Slow broadband is bad enough at the best of times, but when slowdowns occur out of the blue it's really annoying. Especially as there isn't always an obvious reason why it has happened.
So what's the explanation? Read on to find the six things most likely to be slowing down your broadband. And when you're done, sign up to our newsletter and claim your exclusive free guide, 12 ways to boost your broadband speed.
1. Problems with your connection
One of the most common things that causes your internet to slow down is one you can't control - it's a problem with your connection. How can you tell if this is happening to you?
When you signed up for your broadband deal you should have been given a speed estimate indicating the performance level you can expect to achieve. Use our Speed Test tool to compare this estimate to what you're actually getting. We'd recommend disconnecting all other devices when you run the speed test, and standing right next to the router. Better still, connect your laptop to your router via an ethernet cable, if you've got one.
When done, compare the test result to your estimate. If it's significantly slower it may indicate the problem is with your connection. To be sure, reboot the router and try the test again, perhaps with a different device. Now give your broadband supplier a call.
Make sure you know your rights, here. If they don't sort out the problem to your satisfaction you might be entitled to a partial refund, or even to quit your contract without penalty, especially given Ofcom's new Code of Practice for broadband speeds. See our guide on how to complain to your broadband supplier for more info.
Of course, if your speed test doesn't indicate service problems and you still think it's too slow, it's possible you've simply outgrown your particular broadband package. Many providers will allow you to upgrade to a faster deal mid-contract. If you're coming to the end of your contract you can start shopping round for the fastest home broadband deals.
2. Your router's in the wrong place
The position of your wi-fi router is another common cause of broadband slowdowns. Without getting into the technicalities, a wi-fi signal gets weaker the further it travels and the more physical objects it has to pass through. The weaker it is, the slower it will be.
Try and position your router somewhere central in your home, preferably raised off the floor. This will help the signal reach the furthest corners of your home. Be aware that some electronic devices, such as phone bases, can interfere with signals, as can metallic ornaments. Try and keep it in a fairly open space, not on a shelf hemmed in by other objects. And don't cover it up, either. A lot of the broadband hubs you get for free from your internet provider are designed to lay flat. It's very easy to start piling stuff on top of them without thinking.
3. Your signal doesn't cover your whole house
Even when you do find the sweet spot for your router there are still limits to how far its signal will reach. If you've converted your loft into an office, for example, the signal might have to pass through several walls, floors and doors to get there. There's no guarantee that it will. Older buildings can be a problem as well, as some of the building materials, or even just the thickness of the walls can have an effect on how far a wi-fi signal can reach.
Look into wi-fi extenders or Powerline adapters as a way to increase the wi-fi coverage in your home.
4. There's too many people downloading
What's an obvious reason why anything slows down? There's just too many people using it! That's as true of your broadband as it is of the M25 at rush hour.
A standard phoneline broadband connection in the UK has an average speed of around 10 to 11Mb, and sometimes quite a bit slower. Netflix alone needs a speed of 5Mb to play HD video - that's half of your available speed. Now, add in someone else watching YouTube videos, someone playing online games, and another person downloading large files for work. It adds up pretty quickly, and something has got to give.
This can also apply to the area you live in. The more built up the area, the more customers there are connected to your local street cabinet. This means that speeds can get slower at peak times, because everyone is home from work and school and making use of the internet. You can work around this by setting updates - such as for phone and computer operating systems and games - to download overnight when less people are using the internet.
A lot of routers are good at prioritising certain types of traffic. This means time-critical downloads like streamed video aren't interrupted, but file downloads might be slower. Not all do, though. If you've got a busy family sharing limited bandwidth, rationing your usage might be the way to go.
You're less likely to get this problem on a faster fibre deal. For more on this, check out our blog post explaining what broadband speed you actually need.
5. Background downloads
While it's easy to get your kids to ration their Netflix use, it's still possible that your broadband will be slowed down by other downloads that you don't know about.
These hidden downloads happen all the time. Like when your laptop automatically downloads and installs an update to Windows. Or your phone gets updated, your TV box, or pretty much anything else you've got that's connected to the internet. These updates might be a couple of gigabytes in size, and on a standard broadband connection could take an hour or more to complete.
Video games are even worse. They often have updates that run to 10 gigabytes or more, and could clog up your system for the rest of the day. The same goes for downloading boxsets from Sky or other premium TV services. Not everyone makes the connection between downloading something on a TV and slowing down their computer, but it's all part of the same thing.
6. Viruses and malware
When your internet becomes slow all of a sudden, and for no obvious reason, it's worth checking that your computer and anti-virus software are both fully up to date and working properly.
Viruses and other types of malware won't slow your internet specifically, but they will slow your hardware and make browsing and other online activities feel a lot more sluggish.
Run an anti-virus scan to try and solve the problem. Lots of broadband providers offer free security software when you sign up, so make sure you're using it if yours does. Also, keep an eye out for other warning signs. This includes your browser's home page changing unexpectedly, or your computer's fans spinning fast and loud even when you aren't using it. This can be a sign of dodgy software running in the background.
How to speed up your broadband
There's a lot more things that can slow down your broadband. Maybe your router's settings need changing, or perhaps your phone cables are the problem. Or maybe your broadband isn't slow at all - maybe your computer is.
So how do you find the answers? Start by downloading our free guide, 12 ways to boost your broadband speed. It's packed with essential tips that are easy to follow and require very little technical know-how.
And if you do decide you need a faster service, use our broadband comparison tool to find the speeds that you need.