You’re in a videoconference with your co-workers and suddenly everything freezes and you get the dreaded message: unstable internet connection. What’s going on?! Stomping around the house, you realize your kid just started streaming a movie.
Sound familiar? In these days of working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, the number of devices on your home network may be draining precious bandwidth and creating other issues.
“What I’m hearing from clients is bandwidth congestion due to having an entire family now at home,” says Beth McCarty, owner of TeamLogic IT of Central Pinellas in Florida, which provides IT support for small- to medium-size companies. “You’re using a lot more [bandwidth] simultaneously than you normally would.”
Devices have multiplied
As you sit at your kitchen table, survey the scene around you. How many devices are connected to your home network and internet right now?
Most likely it’s at least a couple of computers, a few phones, a smart speaker or two, and a tablet. But perhaps you also have a smart TV, refrigerator, video doorbell, security camera, baby monitor, smart watch, smart speaker, programmable thermostat, or a host of other devices.
A 2016 survey by global technology research firm Omdia found the average household has 14.7 connected devices. And four years ago is practically ancient history when it comes to the rapidly evolving world of internet-connected home devices.
Could the ‘internet of things’ clog your pipes?
It’s “the ‘internet of things.’ Lots of people have devices that are connected to the internet that are just devices that make life easier,” McCarty explains. “It’s nice to be able to change your light from your cellphone, but do you really need to, especially if you’re home?”
Individually, these items don’t take up much bandwidth, but collectively they can. Internet connection speed is measured in megabits per second, or Mbps. A really fast connection sits at 100 Mbps, and anything above 25 Mbps is considered high-speed internet.
Video streaming takes up the most bandwidth at 3 to 4 Mbps, with high-definition streaming of your favorite shows hogging 5 to 8 Mbps. A videoconference will use up 1 to 4 Mbps, routine web surfing 1 Mbps, and online multiplayer gaming as much as 20 Mbps.
“Most [smart devices] don’t take that much at all, but the ones that do are streaming devices for your door cam, security cameras, things like that,” McCarty says. Most internet-connected devices mostly use bandwidth in bursts.
“If you send a signal to your [Amazon Echo]—say, ‘Alexa, do this’—that device receives the signal and then acts on it, and that’s just a burst of use of that bandwidth,” she adds. “But if you’re streaming security cameras to the cloud all the time, that’s constantly using some of your bandwidth.”
Devices open the door to security concerns
But bandwidth isn’t the only issue to fret over.
“Some of the devices actually have few security features at all, so that’s another thing to consider when you’re adding these things to your network: Can they be secured, and do they really need to be on the internet?” McCarty warns. “Those don’t take up much bandwidth, so in terms of bandwidth it’s not that big of an issue; but if they seem to be open to the network and you can’t secure them, then you might want to just turn off their internet access.”
An unsecured smart device could allow a hacker access to not only your network and the connected devices, but also your company’s information and network.
“The bad guys are using these devices to get access to your home network. They don’t really want access to the security camera. They want access to your devices, your laptop, your employer’s laptop, things like that,” McCarty says.
So, what should you do? McCarty shares these tips:
- Use a virtual private network, or VPN.
- Change the default password on any device to something personal.
- Update the firmware on any device.
- Disconnect any device you don’t really need, especially if you are home all day.
- Enable two-factor authentication if possible.
Setting up a secondary network could keep your connected devices off the same network as your laptop. This doesn’t mean buying a separate internet connection; you just need to create a guest or other network on your router.
Nothing will make your network hack-proof, but it will make things more difficult for a hacker. To folks looking for a way into your network, your router acts as the front door.
“It’s like having a security system on your home. You want to be the least attractive target on the block,” McCarty explains. “So, if you secure your network to begin with, the hacker will likely move on to somebody with an open network. If they really want to get in, they’ll get in, but you’ve just decreased the chances of that by securing that front door.”