Understanding Broadband Internet Speeds

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Physical access to broadband is the most important factor in gaining access to the internet. However, broadband is delivered via different technologies, and the type of technology determines the range of speeds delivered to your computer.

Many other factors determine the speed of your connection as well, and all of them affect how quickly you can access information, download files, or receive email.

Speed Equals Quality

The speed of your connection also determines the quality of the video you watch or the audio you listen to. Everyone has experienced frustrating delays waiting for a movie or song to download or watching a movie that stutters and skips on your monitor.

In the worst scenario, you get the dreaded buffering message. Buffering means your connection cannot handle the speed at which the video is being sent to your computer screen. The data collects momentarily before playback continues. It's similar to how your printer collects data you send from your computer before it starts to print.

Depending on which application you are using, ​the speed of your connection often determines whether it is possible to run the application effectively. A movie is not enjoyable if it stops playing every few minutes. You need to know how fast a connection is necessary to perform specific tasks and run certain programs.

Bandwidth Vs. Speed

There are two factors to consider when measuring speed. Bandwidth refers to the size of the conduit in which the data is traveling. Speed refers to the rate at which the data is traveling.

Using that definition, you can see that a larger bandwidth permits more data to travel, which also increase the rate at which it travels. However, this does not necessarily mean that the speed of your broadband connection is the same as your bandwidth. Bandwidth simply refers to the size of the "pipe" in which data travels.

For example, let's say you're transferring a file at 128 Kbps (kilobits per second). If you start to transfer another file at the same time, it competes for bandwidth and slows down the speed. If you increase your bandwidth by adding another 128 Kbps ISDN line, the first file still travels at 128 Kbps, but now you can transfer both files at 128 Kbps without sacrificing speed.

An analogy is a highway with a 65 mph speed limit. When additional lanes are added to handle more vehicles, the speed limit is still 65 mph.

Broadband Providers and Advertised Speeds

For these reasons, broadband providers advertise speeds in ranges, not guaranteed numbers. This makes it difficult to estimate how fast a specific connection is expected to be.

Providers know they can supply a certain amount of bandwidth to handle specific amounts of data. They do not know precisely when this data will be traveling or when demands will be placed on the network.

Instead of promising speeds that are impossible to maintain continuously, they offer speeds that fall within ranges. For example, one major broadband provider offers broadband internet packages in the following speed ranges indicated as download and upload speeds. Typically, download is the faster speed:

  • 15 Mbps / 5 Mbps
  • 50 Mbps / 25 Mbps
  • 75 Mbps / 35 Mbps

Your connection speed should fall within the ranges listed for the packages offered. The bandwidth for these offerings should not be less than the maximum speed listed.

For example, you cannot have speeds of more than 15 Mbps (megabits per second) with a bandwidth of 15 Mbps. Some providers offer up to a certain speed. In these cases, the "up to" speed is the bandwidth, which means that the speed you experience could be much lower.

Upload Vs. Download Speed

In essence, there is no difference between uploading and downloading data aside from the direction of the data transfer. The faster your internet connection speed, the faster your uploading and downloading capability is.

Upload and download speeds are most easily measured when they are symmetrical meaning that download and upload speeds are equal. 

While broadband providers often emphasize download speeds, upload speeds are also an important consideration. This is particularly true if your business depends on uploading large amounts of data to cloud-based services.

Download speeds are usually much faster than upload speeds because most internet users retrieve data from the internet rather than transmitting data and files to the internet. If you are a user who uploads large files or other information, you should look for faster upload speeds. Many providers can provide higher upload speeds by lowering download speeds while maintaining the same broadband plan. 

Megabits and Gigabits

The smallest unit of digital data is a bit. ​A byte is equal to 8 bits, and a thousand bytes is a kilobyte. Several years ago, this was the highest level of speed you would need to know. Typical dial-up connections were no more than 56 Kbps.

Broadband speed is typically measured in megabits per second. One megabit is equal to 1,000 kilobits, and it is commonly stated as Mbps. Speed requirements are rapidly increasing, with gigabit speeds (Gbps) quickly becoming the new standard for economic development and institutional use.

Which Technology Is Best?

You can determine the speed you need to run the applications you want by reading the technical specifications or searching a website. For example, streaming service Netflix recommends speeds ranging from 1.5 Mbps to 12 Mbps, depending on whether you want standard quality, DVD, HD, or super HD quality. With this information in hand, you can seek a broadband provider that delivers the speed you need.

Broadband is a high-speed internet connection that is always on. Dial-up access, on the other hand, requires a modem to initiate a 56 Kbps connection to the internet.

The Federal Communications Commission raised the minimum speed of broadband to 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream. This is the new standard for a minimum broadband connection. However, this is inadequate for many applications, (including streaming video services such as Netflix).

The FCC outlined an ambitious goal in the National Broadband Plan with regard to broadband speeds. One of President Obama's primary broadband goals was to connect 100 million people to 100 Mbps speeds by 2020.

Broadband Technology and Speeds

Broadband Technology Download Speed Range Connection
Dial-up Up to 56 Kbps Phone Line
DSL 768 Kbps – 6 Mbps Phone Line
Satellite 400 Kbps – 2 Mbps Wireless Satellite
3G 50 Kbps – 1.5 Mbps Wireless
Cable Modem 1 Mbps – 1 Gbps Coaxial Cable
WiMax up to 128 Mbps Wireless
Fiber up to 1 Gbps Fiber optics
4G / LTE up to 12 Mbps Mobile Wireless

How to Test Your Connection Speed

If the speed of your connection may be different from the speed your provider advertises, how do you know what you're getting? The FCC offers tips and a testing platform to help you determine if you're getting the speed you're paying for.

Another option is to use an online speed test, and several are available for free. There may even be one specific to your internet provider if you use one of the larger companies. One non-ISP site to check out is speedof.me. It's easy to use and gives you relatively accurate results in a minute or so.

If you find that your connection seems slow or that it's not testing to the standards your service should provide, call the company and discuss this. Keep in mind that your equipment may play a factor as well. A slow wireless router or computer can seriously dampen your internet connection.