The price of a bad connection when working from home
The COVID-19 crisis has moved most of the knowledge workers from their offices into their homes to work remotely and reduce the risk of exposure to the virus. As a result, our lives took a hard turn into online activity.
For many this was already becoming a trend, but the situation sped it up significantly and abruptly. And we discovered that our home connections were probably not as good as we thought.
This shift from networks in our offices and workplaces, schools and universities, even on the streets of many city centers, to our home networks has greatly stressed out the online landscape.
Where previously we might have an idle local connection most of the day, now it is being used non-stop, with heavy-use activities beyond work — play some games, watch some Netflix and anxiously staying abreast of coronavirus news on media channels and social media.
The outside world
Today’s most common way to be connected to the world is through some sort of broadband connection, so it’s important to know your internet speed, advises internetspeed.com. Though the quality and speed of today’s connections can be highly variable, it has improved tremendously in the past 10 years. In metropolitan environments, it is not uncommon to find good connections of at least 100 Mbps or higher, even up to 1 Gbps!
Rural areas are still lagging behind and their connectivity is much more limited. In many cases, only cell data is available, and only 3G, with speeds lower than 10 Mbps.
Areas with 4G broadband cellular network technology have the speed for a lot of activities, including watching HD videos or working effectively with files. Tethering to a mobile phone can be a failsafe if the home broadband is not up to speed or goes down, or when working remotely during a week out in the countryside.
Some years that’s what I do, I take a month to work remotely from Spain, and use a prepaid SIM to connect to the 4G network. You need to keep an eye on the quotas and usually buy some extra packages for more Megabytes, but it makes the phone a kind of “portable router” to allow everyone to get regular connectivity.
Outside of major cities and business parks in countries such as South Korea, China and the US, 5G is still in development as companies set up their networks. While it promises higher speeds, it will need to be correctly deployed over years to have a similar coverage to existing networks.
Up to a few years ago, the bottleneck of the system was the external broadband connection, because the maximum speed was much lower than that of any local network. But that has improved to the point that these days it is quite common that the problems lie inside the walls.
The inside network
The proliferation of devices connected wirelessly at home has grown huge — tablets, phones, laptops, desktops, gaming console, smart hubs, even watches are connected! And over the past couple months, they’ve been connected almost 24/7. For a household with three or four people counting 20 devices is not something out of mind.
This may cause problems with saturation on the network.
In most houses, the one central point is a router supplied by the service provider, and most, if not all, devices in the household are connected through WiFi. This causes several issues, the Washington Post points out.
To start with, the typical router provided by the ISP is not great. It may have a single available band (more on that later) and the coverage through the whole house will be flaky, dependent on where the router is placed. Some rooms will have good WiFi and others won't. A more central position can help, if that’s feasible.
Secondly, WiFi comes into two different bands, 2.4GHz and 5GHz. 5GHz is faster but has a shorter range, while 2.4GHz is slower but reaches farther. A shorter range is normally desirable, as it won't spread over to your neighbor’s place, better separating both networks.
WiFi congestion is also a problem. Newer routers will have an option to join both ranges, if available, into the same network, so devices will use the best one on each situation. Good routers may have even more available for the same reason (like one 2.4GHz and two 5GHz), which reduces the congestion on each band.
WiFi also has limits on speed and reliability, that are dependent on location, congestion, noise, and other factors. In a lot of cases, the WiFi speed from a different floor or room than the router will be around 200-300Mpbs or worse. And yes, this means that you won't be able to fully use your connection of 500Mpbs from your laptop unless you are very close to the router.
New alternatives like mesh networks are available, though they are still expensive and only provide a sensible improvement in big spaces. The basic idea is to have multiple small WiFi access points across the house, instead of one big access point (the router). Positioning one access point on each of the floors allows each device to connect to the closest access point, while the access points themselves connect to each other to relay the data.
Removing devices from the WiFi network and replacing them with wired connections through Ethernet is a good way of freeing up WiFi and improving a device’s performance — there's still nothing that beats the stability and speed of a good Ethernet connection. Ethernet cable is cheap and will work perfectly to connect static elements like desktops or gaming consoles. Just double check that all connections are using cable category (cat) 5e or higher (the category is printed in the cable itself), and if you buy new cables, try to get them CAT 6a, as they're capable of higher speeds. An old Ethernet cable, from an old router, can be limiting the speed of the whole network.
The Holy Grail of a connected house is an Ethernet port in each room, but that's unattainable unless you’re willing to spend a lot of money remodeling, but a well-placed connection connecting your router and office to be able to connect your computer while working may make sense.
An alternative is to use Power-Line Communication (PLC), which uses your electrical sockets to create a network and it’s compatible with Ethernet. It can help in some situations, like avoiding obstacles that block WiFi signals. These devices provide results similar to WiFi and are normally more stable, though they are dependent on the quality of the electrical wiring and can produce worse results than the ideal.
The need for space
Another critical element, more critical than the connectivity between the computer and the Internet, is the one between the computer and the human. This crisis took us by surprise and forced us to work from home, where most of us didn’t have a prepared space.
For the first couple of days, working from the kitchen table may have been ok, but keeping a comfortable space is crucial for the sustainability of working from home. Connectivity will play into that decision, as maybe the room with the best connection is the aforementioned kitchen.
Understandably, making a proper home office with good lighting, proper desk, nice chair with lumbar support and a door that can be closed to avoid distractions. takes time and money. But at the very least, you can stick with basic ergonomics. That means sitting in a chair with straight back and a screen positioned at eye level. A stack of books and an external keyboard and mouse works wonders in raising a laptop and helping avoid neck pain.
And for wellbeing, taking frequent breaks and stretching the back and arms are always great, and even more so right now to fight the extra stress produced by this situation. It all comes down to being comfortable and multitasking, advise freelance professionals.
To summarize the main ideas:
good connectivity is crucial.
most broadband connections these days are good enough to support multiple people and activity.
move devices to wired connections and use multiple bands to avoid crowded wireless space, since home WiFis are starting to get overloaded.
use Ethernet connections, in particular for devices close to the main router or in specific rooms with important devices like a home office or the living room.
network equipment like mesh networks or PLCs can help in specific situations.
mobile networks like 4G can be used as emergency resource.
making your working space comfortable is particularly important. Be sure to follow ergonomic guidelines, if feasible
Guest blog from Jaime Buelta
Jaime Buelta has been a professional programmer since 2002 and a full-time Python developer since 2010. He has developed software for a variety of fields, focusing, in the last 10 years, on developing web services in Python in the gaming and finance industries. He is a strong proponent of automating everything to make computers do most of the heavy lifting, so humans can focus on the important stuff. He published his first book, "Python Automation Cookbook", in 2018 (now updated recently with an extended second edition), followed by "Hands-On Docker for Microservices with Python" the following year. He is currently living in Dublin, Ireland, and is a regular speaker at PyCon Ireland.