Expat Tech: Increasing Slow Network Speed and Performance in Buenos Aires

After recently arriving back to Buenos Aires from a trip to the States, I was immediately struck (again) by just how much slower the Internet connections are in Argentina. My connection in the States is cheaper and blows away the speeds that I can get here.

This lack of speed has been especially apparent when I am on my Vonage phone. People often complain about the call being choppy and I am often forced to stop all my downloading or even turn off my laptop wireless in order to have a clear call. This never happened in the States.

The real problem is that truly high-speed Internet connections are not as cheaply available in Buenos Aires as they are in the States.  Our current package from Fibertel, provides 3 Mbps download and only 512 Kbps upload speed for about $85 pesos per month. As you go above this 3 Mbps consumer limit, prices rise rapidly.  Want 5 Mbps download and 512 Kbps upload? $300 pesos per month.  10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload? $500 pesos per month.  15 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload? $600 pesos per month.  And that is pretty much the limit to the speed.  By comparison, in the States I have 20 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload for U$S 49.95/month ($196 pesos).

Since my work revolves around being online and having high speed access is critical for a lot of things that I do, I finally had enough and decided to take as many steps as possible to increase my network performance while still keeping my costs low. I started researching anything I could do to squeeze as much performance as possible out of the connections here.  Hopefully these tips will help you as well.

1. Check your Internet speed.

The first thing you should do is check your Internet speed using the tests at SpeedTest.net. To get the most accurate results, choose a server near you and make sure you have closed any programs that may be using the Internet.  While you will never get the actual speeds that you are paying for, your results should be pretty close.  Run the test several times, using different servers to be sure.  If the speeds are not close, call your ISP and ask them about the difference.

2. Change the wireless channel that your router broadcasts on.

By default, most routers broadcast on Channel 6 and since you’re in Buenos Aires, you probably have a lot of neighbors whose routers are on the same channel as yours.  As more routers broadcast on the same channel as yours, your router’s performance greatly decreases.

You can use the WiFi Stumbler web tool to determine what wireless networks are around you and what channels they broadcast on. Then, simply login to your router and change the wireless broadcast to one of the less used channels. (Please note that Channels 1, 6 and 11 are the best options as these channels do not overlap with the others.)  You can find some more detailed instructions on this at How-To Geek.

I changed my router from Channel 6, which had thirteen other routers, to Channel 11, which only had two other routers.  This gave me a slightly better signal and better speeds.

3. Update Your Router to DD-WRT or Tomato.

One of the best performance options you can make is to find out of your wireless router supports running an open-source router firmware like DD-WRT or Tomato.  As Lifehacker points out, this “turns your $60 router into a $600 router.”  If your router supports this (check your router here), install it and you’ll have a lot of new options. Luckily, my router supported it.

4. Increase the signal strength of your wireless signal.

Once I upgraded the router to the DD-WRT firmware, I immediately increased the signal strength of my wireless signal.  This increased the range and connectivity of my wireless network. It now hit all areas of my apartment with no problems.

You could also try creating your own WiFi extender with some tinfoil, but that was a bit overkill for my needs.

5. Set up QoS settings on your router.

Another feature of the DD-WRT software is the ability to set up Quality of Service (QoS). This feature allows you to prioritize traffic going through the router, which means that I can set my Vonage service to high priority and my BitTorrent downloads and other traffic to low priority.

To do this, I simply followed the instructions here and set it for my own Vonage router.  Now, my voice calls have priority over other traffic and they are clear without me having to turn off my laptop wireless.

6. Change your DNS server settings to use Google’s DNS rather than the default Internet provider’s settings.

We had previously covered switching to Google DNS as a way of increasing Internet performance, but wanted to point it out again here.  I’ve been using it for months and it has been great.

7. Add a second Internet connection.

While the options above may help improve performance, none of them actually increase the speed of your Internet connection.  Buying a second Internet connection will do that, as well as give you additional reliability.

While looking at the prices of Internet connections, I realized that I can get two 3 Mbps connections, one from Fibertel and one from Arnet, for less than the cost of the 5 Mbps connection alone from either of them. So, when I was in the States, I picked up a Cisco RV042 dual-wan router.  What this router does is allow you to bond two different Internet connections into one, thus sharing the bandwidth and also making sure that you have Internet access even if one of the connections goes down.

I just ordered the second Internet connection this week, so as soon as I have it all up and running, I’ll be sure to update the blog with my results.

Hope this helps and please let me know if you have any other tips to add.