08/11/2023 - WCCBP - ~8 Minutes
If you’re really debating the choice of switching from your old provider to fiber, or you want to ensure your Wi-Fi is ready to support your new speeds, this guide is for you.
Should you switch to fiber?
In a nutshell, fiber is faster and cheaper. That’s good enough for most of us. But why? There are two factors: capacity and latency.
Capacity and Shared Bandwidth
No matter what service you subscribe to, you “share” bandwidth with your neighbors. How many folks share depends on your technology.
Traditional satellite providers (Viasat, Hughes) share a single satellite with the entire continent. Starlink shares it with our entire region. Cell phones share with your whole tower (miles). Local microwave shares with a neighborhood. Fiber shares bandwidth with at most 128 people.
Sharing isn’t a problem when few people use it or there is enough speed to go around, but it quickly becomes a problem during peak hours, which are usually 7PM - 11PM each day. The problem is big: at the biggest Internet exchange in Seattle , the busy hour (9PM) is 2.5x busier than the quiet hour (5AM)!
Internet providers tackle this problem in different ways: letting the network slow down, setting data caps, or creating a more complex version of the two (e.g. cell phone companies.)
This is where fiber stands out: you share 10 gigabits of speed with at most 128 people, usually less. Starlink shares 18 gigabits for the whole satellite. A microwave system shares 400 megabits (0.4 gigabits) with your neighborhood. It’s not hard to do the math to see why fiber works better when it’s busy.
The other big advantage of fiber is something we don’t talk about much: latency. Compared to any wireless system, fiber takes less time to transmit a signal from your house to the Internet.
As a frame of reference we tested the time it takes to connect to Google from a home in Seattle using fiber. The total time was ~2ms (2 thousandths of a second.) Compare that to Viasat at 600ms, Starlink at ~40ms, or microwave at ~30ms. Since the wireless systems are sharing more bandwidth, that delay can vary a lot (Starlink is particularly bad, and swings from 20-100ms).
While that sounds fast, most web pages, games, and video conferencing work much better with low, consistent, latency. A single website usually needs to do 20-50 different things before it shows up. Latency makes each faster.
How much speed do you need?
Let’s get to the point: most of us don’t need gigabit speeds, yet.
If you don’t know what to get yet, start with a 100/100 service. Why? It’s enough to support 2 people, one TV, and all of your various “smart” devices. Can you get by with less? Yes, but even the FCC agrees 100Mb is a good minimum , and you’re still half the US average speed.
If you have a bigger family, a lot of devices, or work from home, more speed can help. While you won’t use a gigabit most of the time, the ability to back your laptop up to the cloud in less than a week is a useful feature.
Remember that your needs today will change, particularly as you add more “smart” devices. The Brinnon Community Center thought its network had broken down, but later learned that their new security cameras were using all of the capacity!
How do the prices compare?
The packages available to you will differ based on where you live. Check with HCC’s signup tool to know exactly what is available at your house.
|Faster than all Viasat, T-Mobile, Centurylink, and NOPDC services. Recommended for ≥3 users or occasional use.
|Faster than all local services. Good for most households, and can support >4 users, security cameras, etc.
|Faster than most Wi-Fi. Good for very large families or heavy remote work.
Takeaway? Most of us will save 30-50% per month on our bills.
Is it really this fast?
Yes. We recently (August 2023) had a chance to do some speed tests on some of the first customers to get service. We used an older router with an Ethernet cable, and regularly got about 700Mb down and 796Mb up. Latency (ping) to our datacenter in Seattle was about 5 ms with <1 ms of jitter (this matters a lot for gamers).
Why is it faster uploading? Fewer people use upload speeds!
Why wasn’t it faster? The theoretical maximum speed is ~960Mb, and in this case the old router we used was slowing us down. Wi-Fi speeds were ~200Mb. Once this customer upgrades, they should get closer to the maximum speed.
