Guide to Internet Speed

Contents

Faster internet means a better online experience — smoother videos, quicker downloads, and instant online communication.

Movies starting and stopping, poor quality video calls, files taking hours to download — slow internet speeds can cause frustration, wasted time, and even lost working hours.

This guide to internet speed will explore:

  • What internet speed is.
  • Why internet speed matters.
  • How to get the best internet speed.
  • How fast a connection actually needs to be.

Internet speeds continue to increase. Internet Service Providers are now promoting ultra-fast gigabit broadband. But do domestic internet connections really need to be so fast?

Internet Speed Terminology Explained

In order to understand internet speed, it’s necessary to learn about some basic technical concepts.

What are Bits and Bytes?

Internet speed is typically measured in bits — megabits per second (Mbps), or sometimes kilobits or gigabits per second.

Mbps is a way to express how much information moves through a communication link — such as a telephone line or fiber-optic cable — each second.

Faster internet connections have a higher Mbps, meaning that they can transmit more data in a shorter time.

Bits are not to be confused with “bytes.” Bytes are a different unit of data — often expressed as kilobytes, megabytes, or gigabytes.

So what’s the difference?

  • A bit (b) is a basic unit of information. The word “bit” comes from “binary digit” — so effectively a bit is either a “one” or a “zero” in binary code.
  • A byte (B) is a collection of bits. A byte is usually eight bits because eight bits make up a single character of text (such as a letter or number).

Typically, bits measure the speed of transmitted information, and bytes measure the quantity of stored information (for example, the amount of data a hard drive can store).

We measure internet speed in bits because the internet delivers information one bit at a time — often from many different locations. Information doesn’t travel organized in bytes. But a hard drive does organize and store information in readable bytes.

So remember: in this context, we use bits for speed and bytes for size.

Occasionally, internet companies give their speeds in “megabytes per second” (MBps — note the upper case “B”). Web browsers might also display download speeds in megabytes per second. Megabytes per second (MBps) is simply megabits per second (Mbps) times eight.

What Are Kilobits, Megabits, and Gigabits?

In the early days of computing, it was practical to refer to single bits and bytes. Information moved very slowly, and we couldn’t store very much of it.

Nowadays, it’s much more common to refer to large quantities of bits and bytes. We do this by using prefixes:

  • Kilobit (Kb) — One thousand (1,000) bits
  • Megabit (Mb) — One million (1,000,000) bits
  • Gigabit (Gb) — One billion (1,000,000,000) bits

The same applies to bytes: 1 gigabyte (GB) of hard drive space can store 1 billion bytes. But it’s actually a little more complicated in the context of bytes because Microsoft uses a different system whereby a gigabyte is 1,073,741,824 bytes.

What Is Download Speed, Upload Speed, and Ping?

Download speed, upload speed, and ping are the three ways of measuring internet speed.

  • Download speed measures how fast a device receives data from the internet, e.g., how quickly it can load a website, download a file, or stream a video.
  • Upload speed measures how fast a device sends data to the internet, e.g., how quickly it can upload a file to cloud storage, send communication over Skype, or attach a photo to an email.
  • Ping measures how long it takes for a message to reach a recipient and return to the sender (also called latency or lag). Ping is measured in milliseconds (ms).

What Is Bandwidth?

Bandwidth is a way to express the maximum amount of data that a connection can transmit in a given amount of time. Bandwidth is a different concept from Internet speed.

Think of bandwidth like a speed limit. Just as cars can’t travel at over 70 mph on a road with a 70 mph speed limit, information can’t travel at more than 70 Mbps on a connection with a 70 Mbps bandwidth.

However, this is not to say that the Internet speed will typically be 70 Mbps on a connection with 70 Mbps. If there’s a lot of traffic — for example, if more than one person is streaming a video — the speed will be slower. In fact, many factors can slow down internet speeds.

Internet speed is a user’s allocation of bandwidth. This means either in general (when an ISP provides the user with a 35 Mbps broadband connection) or at a specific moment (when the user tests their internet speed).

What Is Broadband?

The term “broadband” generally refers to high-speed internet.

Here’s how the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) describes broadband:

The term broadband commonly refers to high-speed Internet access that is always on and faster than the traditional dial-up access.

The FCC states that a connection described as “broadband” must provide a minimum speed of 25 Mbps for downloads and 4 Mbps uploads.

Internet Speed Guide

Internet speeds are millions of times faster than they once were, and are getting faster all the time.

In 1998, Jakob Nielsen formulated “Nielsen’s Law.” This law determines that a high-end consumer’s internet speed will increase by around 50% every year.

Nielsen’s Law has proven to be remarkably accurate. From as far back as 1983, all the way up until 2019, top internet speeds really do seem to get around 50% faster each year.

What Is Considered a Fast Internet Speed?

What is considered a fast internet speed is relative — it depends on the average rate in the location in question.

However, gigabit broadband (fiber-optic internet operating at 1 Gbps) is currently considered a very fast internet speed in countries with good communications infrastructure, such as the US.

According to Ookla, the average download speed globally was 69.10 Mbps in September 2019.

