Fast WiFi is more of a necessity than ever as more of us work from home, and 4K streaming and gaming become the norm. In the United States, our national average download speed of 173Mbps from internet service providers makes us the tenth-fastest in the world. Over 95% of the population can get a 10Mbps connection, while 80% of Americans have access to 1Gbps (1000Mbps) internet speeds.
Yet a subscription to a gigabit internet service into your home often doesn’t translate to gigabit WiFi speeds inside your home – that is, download speeds of 1000Mbps over WiFi. In fact, if a gigabit subscriber checks the download speed of their phone or computer over WiFi, they might be clocking speeds anywhere from 300Mbps to 800Mbps and, potentially, much lower. That’s because many factors impact the speed of a WiFi signal as it travels from the wall cabling to your devices. So WiFi speed for your home (whether on a gigabit plan or not) will rarely match internet service providers’ advertised speeds, which are arrived at under laboratory conditions.
The bottlenecks to good WiFi speeds
For a gigabit service, 1Gbps is a theoretical maximum connection speed, even over a hardwired connection. Data overhead – that is, the transmission of data that is required to enable the connection – means a connection over Ethernet cabling would probably top out at 940Mbps, as noted by Isla McKetta over at Speedtest.
And while internet may be reaching your home at around 1Gbps, there are many factors in the home that can interfere with the quality of the WiFi signal, reducing the actual speed.
1. Signal interference
In the real world, homes and offices are a cacophony of signal-emitting devices – baby monitors, radios, Bluetooth devices, Internet of Things gadgets, and cell phones. These signals, many of which occupy bandwidth at the same 2.4GHz frequency, interfere with the WiFi signal from the router, especially if the router also transmits WiFi in that 2.4GHz band (Dual-band routers can additionally access a 5GHz band that may be automatically used). Even your neighbor’s WiFi can interfere with your signal and reduce your in-house speed.
2. Build and layout of your home
Then there are the very walls of your home itself: brick and concrete block WiFi signal more than walls made of plywood, while remote areas in larger homes may experience slower WiFi speeds simply due to the amount of obstruction (and distance) between devices and the router.
3. Your router
If you’re still using that router that came when you first subscribed to your ISP, chances are it’s a significant bottleneck to WiFi speeds over a gigabit connection. Older routers are likely to support older WiFi standards that have a lower data transmission rate and may also only operate over the crowded 2.4GHz band.
However, even a relatively new router may not provide good enough WiFi speeds for a gigabit connection. For example, some routers that support 802.11ac (the second-to-most recent WiFi standard, otherwise known as WiFi 5) can theoretically transmit data at up to 1.73Gbps – but data overhead usually means that actual throughput is more like 800Mbps. Other WiFi 5 routers top out at a theoretical 867Mbps because the hardware supports fewer spatial streams (determining how the signal can travel). You can find out what data speed your router supports by googling its brand and model, but remember that real-world factors will reduce the published theoretical speed.
4. Use of older devices
You may have a newer router that supports higher data transmission rates, but older devices that work over slower WiFi standards 802.11a/b/g/n are limited by their maximum speeds. For example, on a device supporting 802.11n WiFi, the maximum data throughput is 600Mbps, and that’s before taking into account real-world factors that reduce the speed.
Even WiFi 5 devices, which includes most smartphones released in the last few years, commonly come with a WiFi adapter that maxes out at a theoretical rate of 867Mbps. Couple that with overhead and interference, and you’ll experience speeds that, albeit decent, won’t be anywhere near the golden 1Gbps.
5. Bandwidth sharing
You’ve probably experienced how the internet slows down when more than one person at home is doing heavy-duty streaming. An internet connection that’s 1Gbps at the router needs to be shared between the devices using it. If the other devices are, say, smartphones whose users are only surfing, that may not noticeably impact the speed of your device. But if multiple devices are downloading or streaming, you’re likely to clock slower speeds than your gigabit plan might suggest. This can also apply to a spike in your neighbors’ internet use, when devices outside your household might compete for the same bandwidth from your provider – as occurred in the initial phases of last year’s lockdown when much of the country was suddenly working from home.
“Because of interference and overhead, even in optimal real-world conditions, we estimate that gigabit subscribers are likely to see speeds 20-40% lower than advertised,” says Max Wu, Product Manager at Netgear. “Providers often push 1.2Gbps to homes, so that in an absolute best case, you might see 800-900Mbps.”
According to Wu, if you get a download connection of 600-800Mbps on that gigabit plan, you’re achieving good WiFi performance.
WiFi 6 and gigabit internet
To consistently achieve good WiFi speeds on a gigabit service, you really need to be on WiFi 6, particularly in multi-person households. That means every device on which you want to experience gigabit-level WiFi speeds needs to support WiFi 6, as does your router.
