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Packet loss: a guide to understanding and fixing it

Kirsty Moreland
Last Updated May 12, 2024 7:19 pm

Whether you use the internet for eSports, VoIP calls or streaming your favourite content, packet loss is a problem that can ruin your experience. In this article, let’s take a deep dive into this rather technical concept, explaining what it is, why it happens and how to fix it. 

What is packet loss?

Packet loss occurs when packets of data are lost in the communication between a sender and a receiver in a network. For example, packets of data might be lost in communication between your computer and a website server.

When this happens, the lost data packets must be re-sent. This causes latency, otherwise known as lag or ping, in the system. Occasionally, the data packets are simply lost altogether, meaning your video, game or call will skip whole sections intermittently.

So packet loss degrades user experience by causing key information to be lost between entities in a network.

It also stymies efficiency, because it requires extra processes to retrieve lost data packets. This causes network lag, and can also lead to extra costs for the user over time.

Packet loss in gaming

Let’s take a look at gaming to fully understand why packet loss is such an issue. Online gaming happens in real time, so connection speed and consistency is essential to the experience.

Latency

When packets need to be sent multiple times, it causes latency and slows down gameplay. This leaves gamers struggling to compete.

Warping

Similarly, dropped data packets lead to something called warp in gaming. This is when avatars seems to “jump” to different spots on the screen, losing the transition in between.

Both of these are hugely detrimental to the gaming experience, and also impact other real-time applications like VoIP calls and streaming.

What causes packet loss?

Lost data packets is a very common problem in networks. Here are a few of the culprits that tend to cause it.

Network congestion

Networks have a set capacity, and can become congested when they are carrying significant traffic. When there is too much traffic and the network cannot accommodate more, sometimes it will discard packets of data. This is one cause of packet loss.

Outdated network hardware

Obsolete network devices, including routers and switches, can significantly slow down network performance. Businesses that are expanding often face packet loss due to connectivity challenges and encounter delays due to equipment that hasn’t kept pace with their growth. To ensure a smooth flow of data, it’s crucial to upgrade these components to match increasing data demands.

Outdated software

Software can also have a big impact on your network, and whether packet loss is an issue. Thorough software checks and timely system updates are essential to avoid glitches that could lead to packet loss. Restarting your system, applying the latest software update, or installing a specific patch could resolve these glitches.

Cyber attacks

A security breach or cyber attack can interfere with a network, causing lost packets. Common attacks include denial-of-service (DoS) assaults, which can be deployed remotely via your IP address.

How to fix packet loss

If you’re trying to fix packet loss, the first step will of course be understanding the extent of the problem. For this, you’ll need to run a packet loss test to analyse just how much data is being lost. From there, you can take measures to mitigate the problem.

Run a packet loss test

Packet loss is an undesirable issue that can hinder your network. The first step in remedying this is detecting the problem.

You can easily test packet loss on your Windows or MAC system, or run a test online.

For Windows OS

You can test for packet loss on a Windows OS by using commands. 

  1. Begin by opening Command Prompt, by pressing “Windows” + “R”. In the dialogue box that opens, type CMD and then press ENTER. This will open the command prompt dialogue box.
  2. Next, enter the command ping -n 100 1.1.1.1 and hit enter. This tells your system to send out Pings, defines which server to send them too and ensures the results will be summarized for you afterwards.
  3. Once the test is completed, a summary of results will be shown on your screen. Here, you’ll be able to see the percentage of data packages that were lost during the test. This will show whether there is packet loss in your network communication, and the extent of the problem.

For Mac

If you use MacOS and feel your network is slow or inconsistent, it’s worth testing for lost data packets. This is a fairly easy process using the MacOS Terminal program.

Here’s how to do it yourself:

  1. Press Command + Space simultaneously, and in the pop-up box, click Terminal.
  2. Type, or copy/paste the command ping 1.1.1.1 and press Enter.
  3. Terminal will automatically begin sending pings (notifications) to the IP address 1.1.1.1  Let the process continue for at least 50 pings. 
  4. After 50 pings, press CONTROL + C simultaneously. This will stop the process and produce a summary of the results.
  5. You can analyse the summary to see the percentage of pings that suffered packet loss. This means you’ll understand how significant packet loss is on your network, and how to handle it.

How to stop packet loss

If you’ve run a test and determined this issue is affecting your system, there are a few measures you can take to minimize the problem.

Upgrade your hardware

Outdated or faulty hardware, such as a router or cable, is one issue that can result in data loss. Properly maintaining your networking hardware – and upgrading where necessary – will reduce the risk of it impacting your data packets.

Reboot your device

Restarting networking devices and routers improves their performance by enabling software updates to be completed. Doing this regularly is one way of optimizing performance and preventing lost data.

Check your network connections

It might sound basic, but it’s still important. Check the connections and configuration of your networking set-up. A loose connection can make a big difference to their throughput. The greater the capacity of your network, the less you’ll need to worry about lost packets.

Use QOS settings

Quality-of-service (QOS) settings allow you to configure your network in a way that prioritises specific applications. This is another way to optimize network performance, and minimize frictions.

Use an ethernet cable instead of WiFi

Lost data packets are more common with a Wi-Fi connection. Try using an Ethernet wire instead for more reliable data transmission.

Know your network

Whether you consider yourself technical or not, the vast majority of us use networking on a daily basis. Knowing the basics about your network and how it functions means a better user experience, and more options for you online.

So put fear aside and get familiar with some networking terms: the pay-off is worth it.