Understanding Broadband Internet Speeds

Learn what determines internet speed and how to test your connection

Physical access to broadband is the most important factor in gaining access to the internet. However, broadband is delivered using different technologies, and the type of technology determines the range of speeds delivered to your computer. Other factors determine the speed of a connection, and all affect how quickly you access information, download files, or receive email messages.

Speed Equals Quality

Ethernet Cable
Jill Ferry Photography / Getty Images

The speed of your connection determines the quality of the video you watch and the audio you listen to. You'll experience delays when downloading files, watching movies, and listening to music over a slow internet connection.

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

Depending on the application, ​the speed of your connection determines whether it's possible to run the application effectively. A movie is not enjoyable if it stops playing every few minutes. You should know how fast a connection is needed 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 travels. Speed refers to the rate at which the data travels.

Using this definition, a larger bandwidth permits more data to travel, which also increases 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, when you transfer a file at 128 Kbps (kilobits per second), then transfer another file at the same time, the files compete for bandwidth and slow down the speed. If you increase the bandwidth by adding a second 128 Kbps ISDN line, both files transfer at 128 Kbps without a decrease in speed.

Broadband Providers and Advertised Speeds

For these reasons, broadband providers advertise speeds in ranges, not in guaranteed numbers. This makes it difficult to estimate how fast a 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 travel 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 actual speed could be lower.

Upload Vs. Download Speed

The only difference between uploading and downloading data is the direction of the data transfer. The faster the internet connection speed, the faster the uploading and downloading capability.

Upload and download speeds are easiest to measure when symmetrical (that is, when download and upload speeds are equal).

While broadband providers often emphasize download speeds, upload speeds are also an important consideration. This is particularly true for businesses that upload data to cloud-based services.

Download speeds are usually faster than upload speeds because most internet users retrieve data from the internet rather than transmit data and files to the internet. If you upload large files or other information, look for faster upload speeds. Many providers offer 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. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, this was the highest level of speed available. 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?

To determine the speed required to run an application, read the technical specifications or search a website. For example, streaming service Netflix recommends speeds from 1.5 Mbps to 12 Mbps, depending on whether you want standard quality, DVD, HD, or super HD quality. With this information, look for a broadband provider that delivers this speed.

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 the primary broadband goals of this plan is 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 is different from the speed your provider advertises, the FCC offers tips and a testing platform to help you determine your actual connection speed.

Another option is to use an online speed test, and several are available for free. There may 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 relatively accurate results in a minute or so.

If your connection seems slow or doesn't test to the standards your service claims to provide, call the company and share your speed results. Equipment may play a factor as well. A slow wireless router or computer can slow down an internet connection.