How to stop latency ruining your online experiences

ISPs do everything they can to stop latency affecting consumer internet access, but we can play our part as well

Wednesday, 24 August, 2022

Many things can derail an otherwise enjoyable online experience.

Some can be avoided in advance, such as scheduling bandwidth-intensive updates to happen overnight, or running antivirus software which prevents computers being infected with malware.

Others happen in the moment – and it doesn’t get more instantaneous than latency.

This is generally recognised as the delay between a device contacting a remote server with a request, and the server’s response being displayed on that device.

Consider the process of entering a website URL into the address bar of your preferred web browser.

As you press Enter, your device contacts a server located at that address, requesting all the information hosted there.

The server then has to locate that data and send it, at which point your browser needs to assemble a stream of received data parcels in the correct order.

The process of displaying data takes fractions of a second, thanks to the globally supported HTML5 standard.

The real delay lies in the information exchange. This is latency, which often spills over into related areas like buffering (when a video stream pauses, or begins to degrade in quality).

Although latency is to some extent unavoidable, service providers and ISPs are constantly trying to minimise it, to ensure a superior consumer experience.

These are ways consumers can play their part in helping to stop latency…

Key ways to stop latency

1. Reduce active tasks

It’s particularly important for people on slower connections to reduce the number of programs, processes, apps and devices which are attempting to communicate online.

Unplug web-enabled devices on standby, like set top TV boxes. If one task is vitally important (like a job interview), ask other household members to temporarily log off.

2. Try not to conduct uploads and downloads simultaneously

There might not seem much correlation between downloading a programme on iPlayer and uploading recently-modified files to OneDrive.

Yet most uploads and downloads involve constant two-way communications, so tying up available upload bandwidth with an unrelated process won’t help you download smoothly.

3. Ensure you’re running the latest software

Modern web browsers are constantly being fettled to improve their performance and minimise latency. The same is true of everything from streaming apps to social media platforms.

Update software to the latest version, if it’s not set to auto-update. If your hardware no longer supports modern programs, it’s time to upgrade before your user experience slowly degrades.

4. Hardwire devices to your router

WiFi inevitably increases latency. It’s a slower method of data distribution than a hardwired Ethernet connection, and it experiences far more interference as a result.

If you can’t use Ethernet, invest in Powerline adaptors. If that’s not practical either, try to position wireless devices as close to your broadband router as you can while using them.

5. Avoid the internet rush hour wherever possible

In May, Virgin Media customers claimed latency was affecting peak-time data distribution, particularly between 7pm and 11pm.

We’ve previously explained how to avoid internet rush hour, with tips including scheduling file downloads and uploads for the daytime, or overnight.

6. Choose lower file quality where it’s offered

If you want to stream video content, certain platforms will give you a choice between standard definition and high definition streams, or between HD and 4K.

Unless you’re obsessed with picture quality, choosing the lesser option will place less strain on your connection. Content might not be as pin-sharp, but it’s far less likely to buffer.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!