid January, Verizon and AT&T agreed to limit the activation of 5G service near US airports. The limited introduction is in response to concerns that 5G technology would interfere with some existing aviation safety and navigation technologies. The rollout of 5G technology is expected to continue through the summer.

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