Why does public WiFi suck so much?

If you’ve ever hooked up to the (finally) free WiFi at Starbucks, you know how painfully slow it is.  Well, like all things, you’ll also only know how slow it really is if you have speedy home WiFi to compare it to.  Let’s delve into the difference between home internet speeds, mobile broadband (cell) speeds, and dreadful public hotspot speeds.

Home Internet Speeds

AT&T Uverse Internet Speeds

Time Warner Roadrunner Internet Speeds and Prices

Comcast Xfinity Internet Speeds and Prices

You can see here that home internet speeds start at around 1Mbps.  For those non-technically savvy, that means “one megabit per second.”  Don’t worry about what a megabit is, just know that dial-up internet went at an agonizing 56 kilobits per second.  If you remember your dimensional analysis from science class in high school, that means that dial-up was four times slower than a 1Mbps connection.

However, nobody’s getting spoiled on the cheapest 1Mbps plan.  When we lived in Utah, we had the 30Mbit Comcast Xfinity internet plan (at $29.99 per month, for a year).  The upload speed is also important, since I upload YouTube videos fairly often.  Most internet plans come with about 0.5 Mbps upload speeds, whereas our Comcast connection had a 6 Mbps upload speed.  Those videos uploaded to YouTube in no time at all.

As you can see, you can get some pretty ridiculous speeds – up to 105Mbps with Comcast (the third image).  UVerse is a ripoff, as it’s $23 more per month for 24Mbps speeds as compared with RoadRunner’s 20Mbps speeds.  Sure, the $29.99 is an introductory price, but negotiation could get that up to a year’s worth of that rate.

My personal preferences

Over the years, I’ve only gotten faster and faster internet.  Each new place I moved had a higher speed available, and I went for it.  In Utah, I had access to the fastest home internet I’ve ever used.  I’m used to 20-30 megabits per second for download speeds, and approximately 5 megabits per second for upload speeds.

Working as a web designer, I’m constantly sending things back and forth via FTP.  The slower the connection speed, the longer it takes for my FTP client to connect to the remote server, and the longer I spend working on projects.

Mobile Broadband

I’m not going to drop in charts in this section, since you pretty much have only one option with each wireless provider.  The max speed for 4G networks today (Verizon & AT&T LTE, and T-Mobile HSPA+) is right around 42Mbps.  So if you’re tethering to your smartphone via WiFi, you’ll get speeds faster than most home internet connections, while you’re out and about.

My wife and I currently pay $20 per month for 5GB (each) of 4G data from T-Mobile.  We’ll be canceled soon, but that’s beyond the point.  That price is fantastic for the speeds and data limit, and it’s crazy to be in a coffee shop getting faster internet speeds than the majority of the shop patrons.

Public WiFi

Starbucks WiFi Speed

(Image cred goes to James Polling.)

Ah, public WiFi.  How I loathe thee.  The speed of a public WiFi hotspot largely depends on the number of users connected to it at any moment, but for the most part, people are just browsing Facebook in Starbucks.  Text/image based websites are not bandwidth hogs, so the bigger problem is likely the cheap asses running the coffee shops – opting for the slower, cheaper WiFi plans.

Starbucks WiFi speeds are usually right around 1Mbps.  The upload speeds (for sending those precious videos to YouTube) are atrocious to the point of non-existence.  You’re probably yelling at your computer screen, “My coffee shop has much better speeds than Starbucks!”  Well, the simple fact is, there are many more Starbucks than there are of your local coffee shops.

There is only one local coffee shop I know of in my (huge) town that has faster-than-Starbucks WiFi, and it was only about 3Mbps.  I could go there every time I want some decent WiFi, but it’s often crowded (likely due to its fast WiFi), and it’s just not as convenient as Starbucks WiFi.

No, I’m not only judging Starbucks here

I have also tested the speed in over 10 Hilton hotels, and even at the Waldorf=Astoria Orlando, the speeds were rarely more than 1Mbps.  Barely faster than dial-up.  It’s odd to me.  Why do all of these places have such abysmal internet connections.  Are there that many power users like me at every WiFi-enabled location that are killing the connection with their huge downloads?  I don’t know.  I kind of doubt it.


If you work online and want a strong, fast internet connection at all times… don’t leave the house.

9 Replies to “Why does public WiFi suck so much?”

  1. 1 Mbps is not barely faster than dialup. The reason coffee shops are throttled, is to keep people from wanting to live there.

    Most Starbucks Wi-Fi connections are actually load balancing multiple DSL connections. Really powerful Wi-Fi hardware provided by HP, tuned to work with AT&T’s DSL and U-Verse gear.

    (Starbucks doesn’t spare any expense on AT&T DSL lines, they actually get them free, unthrottled, uncapped, and usually multi-lined from AT&T).

    As you said, Facebook and other sites aren’t bandwidth hogs. Starbucks, et al aim to make sure that those type of sites load quickly, so you can check your news, drink coffee, and chat with friends while relaxing. They are not there to let you back up your entire hard drive onto the web, or download the Library of Congress.

    Think about it, if Starbucks unthrottled their connections, and gave you 2-3 mbps upload… you’d see people buy a $1 coffee, and pitch a tent in the shop to stay all day.

    1. You would also see potentially massive media downloading piracy which is something Starbucks’ legal department would rather not have to deal with in any shape, form or fashion.

  2. Anybody who thinks 1 Mbps is barely faster than dialup has obviously never used dialup.   1 Mbps is EIGHTEEN TIMES faster than dialup.  So I guess a a car travelling at 1100 mph would be “barely faster” than a car doing 60 mph?   Please. 

    1. Hyperbole, my friend. I used dialup for a good chunk of my childhood. I was comparing the speed of Starbucks WiFi to that of other more promulgated services. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, I compare it to dialup.

  3. Try going down to these hotspots early in the morning like 5AM or 6AM. Then download everything you need. What, too early?! Hey you want fast public wifi that bad, that’s how you do it!

  4. In my case I would be happy just to be able to send a short email from the “coffee shop” but in my area I have found upload speeds to be nonexistent at most public hotspots. Can download everything but can not send anything. Frustrating

    1. Your IP address suggests you live in New Jersey, and I just checked, TWC offers internet there. So another trick I’ve found, is that if you are a Time Warner Cable (RoadRunner Internet) customer, you can log in with your TWC credentials to TWC hotspots, which are located at most popular coffee shops, etc.

      I tried it in Austin, TX recently, and there must have been no one else on the network, because the coffee shop was full, but the speeds were fantastic. Try it out if you get a chance!

  5. “If you work online and want a strong, fast internet connection at all times… don’t leave the house.” P’shaw, my WiFi sucks ass. It’s about 1-0.9 mbps, so VERY POOR. Almost as good as DIAL-UP. And, yersh, I live in the UK.

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