The Computer Corner: Network Latency

The Computer Corner: Network Latency

Please forgive me, but I, like many other network techs, tend to roll my eyes when people talk about the speed of their internet service. Firstly, the online speed tests most people blindly accept as being reliable are, in fact, burst tests that are wildly inaccurate. And secondly, much more important in evaluating internet connectivity are latency, packet loss, and jitter; but these factors are ephemeral, hard to measure, and difficult for non-technical people to understand.


The unfortunate reality is that most of the internet-using public has been thoroughly brainwashed into believing that speed is all-important, so a lot of them pay extra to get more of it when they do not need more speed and never actually use it. Most of the time, paying for faster internet is about as pointless as buying a Lamborghini, thinking it will speed up how fast you can get through San Miguel traffic jams. 


Network latency is defined as the time taken for one packet of data to pass along its route. That might sound like it is the same thing as speed, but there is a difference. As an oversimplification, latency is a bit like measuring how fast a letter traveled through the post office by averaging the speeds of the airplane, truck, and walking letter carrier that transported it. 


Packet loss is a measure of the number of packets that simply get lost in transit. When a packet gets lost, your computer or smartphone can ask that it be retransmitted, and so most packet loss is self-correcting, but the process slows your connection.


Jitter is the factor that is hardest to measure without sophisticated test equipment. The best way I can explain jitter is that it is like getting in your car to run a series of errands to addresses along Main Street. You start off at number 202 Main Street and then proceed to 805, and when you get there, you learn you need to backtrack to 102 then proceed to 1207, but when you get there you are told you have to go back to 312 before continuing. Eventually, all your Main Street errands get done, but it would have been quicker to make all those stops in the correct order. Jitter causes internet connections to make connections out of logical order and reduces efficiency.


By now, some readers may be asking themselves how they can minimize latency, packet loss, and jitter to improve their internet connection. This is a complicated task that requires the services of a qualified professional. A good way to tell if you have found an experienced pro is to tell them you have already decided that getting more speed will solve all your internet problems and then watch to see if they roll their eyes.


Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981, and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 415 101 8528 or through email at