WiFi 6 has a theoretical maximum data transmission rate of 9.6Gbps. While you’re not likely to see that speed on any one device, the upgraded capacity of WiFi 6 allows routers to transmit to more devices at once, improving speeds when multiple devices are online – handy for getting (near to) gigabit speeds for the whole household even when everyone is streaming.
A newer iteration of WiFi 6, dubbed WiFi 6E, can take advantage of a wider spectrum, accessing a 6GHz band as well as the 5GHz and 2.4GHz bands available to older standards. This means WiFi 6E devices would experience significantly less signal interference, allowing for greater-than-gigabit speeds and home network capacity that could accommodate high-load activities like gaming or virtual reality apps. While there are a few WiFi 6E routers now launching, the first WiFi 6E phones (rumored to include the iPhone 13) and laptops are likely to be available only towards the end of 2021.
Current premium smartphones like the iPhone 11 and 12 and the Samsung Galaxy S10 and Note10 support the WiFi 6 standard. This translates into theoretical max data transmission rates of 1.2Gbps that, after overhead and interference, tends to top out somewhere in the 900Mbps range – which, even if not the full thousand megabits, is definitely sufficient to blaze through just about anything you might want to do on a phone today. (By way of reference, phones and computers launched from around 2014 onwards will support WiFi 5, while those dating from 2009 support 802.11n. You can look up “WLAN” specs for your specific device to see which WiFi standards it’s compatible with.)
Bottom line? Your WiFi speed is limited by the part of your network with the slowest transmission rate, whether that’s your device or your router, or of course, your internet plan. And for gigabit speed, all three factors need to be gigabit-ready.
(It’s worth noting here that connecting your computer by cable to the Ethernet socket will get speeds very close to the full thousand megabits, with Cat 6 cables supporting up to 10,000Mbps. If your laptop lacks an Ethernet port – as many models nowadays do – you can purchase a USB-Ethernet adaptor. The downside is sacrificing mobility, but in that case, Ethernet hardwiring can still be a good temporary solution when you require much faster internet speeds.)
How to get the best WiFi speed in your home
There’s not a whole lot you can do about neighbors using their WiFi, the build and layout of your home, or the cabling that brings the internet to your house in the first place. However, there are other factors that can significantly improve your WiFi speed, whether you’re on a gigabit plan or not.
1. Place your router high and central
To optimize signal strength and range, the router should ideally be centrally located within an open space. Avoid putting your router in a cupboard or behind furniture, as the physical obstruction can dampen the signal. “Imagine the router is the centerpiece of a donut of WiFi signal. Putting your router in the center of the room can eliminate the majority of problems,” says Wu.
You should also aim to get your main devices as close to the router as possible. Smart home gadgets and other devices that require less bandwidth can be further away without experiencing slowdown.
2. Change your network frequency
Using the 5GHz band means you avoid the significant interference of the many devices using 2.4GHz. Dual- or tri-band routers may have automatically created a 5GHz network during setup, in which case you can simply connect to that version of your WiFi network.
3. Update your devices
Check for firmware or OS updates, which can improve device performance, including WiFi connections. And to attain those gigabit speeds over WiFi, you’ll want to eventually replace older devices with WiFi 6 phones, tablets, and computers.
4. Upgrade your router
If you’re on the market for a new router, it’s worth investing in a WiFi 6 router whether or not you’re currently subscribed to gigabit service. (And if you don’t mind the higher price for an early-adopter WiFi 6E router, a few models are now hitting the market.)
As gigabit internet becomes the norm – with a likely corresponding drop in monthly cost – more devices, apps, and programs will support or require this higher-speed internet, so purchasing a WiFi 6 router accommodates these future uses, even if the rest of your setup isn’t WiFi 6-ready yet.
We like the TP-Link Archer AX6000 ($289.99, check price at Amazon), and for larger homes, the Netgear Nighthawk AX8 ($379.99, check price at Amazon). If you experience dead WiFi zones, a mesh network like Netgear’s Orbi WiFi 6 Mesh System ($599.99 with router and satellite, check price at Amazon) can extend WiFi signal throughout the home. And if you really want to be on the cutting edge with WiFi 6E, the TP-Link Deco X96 AX7800 Whole Home Mesh WiFi 6E System is our top pick from CES 2021, though we expect prices to be very high on release. If your devices aren't ready for WiFi 6 (and most aren't yet), we recommend going with the Amazon eero Pro mesh WiFi system ($255.00, check price on Amazon, for a router plus 2 beacons, which covers approx 4,500 square feet).
Buying your own router will also allow you to save on fees if you are currently renting your router from your internet service provider. We have step-by-step instructions on how to replace your Verizon Fios router with your own. And you can follow similar steps for other providers, such as Comcast or Charter.
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