How to Outsmart Slow Internet While Working or Learning From Home

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If you’ve ever worked or taken classes from home, you’re aware that a ton of technology exists to make these things possible.

But if you’re trying to navigate work, school assignments, church services or organizational meetings with slow internet, that technology is useless.

Here we’ll offer some ways to get a better internet connection if you don’t have access to cable. But first, we’ve got some ideas to help you keep up with work or school in the meantime.

How to Work From Home or Homeschool With Slow Internet

Try these tips to get your work done if you can’t fix your internet connection anytime soon. Video calls are the biggest pain for remote workers with weak internet, so most of our tips focus on that — but you can apply some of these tactics beyond virtual meetings, as well.

Test Your Internet Speed

Before you attempt any remote work, find out what your connection is capable of. This lets you plan ahead and avoid annoying troubleshooting while you’re trying to get through a meeting or complete a project online.

A free website created by Netflix called Fast makes it easy and free to check your speed. It shows you your download speed (how fast your connection receives information) and upload speed (how fast your connection sends out information).

Then find out how much bandwidth the services you use for work or school require. This should be easy to Google for any service you use, but here are a few common examples:

    • Zoom video call: 1.0Mbps download and 800kbps upload.
    • Skype video call: 512kbps to 8Mbps download and 128 to 512kbps upload.
    • Google Hangouts Meet video call: 300kbps to 4Mbps download and 400kbps to 3.3Mbps upload.
    • Watch a YouTube video: 5Mbps for 1080p format (HD), less for lower-quality video.
    • Google Docs: Increases with the number of docs you have open, but I’ve seen estimates around 40kbps.
    • Blackboard Collaborate: 20kbps to 360kbps upload and download.
    • Canvas: 512kbps upload and download.
    • Webex video call: 0.5 to 2.5Mbps download and 0.5 to 3.0Mbps upload.

If your internet speed is at the low end or lower than the recommended bandwidth for a tool, expect connectivity issues (or try some of the alternatives listed below).

Use a Different Tool

You can see the variety of bandwidth usage among even similar apps — Zoom requires significantly more than Skype or Google Hangouts, and Webex requires significantly more than Blackboard or Canvas.

Professor Hernando Rojas of the University of Wisconsin’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication learned this through trial and error last month. He told The Cap Times he switched to Blackboard after a spotty experience using Webex for his first large lecture during social distancing.

If you or several people on your team or in your child’s class have slow internet, ask whoever’s in charge to try a different app for collaborating. They might not be restricted to any one platform.

Turn Off Your Video

An audio-only call uses far less bandwidth than a video call. Try turning off your video when you join a call to reduce the required upload speed.

You can’t control whether you see other participants’ videos, but you could request they disable their video, too, to reduce the required download speed of the call.

Call In on Your Phone

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Most video conferencing services include an option to call into a meeting from your phone. This lets you rely on your cell phone service, not an internet or data connection.

You’ll only receive and send audio this way (it’s an actual phone call), so you can’t see video or screen-sharing.

A dial-in phone number is included with the meeting invitation, the same place you get the link to join.

Ask for Alternatives to Video Calls

Ask your teacher or team leader to offer ways to receive information that require less internet bandwidth. Here are some options to try:

  • Record video calls: The easiest accommodation is recording virtual meetings or lessons. Watching a pre-recorded video could use less bandwidth than participating in a video call and allows recipients flexibility to watch when internet is most reliable.
  • Ask for a PDF of slides: It’s easy to save a PowerPoint or Google Slides presentation as a PDF, reducing its file size and making it easy for you to view online or download.
  • Share memos instead of having meetings: Ask that your team or class rely less on virtual meetings altogether and instead share information as memos via email or in Google or Word docs.
  • Use a Facebook group or Slack team: You can collaborate without video by bringing the team into a group for text-based chat or through the chat/discussion function in a learning platform like Canvas.

Try Asynchronous Meetings and Collaboration

Trendy among startup businesses and tech entrepreneurs, asynchronous communication happens when participants in the conversation aren’t necessarily connected at the same time (as with a phone call or video chat).

We do this all the time with email, texts and DMs — you send out a message, the person receives it, they read it and respond on their own time. Voicemail is the same thing for audio, though it’s an inefficient way to do it.

Two apps I love that facilitate asynchronous communication and collaboration for voice and video are Voxer and Loom, respectively. Both are free.

Voxer lets you and recipients record and send voice messages back and forth at the touch of a button. Conversations feel like a text chat, but the ability to send audio lets you express more complex ideas — great for work or school brainstorming and feedback.

Loom lets you easily record your screen and voice (and video if you choose) and send a video link to recipients. It’s great for tutorials or collaboration on visual projects.

