How Important Is My Wireless Router to My Internet Speed?
Your internet speed is only as fast as your plan. If your ISP advertises 400 Mbps, that’s the maximum bandwidth you will ever see unless you upgrade to a faster plan.
However, your router handles everything on your side of the modem, so its performance can affect your wired and wireless connections. If all your devices bog down the router’s processor and memory, your connections can slow to a crawl. That translates to a seemingly snail-like internet even though your ISP’s connection is zipping along smoothly.
We’ll explain what signs you should look for in a slow router, how older routers can affect your speed, and what you should do to improve your speed.
Why is my router slowing my connections?
Because your router sits between your modem and your devices, it can bottleneck your connections. Think of it as a small computer dedicated to routing network traffic to and from your devices. If it’s overloaded like a traffic cop during rush hour, connections slow to a crawl. If the router is old or low quality, your connections may be slow.
In both scenarios, the router becomes your chokepoint, not the internet connection itself. Upgrading to a plan with a higher bandwidth won’t help if your router can’t handle your current network load. You’ll need to either reboot, reset, or swap it out for a better model.
For example, if you recently upgraded your internet plan to a 400 Mbps speed but still use an N300 router, your wireless connections automatically lose 100 Mbps of bandwidth. Why? Because the router only supports up to 300 Mbps. Your wired connections, however, may not be affected.
Find out how much speed you need if you’re not sure how fast your connection should be. Otherwise, you can enter your zip code below to find a faster internet plan in your area.
How can I tell if my router is slowing my connections?
You can usually tell if your router is slowing down your internet speeds by running an internet speed test. Here’s how:
Step 1: Connect a computer to the router or wireless gateway using an Ethernet cable.
If you have a single modem/router hybrid unit (wireless gateway), you can perform the second test by logging in to your device’s web interface, putting it into bridge mode, and skipping to Step 6.
Step 2: Open a web browser and load our speed test.
Step 3: Click the Start Speed Test button and record the results.
Step 4: Unplug the computer from the router.
Step 5: Unplug the router from your modem.
Step 6: Connect the computer to the modem using an Ethernet cable and rerun the test.
Step 7: Compare the results.
Your router is probably your chokepoint if your speeds are much faster from your modem than from the router.
Remember, you ran these tests using a wired connection, so technically, you should see most of the bandwidth delivered by your internet connection. If the speed test results from your router and modem aren’t dramatically different, then the next step is to test your wireless devices.
Keep in mind that Wi-Fi is slower than a wired connection. There’s a “translation” that comes into play when the router converts electrical signals into radio waves and back. Your devices also play a part, as one may handle two data streams while another supports just one stream only. Interference, range, and other factors also reduce your overall wireless speed.
But if you see a dramatic difference in your wireless connections compared to your wired tests, you may need to troubleshoot your Wi-Fi network. You may have the router located in a bad spot, or neighboring Wi-Fi networks may interfere with your connections—again, many factors can cause slow wireless speeds.
Consult our guide on speeding up your internet if connections are slow.
Does old equipment affect my internet speed?
Older routers, network equipment, and even the aging wireless devices you use can affect your Wi-Fi connections.
For example, if you have a plan that supports 100 Mbps only, old routers and network equipment likely won’t bottleneck your connections. However, if you have a gigabit plan but your old router only supports 300 Mbps, then your wireless connection will seem slow as snails.
Old smartphones, tablets, and other devices can slow you down, too, even if you have the fastest router and internet plan on the planet. Newer devices with budget Wi-Fi radios can make the internet feel extremely slow too.
Check the device’s supported Wi-Fi standard
Technology and how we use it are constantly changing and improving—max Wi-Fi speeds have gone from 300 Mbps in 2009 to 9.6 Gbps in just ten years. And wired connections have jumped from 10 Mbps to 40,000 Mbps over the last few decades.
Wi-Fi standards are one primary reason why dated equipment might not perform as well as newer equipment. There are three main Wi-Fi standards to be aware of if you think your router or wireless device is causing slow wireless connections:
Wi-Fi 4 (802.11n or Wireless-N)
This specification appeared in 2009 and uses one 2.4 GHz wireless band. It supports a theoretical maximum wireless speed of 450 Mbps using three streams (3×3).
Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac or Wireless-AC)
This specification arrived in 2014 and pairs the 2.4 GHz band with an additional 5 GHz band for faster speed capabilities. It also adds beamforming, which establishes a direct line of communication between the router and the client device.
Wi-Fi 5 Wave 1 routers can handle speeds of up to a theoretical 1.3 Gbps (1,300 Mbps) using three streams (3×3).
Wi-Fi 5 Wave 2 launched in 2016 and increases the speeds to 3.47 Gbps (3,470 Mbps) using four streams (4×4). Wave 2 also introduced MU-MIMO technology to better communicate with multiple devices simultaneously.
The Wi-Fi 5 specification actually supports up to 6.9 Gbps (6,900 Mbps) using eight streams (8×8).
Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax or AX WiFi)
This specification arrived in 2019 and is the latest standard. Wi-Fi 6 uses both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands and can reach max speeds of up to a theoretical 9.6 Gbps (9,600 Mbps) using eight streams (8×8).
The primary goal of Wi-Fi 6 is to better handle network efficiency as opposed to just faster speeds. Many Wi-Fi 6 routers can easily handle dozens of connected devices, making them ideal for smart home devices.
None of this is to say that all routers more than a few years old are bad—Wi-Fi 4 routers can still be perfectly serviceable for some homes, and Wi-Fi 5 routers are currently commonplace in most homes.
But if you’ve upgraded your internet plan or added more devices to your network, an older router will have a harder time juggling the extra work than a newer model.
Can a new router speed up my internet?
A new router can speed up your Wi-Fi. What a new router can’t do is increase the speed of your internet plan. For example, if you have a 100 Mbps internet plan, even the fanciest router on the market can’t make your internet speeds go over 100 Mbps.
But if you’re using old equipment that’s preventing you from fully utilizing your 100 Mbps plan, replacing that router is bound to help make your wireless connections faster.
Keep in mind that a new router may not increase your speed on the wireless devices you use. If you purchase a Wi-Fi 6 router, but you’re still using a phone that supports Wi-Fi 5, then your wireless connection won’t magically increase. The phone will still support only a theoretical 866 Mbps, which is higher than most cable-based internet plans.
Do you need faster speeds out of your internet connection to match the latest routers? Enter your zip code below to see what’s available in your area.
Author - Rebecca Lee Armstrong
Rebecca Lee Armstrong has more than six years of experience writing about tech and the internet, with a specialty in hands-on testing. She started writing tech product and service reviews while finishing her BFA in creative writing at the University of Evansville and has found her niche writing about home networking, routers, and internet access at HighSpeedInternet.com. Her work has also been featured on Top Ten Reviews, MacSources, Windows Central, Android Central, Best Company, TechnoFAQ, and iMore.
Editor - Cara Haynes
Cara Haynes has been editing and writing in the digital space for seven years, and she's edited all things internet for HighSpeedInternet.com for five years. She graduated with a BA in English and a minor in editing from Brigham Young University. When she's not editing, she makes tech accessible through her freelance writing for brands like Pluralsight. She believes no one should feel lost in internet land and that a good internet connection significantly extends your life span.