Troubleshooting Wisdom

Nobody Cares About Your Internet Speed Test. Here's What to do Instead.

Sharing an internet speed test with tech support only results in the runaround. There's a better way.
Sharing an internet speed test with tech support only results in the runaround. There's a better way. 

Fix your decaying relationship with a baby. Microwave your pet for a quick after-bath dry off. Start smoking for more break time.

Bad advice is everywhere.

Usually spotting it is easy, but sometimes bad advice disguises itself as good advice. Internet speed tests are an excellent example.

Speed tests are often recommended when people have connection problems. Which is sad because the information they provide doesn’t get anyone any closer to solving the problem. Better tests exist. We’ll get to those in a minute. First let’s take a closer look at speed tests.

What are Speed Tests?

Speed tests measure internet speed by connecting to a test server, downloading some files and measuring what happens. The results include information about response time between your computer and the server (latency or ping), upload speed, and download speed. Several options are also available. Ookla and Fast.com are both popular choices.

example speed test from Ookla
Example speed test from Ookla

How They're Supposed to Help

After you run a speed test, comparing the results to your internet plan is the next step. If your results are less than what your internet provider said they would deliver, conventional wisdom says you have grounds to contact the provider and ask them to fix something.

What Actually Happens

Your ISP is pretty well guarded against cases based on speed tests. They’ll brush your away with points like:

  • Our network is fine. The problem must be on your end.
  • You’re only testing between your computer and their test server. Speed between you and other sites is probably faster.
  • You’re test represents a single point in time. Your internet speed is probably faster most of the time.

Hearing tech support refute your case hurts. When it happens, vilifying their company is tempting, but think from their perspective.

Why Your ISP Says Those Hurtful Things

Internet providers employ network engineering’s best and brightest. You are more likely to misconfigure the network than your internet provider. On top of that, nothing has ever been proven by a single test containing one data point. From where they’re standing, your speed test is probably a statistical anomaly.

Your internet provider isn’t evil. They’re being logical, but that’s good news. Logical thinking adjusts when it encounters new information, and you can use that to your advantage.

What to Do Instead

If you want an internet provider to pay attention when you think they have a problem, you need a more compelling case.

How to Address your ISP’s Arguments

Your case should show which part of the network is failing. It should also include information about multiple network routes and how the network performs over time. Collecting this information requires a new tool.

Compelling cases address the arguments internet providers use to discredit speed test results. Your case should show:

  • Which part of the network is failing.
  • Information from more than 1 route.
  • How the network performs over time.

Collecting this information requires a new tool. Many are available. You even have a decent one built into your computer. It’s called traceroute.

Traceroute is Almost Everything You Need

The tool measures latency like a speed test. It also measures how much data reaches the intended destination (packet loss). Compared to a speed test traceroute’s main advantages are measuring every point in the route (hop) and the the ability to target any destination.

Speed tests are fixed to a specific server, but trace route lets you measure network performance between your computer and anything connected to the internet. Measuring performance for every hop is also an advantage because the information helps find if problems relate to your network, an ISP’s network, or the server delivering content.

Traceroute helps find the source of problems by measuring latency at every point between your computer and a target.

Traceroute gets information about which part of the network is failing. It can also test more than one route, but the tool leaves something to be desired when it comes to looking at performance over time.

Like all command line tools, traceroute runs with a text interface. Running several trace routes over a period of time is totally possible, but keeping track of everything is probably more work than you want to do.

Traceroute contains good information but seeing changes over time is difficult.

Try a Visual Network Testing Tool

If you’ prefer tracking network performance with software, you are in luck. Several tools can do this for you. Many of them even graph the information to make understanding it easier.

My favorite visual network testing tool is PingPlotter. I’m also biased because I work for the company that makes it. PingPlotter is easy to use and lets you run in free mode as long as you want. Many people have successfully “inspired” internet provider action with the tool’s graphs too.

Finding where the red begins is all it takes to find the source of a problem in PingPlotter..
Finding where the red beings is all it takes to find the source of a problem in PingPlotter. 
Showing network performance over time builds a much stronger case than a single data point.
Showing network performance over time builds a much stronger case than a single data point. 

If you’re interested in alternatives, SmokePing and VisualRoute are both options. Both graph network performance and some people prefer them over PingPlotter. If you’re one of those people, go for it. The most important part of all of this is restoring your internet connection to its original glory.

Visual network testing tools deliver everything you need to get your internet provider’s attention. If you’re interested in more tips on how to persuade internet providers a problem exists on their end, check out this network troubleshooting guide. That’s all I’ve got for now. Happy troubleshooting!