It’s frustrating for sure. You’ve taken all the steps to get the fastest connection possible; you purchased the 1GB plan from your service provider, got the latest Wi-Fi system installed, and have the latest phone model in your hands. You gleefully open your speed test app only to see 450Mbps instead of the 1GB you’ve been striving for. It may seem like a travesty to only get half of what was advertised, but the fact is you will never see 1GB speed on your phone (for now), and the difference between a 450Mbps and 1GB to a single device is absolutely nothing in the real world.

We spoke with the experts in this field, Access Networks, who know through a combination of math, physics and properly engineered Wi-Fi standards-based safeguards that the achievable connection for most mobile devices in real-world situations is typically 30-40% of the negotiated connection rate. In this blog, we’ll discuss how we got to those numbers, limiting factors, and what key performance indicators to use when sizing up a home network.

How the Connection Is Made

Most mobile devices have a 2×2 radio where two antennas transmit and two antennas receive at any given time.  Devices are able to negotiate different connection rates based on 3 primary factors:

Location to Wi-Fi Antenna – The closer the device is to the Wi-Fi point, the closer it can get to its maximum theoretical connection. This is even more important for the newer 5Ghz band which can transmit faster speed but has less range than the slower 2.4Ghz

Wi-Fi Standard Being Used – Wi-Fi standards have been changing and improving like anything else in this space. The latest devices have the ability to use the newer standards that allow for higher bandwidth.

Interference – Interference in the environment will affect the connection rate. Walls, metal objects, and other radio signals are all examples of things material or otherwise that stands in the way of your Wi-Fi signal.

The maximum negotiated connection rate of an iPhone 11, for example, will be 866Mbps on Wi-Fi 5 and 1201Mbps on Wi-Fi 6 assuming some industry standard configuration settings. This is merely the negotiated connection rate and not the real-world throughput.  Basically, both devices have agreed to talk and have agreed on what the max rate could hypothetically be.

Limiting Factors on Real World Throughput

Now that we have a theoretical maximum connection between your device and the network, you have to consider the limiting factors that will further impact this maximum theoretical speed: throughput, network (and more specifically Wi-Fi) load and speed available from the server side.

  • Throughput – Throughput is essentially the maximum rate a device can pass data. If any single point in your network can not handle the maximum throughput then the speed will be limited before the connection is negotiated with your phone. Even when all the pieces have a 1GB throughput, the chain creates latency which will slow your connection slightly.
  • Network Load – Network load is a big reason why your network can be perceived as being slow, especially in today’s age where it’s normal for each person to have 2-3 Wi-Fi devices. Remember how phones have 4 antennas where 2 transmit and 2 receive? Wi-Fi routers and access points are the same, and that can be a dire limiting factor.

Take for instance a scenario where you have 4 devices connected to a 2×2 antenna router. The router can only serve its maximum theoretical speed with both antennas, so to serve data to two devices simultaneously then that speed is already cut in half. If all 4 devices are requesting data, the router can only serve 2 devices at a time which means the other two devices have to wait, and this will decrease your perceived speed. This usually happens very fast, but in situations with a lot of devices it can be noticeable. Think of a time where you tried to load a website in a crowded public wi-fi space and it took seemingly forever before it started loading, but once it started it was decently fast. That was your device waiting in line for its data request (your website).

  • Speed from server side – Speed tests will always be higher than real world connection speeds because of the limitations on the other side. The maximum speed offered by websites and streaming services are significantly lower than 1GB to one user. To give a frame a reference, a Netflix 4k stream only needs a 25 Mbps connection.

What a Robust Home Network Looks Like

So far, we’ve covered why you won’t see a 1GB connection on your phone and why it really does not matter. So what does? If I only need 25Mbps for 4k Netflix, isn’t this all overkill?

No, and the reason is simply the number of devices. You don’t need to be able to get 1Gbps on one device; you want 200+ Mbps on several devices at the same time without breaking a sweat. You do that by creating robust coverage and using proven brands. 

Create robust coverage by installing multiple access points throughout your home. The more square footage, the more access points you will need. There is no rule on how many because there are other factors such as interreference and wall structure type (one of the many reasons why we have an engineering team!). Multiple access points will make sure your Wi-Fi signal will reach the corners of the home, but it also adds more antennas. Now instead of 10 devices connected to one 2×2 point all fighting for data, you would have 5 points with 2 devices each. 

Lastly, not all brands are created equal, and definitely don’t let high specification numbers fool you. We’ve seen time and time again lower end equipment with higher specifications get beaten out by better names with lower published specs.

The main reason behind this is the that the software running the hardware matters a lot. Imagine a well-run business vs. a bad one. They could carry the exact same product, but one will have a much better customer experience. Good software will manage multiple devices better and additional technologies like roaming assist, airtime fairness, interference mitigation, configuration capabilities, serviceability, and troubleshooting tools are all as important if not more so.