What Is Network Congestion?


Dave Schafer
Dec 17, 2023
bullet7 min read

In this modern age, few things are as inconvenient as slow internet. It impacts nearly everything we do—watching TV, listening to music, communicating, working, shopping, and much more. We’ve gotten so used to fast internet speeds that it’s maddeningly noticeable when things slow down and lead to things like buffering and long load times.

There are any number of causes for internet slowdowns, from a low-bandwidth internet plan to poor weather. However, one common reason is network congestion. In this article, we’ll explore just what that is, how it can affect you, and what you can do about it.

What is network congestion?

Network congestion is the result of too much traffic on a network. This can happen at the provider level, when your internet service provider (ISP) experiences more traffic than it can handle. Congestion can also occur on an individual Wi-Fi network—say, if you have too many devices connected in your home or you’re trying to perform multiple intensive activities like streaming on multiple devices.

The most common analogy for network congestion is a crowded highway. If there are too many cars on the road, or too many vehicles trying to merge, things get backed up and overall traffic slows to a crawl.

Satellite internet network congestion

Satellite internet service beams signals from space by orbiting satellites. It’s been a mainstay of rural connectivity for a while now, but it really came to the mainstream when Starlink started making headlines.

Satellite internet, like most other types of internet, is susceptible to congestion. Starlink, in particular, has had issues—it seems its popularity grew faster than its capacity, at least for a while.1 A quick Google search will show you plenty of reviews from venting customers.

Other causes for slow satellite internet

Network congestion isn’t the only cause of satellite internet slowdowns. Satellite internet is susceptible to weather interference, particularly heavy rain or snow. Most notably, many satellite plans throttle (slow down) your data speeds once you’ve used a certain amount of data—the threshold is usually based on your specific internet plan or tier. Let’s say you have a 300GB plan with Viasat. Once that 300GB is used up, you can continue to use the service, but your speeds will be reduced.

Finally, satellite internet can suffer from high latency, slowing reaction times. This is just because of the sheer physical distance satellite internet data must travel back and forth. Whatever your experience, check the weather and your satellite internet plan to see if you need to be wary of data limits and throttling.

5G home internet network congestion

5G is the name given to the fifth generation of wireless networks (hence the 5). These are the cellular networks that power smartphones and other mobile devices. As 5G has become more widespread, many providers have started offering 5G home internet services. (We’re partial to T-Mobile Home Internet, and Verizon is also great.) 5G home internet uses a wireless gateway essentially like a giant hotspot, grabbing the 5G signals and broadcasting it as a home Wi-Fi network.

The advantage here is that you can often get a connection in areas that lack other infrastructure, such as cable or fiber. This makes 5G home internet an excellent rural option. However, it also means you share bandwidth with all the 5G cellular users in the area. With most modern phones having 5G, that can be a lot of traffic, and things can quickly get congested.

Additionally, if you read the fine print of most 5G home internet plans, you’ll notice a line similar to this: “During congestion, Home Internet customers may notice speeds lower than other customers due to data prioritization.”

Basically, if the network is getting congested, providers may slow down home internet connections in order to ensure a better experience for mobile customers. This isn’t necessarily a reason to avoid 5G home internet. However, it’s something you should know.

Now, one of the benefits of 5G was supposed to be increased bandwidth to allow more devices on the network at once without impacting performance. As the networks continue to grow, we expect these issues to become less and less of a problem. However, at the time of this writing, 5G cell networks are still prone to congestion in many areas.

Cable internet network congestion

Cable internet uses coaxial cables to deliver a signal to your home. These cables are made up of insulated copper wire, and they’re capable of handling a large amount of data. In terms of performance, cable internet tends to be the second-fastest option for most consumers, with fiber taking the lead.

However, despite the fast speeds, cable is still vulnerable to congestion, especially in heavily populated areas where a large number of homes are sharing the same network nodes. This will most often show up in big neighborhoods where lots of people have the same provider—in these scenarios, you may find that your connection suffers during peak hours (weekday nights, basically).

Fiber internet network congestion

Fiber internet travels through fiber optic cables made of thin strands of highly pure glass. Signals are transmitted through the glass using pulses of light from lasers on either end of the cables. This isn’t just super cool—it’s also super efficient at transmitting data, which is why fiber connections have such high speeds.

Fiber isn’t just fast, though—it also has tremendously high bandwidth. This allows fiber to offer symmetrical speeds, where upload and download speeds are equal. It also means that fiber networks can handle a tremendous amount of traffic without getting bogged down.

While fiber can technically suffer from the same congestion issues as other types of internet, in practice it’s much less of a problem.