If you’re curious, we also ran tests at a friend’s house in Seattle who uses Google Fiber. Google is widely considered to be the “gold standard” ISP, and their speeds are typically in the 800Mb range. The fact HCC was close to the in-city speeds was impressive!
What about storms, trees, and power outages?
A lot of folks have asked us what happens in a storm. Like many things, the answer depends.
On the upside, fiber doesn’t slow down in heavy storms like satellite, cellular, and microwave connections. It’s just as fast when it’s pouring down and the lights are on. That’s helpful around here when it’s nasty and everyone wants to binge a different show!
Things are different when the power goes out. Fiber networks need power, and while HCC has batteries throughout their system, eventually they run out. This will take several hours, but if you have have a generator or a big UPS and the power is out for a while, it’s possible you have power but no Internet. This limit is true of almost all systems, including cellular and local microwave. Only satellite (solar power!) has an advantage here.
The worst-case scenario is when a tree falls and snaps the fiber. This is usually pretty rare - often the much-stronger electrical lines take the hit - and if the fiber doesn’t break, it still works.
Since we’ve never had a network in our area, we don’t have good data on outages, but we have spoken with both the PUD and HCC, and we know fiber is a priority. We’ll be monitoring this winter as services start coming online and report what we find!
When is Wi-Fi the bottleneck?
As we discussed in our other note , your router or Wi-Fi system is often the reason you don’t get fast speeds. Why? Most manufacturers took shortcuts and over-advertised speed. Nobody noticed because their Internet was slower than the hidden limit. Fiber exposes that issue quickly!
The first one of us who got HCC service only had speed tests of 100-200Mb (download). Why? Older Wi-Fi gear. The router itself could only handle ~800Mb, and the Wi-Fi system capped it even lower.
These limits are common, and depending on how old your equipment is, you’ll see Wi-Fi limits between 200-400Mb. If your equipment is older than 3 years or cost less than $300, it’s closer to the low end. If you’re buying the gigabit service, you should plan to upgrade your Wi-Fi system too.
Need a quick fix? We recommend the Amazon eero pro 6 . It’s tested to gigabit speeds and easy to expand if you have a big house (just add more nodes!). Want to compare your current system? The Wirecutter review of mesh Wi-Fi systems is a good starting point to see how your system performs and to find other choices.
The Wi-Fi Speed Limit For Everyone
Even if you buy a brand-new system, don’t expect speeds more than ~500Mb to a single device. Why? More manufacturer shortcuts. To deliver gigabit to a single device, you need a big (160MHz) channel. This currently needs special FCC licenses that only commercial Wi-Fi gear got. So most home equipment is limited to ~500Mb per device. This will change when WiFi 6E and WiFi 7 start to become mainstream, but it will be several years before that happens, and you must upgrade all of your devices to take advantage of those speeds!
This isn’t a problem in practice as most mobile devices need nowhere near 500Mb, so if you’re trying to test your actual speed, use an Ethernet cable.
A Note About Ethernet
Think of Ethernet as the secret weapon for better speed. Your new fiber-to-ethernet modem supports up to 10 gigabits on a $5 copper cable. How? Ethernet is what connects almost ever server on the Internet. Since it’s the common standard, a lot of folks spend time making it faster. The fastest Ethernet connection is 400 gigabits!
We won’t ever need that speed at home, but by using a cable whenever you can, it saves capacity for truly wireless devices. We recommend using Ethernet for anything stationary: TVs, gaming consoles, and printers are all great candidates. You’ll also never have to slowly type in your Wi-Fi password on some ancient screen again.
Using Ethernet between your Wi-Fi mesh nodes is also a good idea, as it saves the wireless bandwidth for your devices, and is always faser than a wireless signal. It’s not strictly required, but if you have a choice, use Ethernet. It’s a guaranteed way to ensure the best performanceuse Ethernet.
So what should you do? Consider your budget and family needs. Most of us will save a lot of money and get much faster service with HCC, but if you are happy with your services today, there is no need to change anything.