This article is part of a larger series on VoIP.
Many businesses are shifting their communications to voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) services. This internet-powered calling technology delivers high-definition sound while also making calls cheaper. Unfortunately, the quality of your calls can degrade due to a data transmission problem known as packet loss. But there are steps you can take to fix it. Learn what causes it and how to fix packet loss to ensure high-quality communications for your team and customers.
How Packet Loss Affects VoIP Calls
Before learning how to fix packet loss, it’s important to understand how a VoIP business phone system works and where packet loss comes in. VoIP sends calls over the internet by breaking down the audio from the call into data packets. It’s become the go-to for business calling, in part because of the tremendous cost savings it provides. In fact, according to Telzio, businesses that switch outbound and inbound calls to VoIP reduce telecom costs by more than 50%.
A similar process is used with unified communications (UC), where video data, team chat information, and shared files are converted into packets and transmitted. In both cases, this form of conversion reduces the size of the overall data while it’s transferring, and when it arrives, the data is unpacked.
For the most part, when data packets are transmitted, the most efficient path is taken so that the recipient receives your voice data in short order. Unfortunately, for various reasons, voice and communications data might not arrive at your recipient as efficiently as it should. This is sometimes affected by factors like distance traveled and faulty hardware.
Regardless of the cause, poorly transmitted data packets, aka “packet loss,” adversely affects call quality. When part of the data packet goes missing, pieces of the audio information can sound garbled or may be missing entirely—but call interruption and quality reduction isn’t the only risk inherent in packet loss.
When there are missing packets, these can cause holes in your data security. When your business is experiencing packet loss, hackers can utilize low-priority backdoors created by the failure in data transmission. This can lead to distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, which take advantage of the capacity limits on your network’s bandwidth so that your connection will be unusable. This also exposes your transmitted data, even if it’s encrypted.
UDP vs TCP Packet Loss
VoIP telephony uses user datagram protocol (UDP) or transmission control protocol (TCP) to send data. With UDP, when packets go missing, it’s usually because they arrive at the destination with errors or have been discarded along the way. At worst, a telephony session using UDP will terminate if there’s too much packet loss.
With TCP-based connections, the data is retransmitted, which means that these connections are less prone to lost packets. When the data is sent a second and third time, the VoIP system can reconstruct the data stream so that there is less data loss. Still, this adds another fold to data transmittal, and multiple VoIP calls experiencing data packet loss with TCP retransmission will significantly slow down the network. This, in turn, reduces call quality.
5 Common Causes of Packet Loss & How to Fix Them
If you’re noticing that your calls are less clear or your file transfers are being interrupted, there may be significant packet loss on your VoIP or unified communications as a service (UCaaS) network. To help narrow down the cause, here are a few potential causes of this issue so that you can narrow it down and implement a packet loss fix.
Most instances of packet loss originate not at the provider level but within your setup. For example, router issues constitute a significant cause of packet loss for many businesses. These devices are found in every office, and they don’t necessarily work well when paired with VoIP systems. For example, if you have multiple routers, problems with one device can easily affect other routers on the network, similar to a ripple effect.
Routers automatically broadcast information to other routers on the network and automatically report any performance issues. The traffic block caused by one router’s issues is automatically recalibrated by the other routers to mitigate performance fall-offs. While this might seem efficient and it does reduce slowdowns, the process of recalibrating takes time, leading to packet loss.
Additionally, routers sometimes experience rerouting overload. This happens when the routers are calculating the most efficient paths. Sometimes, when multiple blocked routes are in play, the sheer number of calculations required can overload the routers. This is particularly problematic when a router fails to send out defect status notifications. When this happens, network traffic is sent through these blocked or semi-blocked routes so that packet loss is all but guaranteed.
Routers aren’t the only potential hardware source of packet loss. Faulty networking wires, such as Ethernet cables, also can be a major issue. In an office, these wires sometimes go unmanaged, and when this happens, they sometimes become damaged due to everyday wear and tear, especially if they are getting moved around. When this happens, data won’t be sent as efficiently. Even undamaged Ethernet cables can cause packet loss if they are not connected properly.
Other hardware-based issues that cause packet loss include overutilized devices or outdated hardware. As companies expand, sometimes hardware upgrades are neglected. Older equipment may be designed for lower bandwidth needs but grandfathered into newer networking setups. This can include devices like the previously mentioned routers, firewalls, or network switches. In many situations, a duplex mismatch can cause significant network issues since two devices working in different duplex modes will experience reduced network efficiency and experience bottlenecks.
