Before you read an email, view a photo, stream a video or play an online game, the network data that put itself together for your internet-browsing convenience was known as a ‘packet’. But when a packet gets lost or damaged in transit, it’s called ‘packet loss’ – and the result on your end is disrupted streaming and gaming, corrupt files and slower networks.
The leading causes of network packet loss are congested networks, bugs, hardware problems, security threats and overloaded devices. But how can you confirm that your all-important data packets are being lost in the mail as opposed to other issues like poor connection speed being the culprit?
Network engineers have a range of specialised tools at their disposal to diagnose network packet loss, but the rest of us are able to use a couple of built-in system utilities to test for this disruptive phenomenon and identify if packets are indeed going astray.
Just like a submarine sends out a sonar ‘ping’ that bounces back from submerged objects, a network ping tests whether a data host is able to be reached across a network. Similar to the sub, the time for the ping to reach its destination in good order and return is measured and recorded, and any packet losses are identified.
To test for packet loss, the ideal method is to send out a flurry of pings – let’s say 100. If only 98 of them are successful, then the packet loss is approximately 2%. Industry specialists report that a 5% network packet loss rate is regarded as a significant issue.
For Windows: Ping /n 100 (amount of pings) destination (eg. website like google.com or an IP address)
For Mac: Ping -c 100 google.com
Once the ping test is complete, you will see a summary that highlights the number of packets that were lost, represented as both a number and a percentage, and the approximate ping round trip time represented in milliseconds. An average round-trip time higher than 100ms is problematic.
If packet loss is significant, a good next step is to do a new ping test of the local default gateway router. If this test shows significant packet loss, you can conclude that the issue is with your ISP.
For Windows: Start > Network > Network and Sharing Center > Manage Network Settings. Right-click Local Area Connection icon and select Properties.
For Mac: System Preferences > Network. Select your connection and go to Advanced > TCP/IP.
The other easy-to-use tool for identifying issues like network packet loss is Traceroute. Just like the ping, it’s something you can do from the command prompt to visualise the complex routes your packets travel along as they move from your device to a web server. By sending out test packets, it times how long the routers along the data route take to respond, starting with your local router, moving onto your ISP and then off to the wide world web and back.
For Windows: tracert google.com (or other destination)
For Mac: traceroute google.com
The test will visualise in real-time the stops your packets took as they found their way to the destination, starting with your home router and gradually getting closer and closer to the destination. Each of these moves is called a ‘hop’, and accessing an average website requires about 10-20 hops. The packet round trips are expressed in milliseconds, and each hop is measured three times to test the consistency of the latency. If you see an asterisk, that’s a lost packet.
Unfortunately, there’s no ‘cookie-cutter’ solution for remedying packet loss as there are various causes, but a good place to start is to check your connections, restart your routers and hardware, switch to a cabled connection, and update your software and operating system. Beyond that, there is a range of sophisticated programs that will help you test packet loss in greater detail. Good luck!