How to Get Better Internet Without a Cable Connection

Depending on how much money or time you can invest into improving your home internet in an area with no cable service, here are some options.

Use Your Cell Phone

Hundreds of cell service providers have signed the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected pledge to promise not to cut off service or charge late fees if customers are unable to pay through June 30.

Major providers are also going beyond the pledge to give customers extra data and cheaper plan options, WhistleOut reports. If you’re with T-Mobile, Sprint, Verizon or AT&T, you should have received an email or notification about the added data. Companies will add it to plans automatically.

This expanded access to data means your smart phone is a valuable tool right now. If you can’t get a good internet connection on your computer, you can use your cell phone or tablet (with data) for a lot of work functions.

Working on a mobile app is more tedious than desktop, but it’ll help you get the job done. And you can find a mobile app for almost any service you use, including email, video calls, chat apps, Google Drive apps and Microsoft Office 365 apps.

Turn Your Cell Phone Into a Hotspot

Many people without cable internet rely on cell service providers for internet through a hotspot device. If you don’t already have that set up in your home, you may be able to use your cell phone as a hotspot to create a Wi-Fi connection for your computer.

To turn on the hotspot on an Apple iPhone or iPad, go to Settings > Cellular or Settings > Personal Hotspot.

To turn on the hotspot on an Android phone or tablet, go to Settings > Network & internet > Hotspot & tethering > then Wi-Fi hotspot.

If you don’t see the option to turn on a hotspot, your cell phone plan probably doesn’t include it.

Get an Antenna to Improve Cell Service

My brother-in-law told me his household Wi-Fi in rural Wisconsin was terrible on their Verizon hotspot for years until a rep from the company advised they buy an antenna.

He installed what sounds like a Yagi antenna on their roof, and now they can stream movies and join video calls without a hitch!

Yagi antennas cost between $100 and $300, and you have to install it to the exterior of a building. recommends cheaper alternatives you can install inside or right on your phone.

Buy Satellite Internet

If you already have satellite TV (through DISH or DIRECTV, for example), you can add satellite internet to your plan. You can also purchase standalone internet through DISH, Viasat, HughesNet or AT&T.

Based on information from Allconnect, satellite internet can be more expensive than cable but also faster. It comes with data allowances, like cell plans, and throttles (slows down) your service beyond the limits.

The greatest benefit to satellite internet (and TV) is it’s available almost everywhere in the United States. So it’s great for rural and remote areas.

The most common complaint I’ve encountered is the satellite reception is sensitive to weather, so you’ll experience disruptions or lags in service you wouldn’t with cable or cellular wireless.

Satellite providers tend to offer free installation, and those I’ve seen report that they’re continuing to provide on-site service — just don’t shake their hands or schedule an installation if you’re experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

Set Up a Fixed Wireless Network

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Fixed wireless uses radio waves to bring you internet — how retro! It works similar to satellite: You need an antenna or dish to receive it, speeds are similar and you face a data limit.

The monthly cost is a little cheaper than satellite, according to Allconnect. Fixed wireless is only available in about 37% of the country, according to the FCC.

Sign up for DSL

DSL — digital subscriber line — internet comes through your phone line, but it isn’t dial-up. It uses a splitter to let you use phone and internet at the same time, so the internet is never not connected.

Like with a cable connection, you can connect directly to DSL internet with an ethernet cord or set up a wireless router.

If you don’t want a phone line, you can set up naked DSL, which is just DSL without the splitter and no phone line available, Frontier explains.

DSL speeds and prices are comparable to satellite, according to Allconnect.

Work With the Community

Your household probably isn’t the only one in your area struggling to keep up with work and school commitments from home. Reach out to local schools, companies and community organizations to see whether they can make Wi-Fi available in the community.

For example, the Austin Independent School District plans to install free Wi-Fi on its entire school bus fleet and deploy the buses to locations around the district, Yahoo Finance reports.

Klamath County School District in Oregon recently installed Wi-Fi hotspots to allow internet access from school parking lots, reports the Herald and News. It also gave Chromebooks to families with no device to access the internet.

Find Free Outdoor Wi-Fi

Head to a park or park your car near a public Wi-Fi hotspot for free internet access.

OpenWiFiSpots lists parks with free Wi-Fi hotspots in each state.

Comcast has opened its nationwide Xfinity Wi-Fi network to anyone to use for free. Find a nearby hotspot here, and join the “xfinitywifi” network; you don’t have to be an Xfinity subscriber.

Dana Sitar (@danasitar) has been writing and editing since 2011, covering personal finance, careers and digital media.