How to Fix Packet Loss Caused by Hardware Problems
- Frequently upgrade hardware
- Perform regular hardware audits to determine if there are any underperforming components
- Check the jackets of your Ethernet cables to determine if there is any damage
- Inspect the connections for any networking wire to determine if everything is seated properly
- Select shielded category 5e and above Ethernet cables that resist wear and support gigabit speeds
Any on-site user may start to eat up bandwidth during certain times of the day. This is why you need higher internet speeds to support VoIP. When congestion becomes an issue, sometimes packet loss will occur. This is because the packets sent out may become lost in the stream as the entire office uses bandwidth. While this isn’t a loss that will happen throughout the day, it can definitely affect how your business communicates during busy periods.
How to Fix Packet Loss Caused by Bandwidth Issues
- If bandwidth congestion is consistent, consider upgrading to a higher speed network
- Initiate VoIP calls and UC processes during times of lower network congestion
- Seek out a business-class router that prioritizes VoIP calling
- Utilize a network performance monitor to determine when network traffic is hit the hardest
Not sure how to determine if your connection has enough bandwidth for VoIP? Check out our VoIP speed test so that you can test your connection.
Similar to hardware issues you might experience, software is also a potential cause of packet loss. Bugs in business software can easily cause issues in your network. Because of the way software integrates with your hardware, the nature of bugs can cascade down the chain in very unexpected ways.
How to Fix Packet Loss Caused by Software Bottlenecks
- Frequently update software
- Upgrade to new, alternative software with fewer bugs
- Try rebooting hardware or software that is experiencing slowdowns
Weak Wi-Fi Signals
While Wi-Fi is exceedingly convenient, especially as employees switch to more mobile-oriented devices like laptops and smartphones, it does have its weakness. Wi-Fi is radio-based, and radio signals can easily experience interference.
As anyone who’s heard radio frequency interference on speakers or other devices can attest, it’s fairly easy to muddy up a radio signal, which is why Wi-Fi signals tend to experience packet loss. If your office has multiple devices utilizing 2.4GHz frequency, including VoIP-friendly devices like Bluetooth headsets, the frequency will get bogged down.
In addition to interference caused by other devices around the office, factors like thicker walls (common in older buildings) can also hamper your connection. When the packets generated by VoIP encounter these interruptions, loss occurs. Also, signal strength decreases with distance, so employees working farther from the router tend to experience more packet loss during VoIP and UC calling.
How to Fix Packet Loss Caused by Weak Wi-Fi Signals
- Use wired internet when able or available
- Upgrade your Wi-Fi to Wi-Fi 6, or use a 5G connection
- Reduce the number of obstructions in the facility so the signal has fewer potential interruptions
- Reset the routers from time to time to help clear any issues
- Add additional Wi-Fi routers or range extenders to increase the active range of your wireless networking signal
- Consider using a Wi-Fi analyzer to determine if your Wi-Fi settings are causing packet loss
Not every instance of packet loss is a result of faulty hardware, software, or signal quality. Sometimes packet loss is caused by unscrupulous people trying to hamper your connection speed.
As mentioned previously, packet loss can lead to DDoS attacks, and packet drop attacks have become more prevalent in recent times. This type of attack has the cybercriminal gaining access to your router and having it drop packets, which then provides a means for the hacker to infiltrate your data streams through low-priority backdoors.
How to Fix Packet Loss Caused by a Network Attack
- Utilize an access list (ACL) to block IP addresses from outside the organization
- Bolster security and upgrade hardware that might have inherent vulnerabilities
- Upgrade and update your software regularly
Despite any fix you might apply, it’s essential to understand that some packet loss is inevitable with VoIP and UCaaS systems. As a general rule, most consider a loss rate of 1% to 2% to be within the norm. At these low levels, you won’t experience much in sound quality degradation, and there shouldn’t be enough vulnerability for a hacker to use as a backdoor.
Still, if you’re experiencing significant packet loss and poor VoIP call quality, you must remedy the situation so that customers will be confident in your brand quality. As we mentioned in our guide on how to set up your VoIP system, aspects of your communications stack, like network reliability and hardware configuration, are integral. With due diligence and a smart setup, you should have no problem with reduced call quality due to packet loss.