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Understanding home broadband and how it supports video conferencing

Running multiple, reliable Zoom streams on a home network can be challenging. But how do you optimize it? In this article, we'll help you understand the factors that impact bandwidth and some tips for making it all work.

If you're working from home or managing a child who is attending school virtually, you're probably using Zoom and/or other video conferencing platforms. In this article, we're going to look at how you can maximize your network performance for multiple Zoom streams.

As far back as 2019, Internet service providers expected most customers to need good download performance. After all, more people were streaming TV shows, movies, and sports. Nearly everyone was watching YouTube. People were surfing the web, sending email, and playing games. Only a very few were participating in video conferences or otherwise uploading video. Most people didn't care about upload performance (or even know how much upload bandwidth they had).

ISPs took advantage of this by selling very lopsided packages. You could get hundreds of megabits per second (Mbps) down in a package that only allowed 5Mbps up. Even some of the top-tier packages offered by major ISPs would provide 1Gbps down (1,000 Mbps), but only 35Mbps up.

Before we go on, let's clarify something that seems to confuse a lot of people. Your ISP controls the network bandwidth between their facilities and your home. Your router controls network bandwidth inside your home. 
That means if you have stellar bandwidth from your ISP, but an ancient or obsolete router, you're likely to still have bad performance. As we move forward in our discussion, keep this separation in mind. On the one hand, you'll be looking at ISP performance and your plan. On the other, you'll be looking at the network architecture inside your home.

The ISP side of the equation

As we mentioned, most ISPs optimize for selling download bandwidth. Watching a movie or a YouTube video in glorious 4K will require about 20Mbps of actual download bandwidth.

In practice, we've found that real-world performance is usually only 50-60 percent of the quoted speed. So, to watch a 4K movie without Netflix compressing the heck out of the data, you're really going to need a plan advertised at closer to 40Mbps.

But that's just for one download stream. If you have three or four people in the house and a couple of them are watching movies while the others are surfing the Internet, you're going to need 100Mbps down, or more.

One other thing to keep in mind is that many cable modem installations share bandwidth among everyone in a neighborhood. As more people come online, the amount of available bandwidth may diminish. This is particularly the case during high-usage hours. The same limit is true of your ISP's connection to its upstream providers. As usage peaks, performance may suffer.

There's not a lot you can do about that, except possibly switch ISPs. In my town, one ISP offers fiber, which does not share bandwidth. The other ISP, a little less expensive, offers cable connections -- but those share bandwidth. Not all communities have a choice of ISP, but if you're aware of the issue, you'll at least know what to ask.

My community has a great private Facebook group where members talk about the network performance they're getting and compare notes. If you have a community group, join it. And if you don't, consider getting together with some friends and starting one.

But what about Zoom?

Zoom uses both upload and download bandwidth. After all, you're downloading other people's video streams while you're uploading yours to the other participants. Zoom is relatively benign in its bandwidth usage; it needs a minimum of 2Mbps down and up (HD requires more).

If you're not doing too much online (even if you have a lower-end plan), you can generally handle a single Zoom stream. But what happens if three or four of you are Zooming at once? All of a sudden, you're pushing a bare minimum of 8Mbps up to your ISP. But since so many Zoom meetings and classes require multiple windows open, where participants are looking at mail, other web pages, or notes while in the meeting, assume that you're going to consume some additional download and upload bandwidth.

For a family of four to Zoom simultaneously , figure that you'll need a minimum quoted upload bandwidth of about 20Mbps. If your plan doesn't have this bandwidth level, either you're going to need to limit how many family members can Zoom at once, or you're going to need to upgrade your plan. Many ISPs are still very tight-fisted about offering upload performance, so you may wind up buying more-expensing plans with far more download performance than you actually need, just to get enough upload bandwidth.

Also, while we're mentioning upload bandwidth, keep in mind that you may also need it for backups. If you use a backup program that sends data to the cloud, see whether you can set its upload job for overnight hours. That way, you won't have backups eating into your Zoom bandwidth.

Your home network

The pipe between your home and your service provider is the first step. Now, let's talk about how data gets around your house. 

Routers direct data between your various digital devices and the Internet. Most offer Wi-Fi connectivity, so devices connect wirelessly. While wireless networking is incredibly convenient, it's also a very common source of performance issues.

Wi-Fi is a radio signal. Radio signals can be blocked, or experience interference. Your home may be constructed in such a way that radio waves have difficulty passing through walls. For example, my house has one room that blocks most Wi-Fi, but the other rooms are pretty good.

If you're concerned about performance and transmission reliability, the very best way to go is with Ethernet. By running a cable between your router and your computers (sometimes using Ethernet switches to expand the network), you'll have almost no data loss and experience almost no interference.

The only real downside to Ethernet is the cabling. You either have to run the cables through your walls (which can be challenging to install) or run them along your floorboards. It might be worth putting up with a little cable clutter in order to have reliable meetings.

There are ways to improve your Wi-Fi as well. If you have an old router, consider upgrading it. Newer routers use newer networking technologies and faster internal processors. PK

Another option is upgrading your point-to-point router network to a mesh network [link to 0510]. When you set up a mesh network, you start with a mesh router at your D-mark (the connection to your home from the outside). Then you add additional mesh nodes throughout the house to fill in any 'dead' zones. One powerful, business-class wireless access point that supports mesh configurations is the Ruckus R510.

As more and more organizations embrace remote work and adopt cloud-based applications, you may consider a Software-Defined Wide Area Networks (SD-WAN) solution, particularly for those essential workers that have a need for high-priority, stable connections. An SD-WAN can improve productivity by enhancing the performance of business-critical applications (like voice, video conferencing, and VDI) on your home network by prioritizing traffic over limited-upload bandwidth connections. This comes in handy for remote doctors and radiologists, for example, who need a stable connection for meeting with patients or downloading large medical images for reading. In addition, for organizations that are currently paying for dedicated MPLS connections, SD-WAN could help reduce costly MPLS fees with secure connectivity.

At ZDNet, we've written quite a number of articles about diagnosing and improving home network performance. Here are a few that can help:

Good luck. Hopefully, you'll be able to make a few tweaks and you'll be able to attend even more Zoom meetings, because that's a worthwhile goal, right?

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