Like many parents, my kids have started back to school. But this year, things are a little different because we’re all working/learning from home. Suddenly there many more devices trying to access the Internet at the same time, and all for “mission critical” reasons (either conducting business meetings or online learning). Thankfully, I had already set up our network to be able to handle this, and things have gone smoothly for us. Before you buy a faster Internet connection or new routers for your home, I wanted to share a few tips with you.
Are you Overwhelming the Chromebook with Smiling Faces?
Have you ever noticed that, when you open a video conference or lesson with one person your Chromebook or other device (I’m going to just call all devices a “Chromebook” for this post) works fine, but as more people are added things get really weird? That’s because of all the incoming videos. The Chromebook needs to receive each high definition video stream and convert it to a size that is appropriate for your screen, and it has to do it fast enough that you won’t notice. That’s easy when only one person is, or two people are, on video.
As you add more people, they each have to be scaled and displayed separately, and that is a LOT of data for your Chromebook to handle. That creates a lot of lagging videos, slow mouse movements, and other issues.
You should consider switching to a view that only shows the person speaking, or disabling the incoming video if that make sense (just don’t forget that your camera may still be broadcasting!). Of course, where the teacher is actively teaching you really can’t turn off the teacher’s video!
In that case, you should talk to the teacher to understand whether they need everyone’s video to be on all the time. In the “live” online classes I teach, I have my students turn on their video only when they are speaking. This keeps things running smoothly for the entire 3-4 hour sessions.
Switching to this “only when speaking” approach takes some getting used to, both for the students and the teacher. I know I miss seeing my students’ smiling faces and reading their body language, and I’m sure your kids’ teachers will feel the same. But the Chromebooks won’t be as overwhelmed and the students won’t be as distracted and frustrated, which is a boon for their learning. It also has the added benefit of not using as much of your WiFi and Internet connection, and we’ll talk about that more in a bit.
Is it the Internet or is it me?
If the problems still persist even after you have tried switching your meetings to “videos for speakers only”, the next thing to test is whether your Internet connection is fast enough to meet your needs. Wait until an evening when things are quiet at home, then run an Internet speed test from your Chromebook.
An easy way to run a speed test is to visit Google.com and type in “Internet Speed Test”, or you can visit Ookla or SpeakEasy. If you have high speed Internet service (200 Megabits Per Second, or MBPS, or faster) at home, some of these other sites may not give you accurate results, and you should use Google’s site. If the results are within 70-80% of what you’re paying for from your Internet provider, that’s pretty good (there is some overhead data needed to make the Internet connection happen, and that can use up 20-30%). In that case, you may be smothering your WiFi with attention during business hours. If your results are significantly less than what you expect, keep reading.
Focusing the Conversation by Using Wired Connections
Most of our homes have multiple sources of electronic “noise” that can interfere with wireless signals. From microwave ovens to fans to your neighbor’s WiFi router, these noise sources create interference that makes it harder for your device to stay connected. Remember what it was like to sit in a noisy restaurant? When you’re close to your table you can hear what your friends are saying, but as you get farther away the noise makes it harder to carry on a conversation. The same is true for your Chromebook when you’re on WiFi: the farther you are from the router, the harder it is for your Chromebook to talk to the router. Computers are finicky and like to get all of the information they are meant to receive, so if the noise interrupts a conversation between the Chromebook and the router, the interrupted parts have to be re-sent, which slows things down and can cause dropped connections.
So, if you can, switch to a wired connection. This is the fastest and most reliable way to connect to your router and the Internet. Its like calling your friend on the phone from across the noisy restaurant rather than trying to yell over everyone.
Unfortunately, Chromebooks and some other devices don’t come with wired connections out of the box, and you’ll need to buy an adapter. Some adapters, like this one, even add additional USB ports.
You’ll also need an Ethernet cable. They come in all different lengths and colors, from 1 foot to 50 feet and beyond, with 6 to 10 feet being the standard. Choose one that is long enough to stretch from your home router to wherever you’ll be using the Chromebook.
At this point, wired connections are easy to configure, too. Just plug one end of the Ethernet cable into your router and the other end into your Chromebook, and the router and Chromebook will handle the rest.
I use a wired connection from my laptop to the Internet. It is more secure and more stable, and I don’t have to worry about my kids eating up all of the WiFi (I’ll talk about that more in a bit).
Reconnecting with your WiFi
Wired connections are great and very reliable, just not all that convenient. If you live in a multi-level house, or if you need to move around with your device, WiFi makes things much easier.
Get Close to your Router
As I mentioned, WiFi comes with issues, the biggest of which is that the connection is subject to noise. I talked about noise sources before, and it is important to understand that the farther your Chromebook is from the WiFi router, the more likely noise is to impact the connection. If at all possible, move the Chromebook closer to the router or move the router closer to where you’re working. This will cut down on the noise and allow more of the conversation to occur uninterrupted.
Help your WiFi Reach You
If you can’t move the router or the Chromebook, you might need to add a new device to your network. You could buy a more powerful router or an amplifier, but in many cases the better approach is to use a “mesh router” with multiple extenders, or to use a “range extender.”
Buying a mesh router, like a Deco, eero, or Orbi can be an easy way to get more consistent WiFi coverage throughout your home. You can keep adding extenders to these mesh systems and they handle transitioning your devices from one extender to another without dropping your connections. If you add a new device, please be sure to change any default passwords.
If you decide new equipment is your best bet, be sure to change any default passwords to make it harder for criminals to get in.– Jim Goepel
If you’re on a budget or aren’t confident you’ll be able to set up a whole new router system, the mesh routers may not be for you. That’s where a separate range extender, like this one from NETGEAR, might be useful. They act as a bridge between your device and your router, playing a game of “whisper down the lane” but with more accuracy than when people are involved. This extends the reach of your current router without requiring significant technical skill on your part. Range extenders are great if you stay in one place with your Chromebook while you are on a video conference. If you want to walk around the house, expect some dropped connections as your Chromebook transitions from using the range extender to your router.
Stop Smothering your Connection
At this point, you should have pretty good WiFi coverage throughout your home. If you are still experiencing a lot of dropped connections, there are basically only two places left to look for problems.
There’s only so much WiFi to go Around!
It is possible that your devices, when all used at the same time, are using up all of your WiFi. If that is the case, you may want to consider separating your devices into different WiFi networks.
Although you might be tempted to simply put your kids, or yourself, on your router’s “guest” network, this may not be enough to solve the problem. All of the different devices, including your Chromebook, will still be talking to the router. If you were overwhelming it before, splitting them in this manner may not be enough to fix the problem.
Instead, you’ll want to add a separate WiFi router with its own, separate WiFi network. This has the added benefit of allowing you to easily implement parental controls and other restrictions on your kids’ network.
There’s only so much Internet to go around, too!
Although the Internet speed test you conducted at the beginning of this article may have come back with high speeds when you tried it at night while no one was online, if you have multiple Chromebooks all trying to simultaneously participate in video conferences with many incoming videos, that can eat up a good bit of your Internet connection. Try running another speed test during the day from the same location; does the result drop to less than a 10 Megabits per second? If so, it’s probably time to upgrade your connection.
It isn’t you, it’s them.
At this point, you’ve basically done everything you can on your end. That means your network isn’t likely to be the problem. Instead, the problem is likely to be with the presenter’s computer or the site hosting the meeting. For example, hackers and other criminals know the video conference services and online learning tools are in heavy demand right now, and the criminals routinely target these services in an attempt to extort money.
I hope this helps you create a more stable Internet connection at home and takes some of the frustration out of your online learning experience!