Using data (internet, mobile, etc.) is all about speed.
How fast can we get it?
How quickly can we read, watch, or listen?
How soon can we find something else?
Nowadays, this gathering and consumption of information demand a fast internet.
Many of us, however, don’t really know how fast our internet should be. We often take for granted that it just works, and fail to give any thought to two critical questions:
- Do I have all of the internet speed I need?
- Is my internet running at the speed it’s advertised?
Let’s review what exactly is involved with internet speed so can make informed decisions on how to manage it and get what you’re paying for through your Internet Service Provider (ISP).
Testing Your Internet Speed
To know if your speed is good, bad, or indifferent requires figuring out just how fast it really is.
This aspect is simple enough, with numerous online services offering a free test of your internet’s performance at the click of a button. The two we recommend are:
Speedtest.net for something simple and straightforward.
Speedof.me if you like a bit more visual razzle-dazzle with your speed tests.
Downloading and Uploading
When your test is complete, you’re left with two numbers, one big and one small.
These are your download (the larger number) and upload (the smaller number) rates.
The more important of the two is the download number. It’s what all ISPs use to advertise the worth of their internet service and for good reason.
The vast majority of activity from the average internet user comes from downloading content.
Downloading is the transfer of data and information from the internet to whatever device you’re using.
From images to songs to video clips to TV show and movies, we are a people who love to download all manner of content. And there’s a lot of us doing it.
Just consider that at the end of 2017 there were close to 3.5 billion internet users worldwide, with 312 million of those in the US alone. For perspective, the world and US populations as of August 2018 were 7.5 billion and 328 million, respectively.
So yes, there is a lot of us downloading and devouring a ton of content.
Uploading, on the other hand, reverses course and involves a user adding content to the internet. Typically this includes the less frequent tasks of sending email or posting items to the internet via Facebook posts, YouTube videos, or Twitter tweets.
Uploads also involve the request or ping your machine or device makes to initiate the download of a web page, song, or movie.
Even considering the massive amount of users we noted uploading material through social media and other means, those numbers still pale in comparison to what we download.
Internet Speed and Bandwidth
So the internet is a lot of downloading, with some uploading thrown in for good measure. How exactly does that translate to internet speed?
First, it’s important to understand some terminology:
- Internet Speed: This is how fast all of that data and information we download and upload gets transferred either to us or from us.
- Bandwidth: Bandwidth is the capacity or maximum rate at which a particular network or internet connection can transfer data from its source to its destination.
In other words, bandwidth is not speed, it’s capacity.
To further define those download and upload numbers from our speed test, here are a few abbreviations to know:
- Mb – Megabits (for speed considerations, the added abbreviation “ps” means per second)
- MB – Megabytes (8 Mb = 1 MB)
- GB – Gigabytes (1000 MB = 1 GB)
So putting this all together, when an ISP advertises an internet speed of 20 Mbps, what they’re really saying is that is the top rate at which data can transfer from a source on the internet to your device.
An easy way to translate this is to think of a pipe.
A pipe (your bandwidth) with a 1 Mb diameter equals a transfer rate of 1 Mbps. If you download a file that is 10 Mb through that 1 Mb pipe, it will take approximately 10 seconds to do so.
So let’s increase that pipe size to 10 Mb in diameter and a new rate of 10 Mbps. The new download time for that same 10 Mb file is 1 second.
The more bandwidth you possess, the higher your data transfer rate and the faster your content will reach you.
There are numerous ways to transfer data over from the internet to your chosen device, and all are not equal in terms of speed and efficiency.
Remarkably still alive and kicking in extreme instances, dial-up was the original (and painfully slow) method most people used to find their way onto the internet. Soon enough, this technology will pass into history similar to the VCR, Walkman, and 8-track player.
Digital Subscriber Line
Commonly known as DSL, this connection technology works over lines similar to that used with telephones, but due to a few differences in the wiring, it’s considerably faster than dial-up and can reach broadband speeds (25 Mbps download / 3 Mbps upload). This service is the slowest but also cheapest of the most commonly used current day connection types.
Arguably, the most popular method of internet connection, cable-based internet reaches download speeds topping out at 500 Mbps. Pricing for most plans isn’t exuberant but is usually bundled with cable TV service (although that is changing). While fast at off-peak times, service can drag during high usage periods with the sharing of bandwidth.
