Improving Video Conferencing Performance

As we head into a fall of remote learning and meetings, some may experience issues with video conferencing not working well from their home. There are several easy things you can do that can help out a lot.

The FCC defines broadband Internet as 25 Mbps (megabits per second) down and 3 Mbps up. Hopefully you have better performance than that from your provider. Just randomly checking on Zoom calls I have been on, it says it is using about 1 Mbps each way while in gallery view and I am sharing my camera. As you can quickly see, it is the upload speed that becomes the limiting factor. Looking at Zoom’s system requirements, I suspect other solutions are going to be in a similar range for requirements. You can see that requirements for audio are much less. So the first way to improve performance is to not share your camera.

You can use multiple different sites to see what your actual bandwidth is. Ookla is a very popular on to do this. What you get and what your provider may be telling you can be two different things. My speed test says seven Mbps up, so I can do three or four video conferences at a time with the camera going and still have some extra room. If you have a lot of users and not much upload, you may need to upgrade your service. But, if you have enough upload room and are experiencing problems, I’m going to guess it is with wireless devices. There are several options for how to improve this. Spending money on a better router / AP (access point) or faster connection from your ISP (Internet service provider) likely isn’t going to solve your problem.

TLDR

  1. Have no more than one wall between your device and your AP.
  2. Get your AP out in the open, see #1
  3. Plug devices in with a network cable
  4. Buy a mesh network, see #1
  5. Get on 5 GHz

239,000 mile view of wireless

WiFi operates on radio waves in two different bands, 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. There are several channels in each of those bands to separate devices from each other. The less devices on a channel, the easier it is to communicate.

In this way, it mirrors sound waves and conversations you are used to in everyday life. It is easier to talk to someone in a quiet room than at a KISS concert. However, unlike your home where you can’t hear the conversations of your neighbors, your devices likely can. So your devices have to coordinate for airtime with your neighbor’s devices it can see. When you look at the list of wireless networks on your phone and you see a list that isn’t yours? Well, those may be networks your devices have to coordinate airtime with. A single bad device can use up 70% of the available airtime on a channel without using much bandwidth out to the Internet. It’s like a KISS concern in your neighbor’s back yard, really loud and ultimately not sending much information.

So the goal is to provide the best experience for your devices by reducing the amount of airtime they are using to transmit the data they need. The items list above help do that.

Plug it in

Plugging your devices in with an Ethernet / network cable completely removes them from wireless, and thus can’t experience wireless interference. They also can’t use up airtime. Plugging something like a Roku or TV that you are streaming to into a network cable removes them from the devices that can cause interference. So anything you can plug in, go for it. Network cables are cheap. Getting bad performance playing a multiplayer video game on a XBox, PS4, or Switch? Plug it in, it will drop the ping. Have a laptop that doesn’t have a network port? You can buy USB network adapters for around $18 that work with laptops, including Chromebooks. Have a iPad? You can buy one for that as well that includes a power port so that you can charge while connected. Same with Android devices. You don’t need to be plugged into the network at all times, but it can help.

There are also powerline modems that let you run a wired network through your outlets with adapters. This may be a good solution to avoid cables running down your halls. However, they start to cost money. Also, if you don’t configure correctly, you can possibly connect to your neighbor’s network or expose your network to others.

No more than one wall / AP in the open

Ars Technica has an excellent write up on how they test wireless devices. Their advice is to have no more than one wall between your device and your access point. This reduces the amount of time and power required to transmit one piece of data. As listed above, one of the challenges is that some devices may use way more of the time compared to how much data they are using.

Get the AP / router out of the corner of the house. Middle of the house is best. If it is the middle of the day and everyone is on a conference call, don’t have anyone go to the far corner of the house, as that device will use more airtime.

Don’t surround your AP with extra material. That will hinder the operations of the radio. Don’t hide it away behind a pile of books as they will cause interference. Microwave ovens are known to interfere as well.

Buy a mesh network

A mesh network allows you to place multiple APs in your home with near zero work. This allows you to better cover your house. Hopping through a mesh will take twice as much airtime as communicating directly over the same quality connection. However, the goal is to dramatically improve the quality of each connection. Have the mesh nodes transmit through no more than one wall. Both Amazon eero and Google Nest Wifi are mesh network setups that should be pretty easy to install.

Get on 5 GHz

All modern devices that are going to do any streaming from nearly the past decade are going to support WiFi on 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz. Your modem / AP is very likely going to support both as well. Things like connected outlets, lights, thermostats, and similar are going to be 2.4 GHz only, but that’s fine since they don’t use much bandwidth or airtime.

The advantage of 2.4 GHz is that it is quite powerful and can punch through walls. This is good, until you talk about punching through your neighbor’s walls and having to compete with their devices. This is why channels are used to split up traffic. There are 11 channels in 2.4 GHz WiFi in the USA. However, each channel that an AP is set to also uses +/- 2 channels. So in reality there are three non-overlapping WiFi channels in 2.4 GHz: 1, 5, and 11. So that chucklehead that sees there isn’t anything on channel 7 is interfering with channel 5 and channel 11. 5 GHz on the other hand has a lot more non-overlapping channels.

Your AP can support both frequencies. It would have to be old and/or odd to not support 5 GHz these days. If it currently configured to put out two different SSIDs (network names), one for each frequency band, then you are in luck. Just configure your devices to connect to the 5 GHz named network. There will be one trick through. If you have both networks configured, your device is likely to prefer the strong signal. That is likely to be 2.4 GHz, which is likely the one you don’t want to be connected to. Since 5 GHz has less ability to punch through walls, it won’t interfere with your neighbors. Or if you are feeling selfish, your neighbors won’t be able to interfere with you.

If your AP isn’t broadcasting a different network name for 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz, that is what the mighty Google is for. Give a search for your brand to see if you can find out how to split into two different SSIDs.

Final Thoughts

Go read The Ars Technica semi-scientific guide to Wi-Fi Access Point placement.

What do I do? I live alone in a home that I was able to run ethernet in before they put up drywall. So I do a combination of the above. I have several bits of home automation, so my device numbers are rather high. I have 16 devices plugged in via Ethernet. If it can’t be plugged in, it is on the 5 GHz band by splitting my network names. I have over 8 devices on 5 GHz. The final 13 or more are on 2.4 GHz because that is the only band they support. These are sensors and other low network usage devices. I have a dead spot in my home as my AP is poorly placed. I have picked up a second AP that I will turn into a mesh device, but it will be connect to my network via a cable.

Number of devices is fuzzy as Home Assistant is monitoring my MikroTik route, and I’m being lazy and only looking at connect devices. Some of my devices are currently offline, and thus are not reflected in the count. I could probably place my AP in a better location, but given where it is I can make it provide good coverage of my lower floor. My upper floor can then be well served by the second AP. It also gives me an excuse to try and us PoE (power over ethernet).

You can also get inSSIDer to see how much different channels are being used. From the little bit I can see of my neighbors 2.4 GHz channels, some of them are spiking to 60% use the few times I’ve paid attention. I probably can’t see the house beyond them that would cause interference for them. So I suspect they are seeing laggy behavior on those devices.

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