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Packet loss: Why does it happen and how do you prevent it?

Jonathan Burns Jonathan Burns
Jonathan Burns
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Everyone has heard it recently. When someone on your team begins to sound a bit like a robot, what you’re experiencing is packet loss.

But it’s more than just an annoyance, packet loss can be caused by a variety of issues, including slow down network speeds, bottlenecks, and your network throughput and bandwidth.

So, with that being said, what can be done to make sure it happens less?

What does it affect?

Packet loss isn’t just a VoIP problem. Packet loss can affect your overall IT network, creating a multitude of problems that will be the bane of any IT administrator.

Increase in costs

If you’ve been in IT long enough you’ll know the telltale signs of a company overspending to get a handle on their packet loss problem.

There is a simple way to beat packet loss. And that’s to spend a lot of money on extra IT infrastructure and more bandwidth to accommodate the lag.

This will solve your problem in the short run, but it will always be an uphill battle, and won’t fix the root cause.

Bad user experience

When it comes to VoIP, whether you’re providing voice capabilities or using them for your service, your customers are going to be the ones that suffer when it comes to packet loss on your calls.

If you have even a 10% packet loss your voice quality is going to be pretty bad. Imagine not hearing 1 word in 10. Bad user experience is a killer when it comes to conversion rates and incidentally your bottom line.

Overall network quality

Packet loss in a more general sense reduces the throughput or speed of a given connection, this is what results in a reduction in quality to protocols or apps that are latency-sensitive like voice.

And since, for many packet loss is a critical network performance metric, you going to want to make sure it happens as rarely as possible.

Why does it happen?

From a technical perspective, when voice signals are digitized and transmitted, they are split into packets that can be routed asynchronously and even via different paths, before being reconstituted and the end-point of the call.

But if some of these packets fail to reach the endpoint – usually as a result of network congestion or failed hardware – small pieces of the audio signal will be missing, resulting in audible distortion on the call.

Packet loss can be caused by a number of issues, but the most common are:

Problems with network hardware

As your network switches, and routers inevitably face the test of time they’re going to slow down your network traffic as they become faulty or outdated.

If you’re experiencing a sudden growth in the company this can be exacerbated. As your throughput shoots through the roof, you’re going to start seeing more lag, packet loss, and reduced overall connectivity.

Make sure you keep an eye out for equipment that needs to be revised and updated to keep on top of this.

Software bugs

Whatever software you are using, regardless of how expensive it is, there are always going to be bugs in a platform that create problems.

This is not unheard of in the VoIP space and if you’ve just had a recent update on your voice software, and you’re getting some unusual network behavior like packet loss, this could be the problem.

Software bugs are another common cause of packet loss. If rigorous testing has not been carried out or bugs have been introduced following software updates, this could result in. Sometimes rebooting can resolve these issues, but more often than not the software will need to be updated or patched.

Security threats

It’s one that doesn’t happen often but should be seriously considered when looking at your network setup. There’s a particularly popular cyberattack that has been going round in recent years called the packet drop attack.

This is when a cybercriminal takes control of a router and sends commands that drop packets into a stream of data.

If you’re suddenly noticing high rates of packet loss across your network, it could be that there’s a cyber attack in progress.

Network congestion

A network is considered congested when the network traffic hits its maximum capacity. Back in the day, when your channel limit was reached this would result in a dead tone. But in the age of VoIP, packets will wait their turn to be delivered when there’s enough bandwidth.

But if your connection falls so far behind that your software can’t store any more packets, they will simply be discarded or ignored so that the network can catch up.

How do you prevent it?

There are a number of ways to resolve packet loss issues, and the solution you choose will depend on the specific reason for packet loss. In cases where hardware is at fault, the hardware will usually need to be replaced with new appliances that are able to cope with maximum throughput.

If a security risk or network congestion is the cause, you have a number of options available to you. Ultimately the way to ensure you rid your calls of as much packet loss as possible is to switch to a network that can ensure a high quality of service.