Network congestion test

There’s not really an accessible way to test for network congestion, unfortunately. This is especially true if you suspect the provider’s network might be congested, and not just your home Wi-Fi. Most of the tools on the market for this are enterprise IT tools that are complicated and expensive.

However, if your connection seems slower than normal, there are a couple things you can do to try to determine the problem:

  1. Consider the day and time. If it’s after 5 or 6 o’clock on a weekday, there’s a good chance that slowness could be due to network congestion. Weekday nights are generally considered peak hours, as people get home from work and blow off steam by streaming or gaming. This can sometimes stress networks and slow speeds for everybody.
  2. Consider how many devices are active on your network. If you’ve got more than one or two devices trying to actively use your home Wi-Fi network, you may be experiencing local congestion. In other words, it’s not your provider, it’s your Wi-Fi equipment (router, usually).
  3. Take a speed test. Although it won’t necessarily tell you whether the network is congested, an internet speed test can tell you if you’re actually experiencing slower internet speeds than usual.
bullet
There was an error initializing the test. Please reload the page and try again.

Connecting to a server ...

... bullet bullet
Connecting to
another server...
00.00 Test in progress Testing Your Speed Test Download speed Test complete 0 1 5 10 20 40 80 160 320+
Upload Speed
Latency (ping)
Provider
IP address
Server Location
Compare Providers
Share
Restart

Not fast enough?

Compare your speed test results to what you should be seeing with your internet plan. If they match (or are at least in the ballpark) it’s possible that you just need a faster internet plan. You may have had a budget package that was fine for a few years, but maybe you subscribed to a streaming service and are finding that it just doesn’t cut it anymore.

If the results of the speed test don’t jive with your plan, you’ve got a problem somewhere, and you can start investigating.

How to fix network congestion

Now that you know congestion is a problem, let’s look at a few practical tips to beat it. Before we start, it’ll be helpful to differentiate between congestion on your home Wi-Fi network and congestion on your provider’s end.

It’s possible for your home network to be overloaded even if your provider has plenty of bandwidth to spare. This is usually fixable. If your provider is the problem, you can really only work around the issue or switch to a different ISP.

1. Upgrade your router

Older wireless routers may not have the technology to support either your plan’s internet speeds or the number of devices connected at once. If you’re getting slower than expected speeds, this is one of the easier upgrades you can make. This is especially true if you’re using your ISP’s router, as they may take care of setting up the replacement.

You can also consider buying your own router, although this will be overkill for most. The main scenario where we recommend purchasing your own router is if you need to cover a large area, in which case a mesh router system or other network extender might serve you well.

2. Save big tasks for non-peak times

If you’re dealing with congestion due to the time of day, consider scheduling big online tasks for slower hours. For example, instead of trying to stream a movie during prime time, you could download it overnight and watch it whenever you like later, sans congestion. You can also download games or other large files during off times.

3. Upgrade to a faster internet plan

A slower plan doesn’t just mean slower download speeds. It also means less bandwidth for multiple devices to share across your network. If you’ve got several people trying to work online at the same time, you can quickly stretch your plan’s speed limits. Increasing your speed can therefore give everyone in your home more breathing room online.

4. Increase your data limit

If your plan throttles your data after a certain limit, one of the simplest ways to speed things up is to increase that limit. Satellite providers with data caps, like HughesNet and Viasat, let you select the amount of data you need. This can get pricey, though, so if you find you’re regularly using a large amount of data, you might want to consider switching to a provider that offers unlimited data, such as Starlink.

5. Switch providers

Ultimately, your current internet service provider might not be right for you. Most areas have at least a few decent options—with faster speeds, more data, or better network management that can handle local network loads without getting congested. Even rural areas are starting to get more choice in providers, thanks to more satellite and 5G home internet options.

Methodology

At SatelliteInternet.com, we base our analyses on thorough research, including customer interviews, first-hand testing, results from our speed test tool, and proprietary internet provider data on speeds and pricing. We also dive deep to get all the details on plans, fees, and future developments. We then bring this info together in one place so you can find it easily. Finally, we use our satellite internet industry expertise to help you make the best decisions you can for your household. As always, thanks for reading!

Sources

  1. Michael Kan, "Starlink's Massive Growth Results in Congestion, Slow Speeds for Some Users," July 2022. Accessed December 2023.
Dave Schafer
Written by
Dave Schafer
Dave has written professionally for tech companies and consumer technology sites for nearly five years, with a special focus on TV and internet. He uses his industry expertise to help readers at HighSpeedInternet.com get the most out of their services. No matter the project, he prefers his coffee black (the stronger, the better).