Expensive but incredibly fast, fiber connections are the most up to date technology for connecting to the internet. Speed can run from 250 to 1000 Mbps, with download and upload rates being equal. Though it is costlier and less commonplace (currently, only about a fourth of the US has access to it), it’s a no-brainer to subscribe if it’s available in your area.
The Need for Speed
Now that you know the specifics, just how much internet speed do you need?
The answer to that question comes down to how you plan to use the internet.
As we explained in our pipe example, the size of a file makes a difference in your download speed, and your requirements will depend on the type of content you most commonly use.
It also matters how many people will be using the connection, what they’re using it for, and what else connects to your internet.
To give you an idea of typical transfer rates and speed, a 4 to 5-minute song (about 5 MB) can take 40 seconds to download at a speed of 1 Mbps. At 20 Mbps, the same song would download in 2 seconds.
For a larger 2-hour HD movie, which is roughly 3.5 GB, it would be an 8-hour download at the 1Mbps speed, but only 25 minutes with a 20 Mbps speed.
As you can see, the higher the Mbps, the faster your content will download, including the biggest files like tv shows or movies.
Here’s a quick guide that helps you figure out if you can get by with a smaller Mbps plan or require something more robust:
Up to 10 Mbps
This is good for basic browsing such as online shopping, news reading, or general searches. You could also perform light to moderate music streaming with little issue. Perfect for a single user or someone who accesses the internet for only simple tasks.
Up to 25 Mbps
This level typically serves families with 2 to 4 moderate users. Video streaming, social media use, and some gaming can all be done with little impact to download times or quality.
Over 25 Mbps
This varies to some degree, but this is where heavy internet users will need to focus their attention and in some cases may need to go up to 50 Mbps and beyond. Speeds this great help large families navigate multiple devices accessing the internet at the same time while also accommodating a “smart” household that is continually having to access the web.
Impacts To Your Internet Speed
Finally, let’s cover some of the things that can negatively impact your internet speed and a few tips you can follow to improve it.
It’s important to account for outside influences and how they affect performance. Even if your internet plan advertises up to 50 Mbps, note the “up to” portion of that wording. You may not always achieve that number due to various scenarios.
Several of these factors will be beyond your control, but some you can and should address if they arise.
Type of Connection
We’ve already covered this in depth, but it bears repeating to know how you will be connecting to the internet. It plays a huge part in the speed at which you’re able to download content.
Just remember that faster connections come at a higher price point but are also more reliable than cheaper, slower alternatives. Based upon your use of the internet, the extra dollars may be worth it.
Even when using the internet, you are required to share the road (unless of course, you’re fortunate enough to have access to fiber).
Depending on the number of users accessing a network at any given time your speed can suffer. This includes other users within your household.
Much like traffic during morning and afternoon rush hour, peak times for internet usage will bog down your surfing speed. Conversely, if you can push more of your web time to off-peak hours, you can expect a much smoother experience.
Distance to Server
This is the physical distance you are in relation to where your ISP has their server hub or hubs set up (although this is less of an issue with fiber connections).
The more direct the connection, the faster your web experience will be and the fewer hoops or exchanges you’ll need to pass through to grab your content.
Outdated or poorly maintained equipment can also wreak havoc on your internet speeds.
Many of these issues stem from the inability of older technology to process data at today’s faster requirements. Regularly updating your tech will help avoid these slowdowns.
Improper configuration of your equipment (or for that matter, the ISPs equipment) can also create problems with data or information not being sent or received correctly. If you do have newer hardware, your settings should always be the first place to check for any problems.
With our growing reliance on all things smart, such as thermostats, cameras, plugs, light bulbs and appliances, we continue to put a strain on internet levels that once proved adequate.
Depending on how “smart” your home is, always account for devices that may be pulling data, even if it’s a small amount. Over time, it can quickly add up.
Understanding how you use the internet and the options available will ensure you get the most from your online experience.
More than that, it will make you a savvy consumer, allowing you to get the internet you want at the speeds you need and a price with which you’re comfortable.
After all, the internet is at the center of our personal and professional lives.
Why would any anyone want to wait for it?