Geek tips for improving your broadband

I had broadband activated as soon as we moved into our house (as everyone does, these days). One of my Linux boxes logs how long my ADSL connection is active, when it drops, and what IP address is assigned by my provider.

ISPs claim you shouldn’t pay too much attention to your broadband performance for the first few weeks, because their systems will push the speed boundaries (to see how good your wiring is) before settling. So I ignored the logs for those weeks.

But when I started looking, I was shocked to discover that my broadband connection was dropping up to ten times per day, and the speed was dire.

As part of some building work we’ve had done on the house, I installed a lot of cat-5 cabling and moved the master telephone socket into the porch. I also wired an extension to my office so that I could relocate the modem from behind the TV.

Oh, boy. I wish I had had the foresight to photograph the state of the telephone wiring before I started, because it would make a great illustration here. The previous owner of the house seemed to think it was perfectly acceptable to wire extension sockets in before the master socket, despite very clear instructions from British Telecom declaring that anything before the master socket is their property, and not to be touched. He had made connections just by twisting bare wires together, and stuffing them into some drain piping on the outside of the house.

So, after much swearing as I removed the abomination and wiring it properly, then moving the ADSL modem into my office … I have had no dropped connections in at least a month, and my broadband speed has tripled.

I just thought I’d mention it in case anyone else has been having broadband problems since moving house, and might not have considered the possibility that the previous owner was a blithering DIY idiot.

While I’m on the subject … allow me to present a few tips that you might want to consider if you suspect your broadband of misbehaving. I’ll assume you’ve read all the usual advice so I won’t repeat what other sites say. Instead, I’ll talk about other things that I’ve found helpful.

One: consider buying a better modem

Domestic broadband modems tend to be made to a budget. If your broadband provider is perfectly happy to send you a new, pre-configured modem through the post the moment you have any trouble … how much do you think they cost? Clearly they cost less than the hourly rate of paying someone to talk you through proper faultfinding over the telephone.

In my experience, modems do not die gracefully. They won’t just go “phut” overnight – some facilities will fail intermittently while others function perfectly. Some will misbehave as the unit warms up. So when faultfinding, don’t assume that your modem is not the cause of a problem just because the LEDs on it are still flickering in a healthy manner.

Make no mistake: your modem won’t last long past its warranty. Consider buying yourself a modem of a better build quality if you have the knowledge (and all the passwords and settings) to set it up.

Two: check your modem isn’t suffocating

Modems are often plugged-in and forgotten about; stuffed behind the TV (usually the location of the master telephone point) and left to rot. That corner of your living room is where all the dust collects – the no-mans-land of cabling that no-one ever wants to vacuum. That collection of dust will restrict airflow, increase heat, and suffocate your modem.

Consider relocating it to somewhere cleaner – or at least, somewhere that gets dusted occasionally. If you can’t do that, even mounting it on the wall (most modems come with screws and Rawlplugs) off the floor will help.

Three: replace your modem’s power brick

The power supply can often fail before the modem. If the modem is built to a budget, then the power supply will be too. It must obviously be capable of supplying the current the modem demands … but often, not by much. If your modem requires a maximum of 800mA of current and the power supply is built to supply 1000mA, then that means that the power supply is running near capacity for the majority of the time.

I have extended the life of a failing modem by a good few years (and still counting) just by buying a bigger power supply. My current modem is powered by a supply that can deliver up to 4000mA, so is barely stressed by the demands of the modem. The power supply only cost about ten pounds, and is well-worth it.

Four: turn off Wifi if you don’t need it

Every ADSL modem includes a Wireless Access Point, because the consumer demands it. The components required for Wifi are probably the parts that consume the most current, and get the hottest. So they’re probably the parts that will contribute the most to the death of your modem.

If you don’t need Wifi in your home, then turn it off. Not only is it burning energy, creating heat and killing your modem – it’s also a security risk.

Five: use a wired network if you possibly can

This advice may not be for everyone, but I’m assuming that the people who read this blog tend to be more technical than average and so have a more elaborate computer setup. My advice is this: for a permanent installation, a wired network is always better. Wireless is nice for convenience (say, for your laptop or tablet) but if you have a desktop computer but you’re connecting to your modem via Wifi, then you’re doing it wrong.

Consider this: what if the poor download speeds you’re experiencing are not the fault of your broadband, but poor wireless reception? Bit of a waste to pay for high-speed broadband but then artificially limit how much of it you can use!

Cat-5 cabling is cheap. Sockets and backboxes are cheap. Cable clips that you nail into your skirting boards are cheap. And next time you redecorate, lay new carpets or do any sort of building work, you should consider installing it all properly before replastering.

But most people do need Wifi, don’t they …

Six: buy a separate Wifi point

If you need Wifi (as most of us do), you’d be well advised to make it the responsibility of a separate Wireless Access Point. It gives you the freedom to situate it for ideal coverage of your home, divides responsibilities (so if your WAP dies, it won’t take your broadband connection with it) and aids faultfinding.

If you do this, remember to disable the WAP facility on your modem, and the DHCP facility on your WAP.

Seven: limit your simultaneous P2P downloads

Any P2P file sharing system (such as Bittorrent) involves a potentially large number of simultaneous connections. These multiple connections must be tracked and routed by your modem. When running many downloads in parallel, those connections multiply.

Some domestic modems will crash if too many parallel connections are created – it’ll run out of RAM to track them all. So if you find yourself having to power-cycle your modem on a regular basis, consider reconfiguring your P2P client to only permit a smaller number of parallel downloads (say, three or four) and queue the rest.

Eight: build an IPCop box

There’s potentially a whole series of articles in this – I certainly can’t hope to do it justice in a few paragraphs here. But if you have the knowledge and ability (and space in your home for another permanently-running computer) then adding an IPCop box to your network is a worthy exercise.

Remember that the functions your modem provides would normally be the responsibility of at least half a dozen different boxes in any large business or university installation. It’s doing the job of a modem (dealing with turning sound into data), a router, a gateway, a firewall, a DHCP server, a time server, a DNS resolver, a wireless access point, an ethernet switch …

IPCop will take away many of your modem’s responsibilities and … do them properly. DHCP server, time server, firewall, gateway, port-forwarding, DNS – these are all things that your modem can do, but not usually very well. And I don’t have all that much faith in the security of most domestic modems.

In addition, IPCop gives you so much more information and control of your network. Perhaps you’d like to be more informed about what websites your children are viewing. Perhaps you’re worried that a computer might be infected and you want to check how much traffic it is generating. Or perhaps you just want to know how well you’re utilising your broadband. IPCop does all of this and more.

(Disclaimer: other alternatives exist. But I like IPCop.)