Using Ethernet at Home

In the time of COVID-19, many people are working from home along with others, be it other adults or students, and everyone is sharing the same Internet connection. When talking about how to make the Internet service more reliable for multiple users, a question often comes up regarding using Ethernet vs. wireless connections for your computer.

The short explanation:

Using an Ethernet cable ("hardwiring") is always more reliable and often faster than wireless connections, depending on your setup. Many newer computers require a USB to Ethernet adapter (either USB-C or USB, depending on your computer), and your Internet router/MODEM will need to have a free Ethernet port. Ethernet adapters come in two speeds; a gigabit adapter (1000Mbps) offers a higher top speed than a Fast Ethernet (10/100Mbps) adapter but it won't matter much in a home environment.


The long explanation:

There are two things at play here. One, you have a limited amount of bandwidth from your Internet provider (AT&T, Spectrum/Charter). That's the maximum amount of data you can send (upload) or receive (download) at a time. Home connections are asynchronous, meaning that the download speed and the upload speed are different, with download usually being much faster than the upload, because historically people typically stream movies and other content (downloading) and rarely send much data out (uploading). That's all changed with the world of video conferencing and Zoom. Every Zoom session involves uploading a lot of data. Common services include 100Mbps down/10Mbps up, 25 down/4-5 up, 200 down/20 up, etc.


Two, when you use your computer wirelessly, there's a maximum speed that you can send wireless data. That will depend on the wireless router you have. Depending on your setup, it could be all in one device, or it could be separate units. Depending on how new your equipment is, it's reasonably likely that your wireless router has a max real-world speed that is lower than your Internet speed. Using Ethernet cabling skips the wireless router and gives you a more reliable connection, and access to the maximum speed of your Internet connection. Here's a chart of common wireless router speeds. All non-ancient hardware is at least 802.11g. Here is a table of common wireless standards and their likely real-world speeds.

Standard Frequency Theoretical Speed Real-World Speed
802.11a 5Ghz 6-54 Mbps 3 - 32 Mbps
802.11b 2.4Ghz 11 Mbps 2-3 Mbps
802.11g 2.4Ghz 54 Mbps 10 -29 Mbps
802.11n 2.4Ghz 300 Mpbs 150 Mbps
802.11n 5Ghz 900 Mbps 450Mbps
802.11ac 5Ghz 433 Mbps - 1.7 Gbps 210 Mbps - 1 G