Here are some other average internet speeds as of September 2019:

  • The average download speed in the US is around 124.39 Mbps (8th fastest in the world).
  • The average download speed in the UK is around 63.58 Mbps (41st fastest in the world).
  • Singapore boasts the world’s fastest average download speed, at around 196.88 Mbps.
  • Turkmenistan is estimated to have the world’s slowest average download speed at 2.19 Mbps.

Why Are Download Speeds Higher Than Upload Speeds?

Download speeds are almost always higher than upload speeds. 

Download speeds are higher because most internet activities involve downloading information. Downloading is more common than uploading, so ISPs dedicate more bandwidth to downloading. 

Uploading files to the cloud, while still common, does not need to be so quick.

What Is the Fastest Type of Internet Connection?

The fastest type of internet connection is fiber-optic broadband. It transmits information through fiber-optic cables. Fiber-optic internet can achieve speeds of up to 10 Gbps. The highest rates available to consumers are currently around 1 or 2 Gbps.

Some other types of internet connection can also offer relatively fast speeds.

  • Satellite — Satellite internet involves beaming information to the user’s router from a satellite. Satellite internet is often suitable for rural areas that don’t have access to other connections. Satellite internet can achieve speeds of up to 100 Mbps, but rates of 10-30 Mbps are more common.
  • DSL — Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) internet transmits information through copper wire.  DSL connections are strongly affected by interference and congestion. There are many types of DSL line, and they can vary in speed from 8-52 Mpbs. A form of DSL connection called VDSL2 can even reach 100 Mbps.
  • Wireless Broadband — “Fixed” wireless broadband sends information via radio signals. Wireless broadband can, in theory, be extremely fast — even up to 1 Gbps. However, it loses considerable speed over distance and when obstructed by buildings. This results in average speeds of around 4-11 Mbps for most users.

What Factors Can Slow Down Internet Speed?

A connection advertised at “up to 80 Mbps” is capable of downloading data at a speed of 80 Mbps or 20 MBps (megabytes per second). However, internet users will find that their internet connection rarely operates at maximum speed.

There are several reasons that an internet connection might not reach maximum speed. Most of these are less relevant to fiber-optic connections, and more relevant to less reliable connections such as DSL and satellite.

Some examples of factors that can slow down Internet speed include:

    • There is a high contention ratio. “Contention ratio” refers to the number of people sharing a connection. This doesn’t only apply within a shared household, but can also apply to the people on a street or city block.
    • It’s peak time. At certain times of day (typically early evenings), many people often access the internet at once. This can raise the contention ratio and slow down internet speeds.
    • The user is far away from the internet exchange. Further away from the Internet Service Provider’s equipment, an internet signal can become weaker.
  • The user has old, improperly-configured, or damaged equipment. Keeping up with high internet speeds requires a modern router and a strong Wi-Fi signal. Buying new equipment and ensuring it is properly configured can improve internet speeds. 
  • The Internet Service Provider is “throttling” the connection. Internet companies can ration bandwidth by purposefully slowing down specific traffic. This might happen when a user hits a download limit, or when the user is engaged in certain activities such as sharing torrent files.

Due to these factors, consumers sometimes feel exploited by ISPs who advertise faster speeds than they ultimately deliver.

How Can I Do an Internet Speed Test?

Regularly testing internet speed holds Internet Service Providers to their promises. 

There are many free internet speed tests available. Ookla’s is popular — it reveals download speed, upload speed, and ping rate.

Internet speed tests are straightforward to use. When considering the results, remember the factors that can affect your internet speed.

What Internet Speed Do I Need?

It might be tempting to demand the highest possible internet speed available.

However, internet speed comes at a price. Costs vary considerably depending on the type of connection and the maximum speed. Consumers should carefully consider how much bandwidth they actually need.

Knowing which broadband package to choose depends on several factors, including:

  • Whether the user is a household or a business.
  • How many people need to use the connection.
  • What the connection will be used for.

Ookla has produced some research indicating what internet speeds are required to perform certain activities online:

  • Email — less than 2 Mbps
  • Social media — less than 2 Mbps
  • Streaming audio — less than 2 Mbps
  • Video calls (e.g., via Skype) — 2 Mbps
  • Streaming 720p HD video — 4 Mbps
  • Streaming 1080p HD video — 6-10 Mbps
  • Streaming 4k HD video — 25 Mbps

To put this in context — it’s possible to watch Netflix in SD resolution (which would only require around 3 Mbps) or 4k HD resolution (which would require a speed of 25 Mbps).

Remember that bandwidth is shared — so two people in a household, both streaming 4k HD video, would require an internet speed of at least 50 Mbps.

What Internet Speed Do Light Internet Users Need?

Some people only use the internet for activities that require minimal internet speed. 

Typical light internet users:

  • Live in households of only 1-2 people.
  • Use the internet only for low-bandwidth activities like online shopping, social media, or email.
  • Don’t stream HD videos.
  • Don’t regularly download or upload large files.

Light internet users can accept an internet speed of around 10 Mbps. Any faster than this is likely to be unnecessary.

What Internet Speed Does a Family With Young Children Need?

Families of 3 or more people with young children might regularly use the internet for online entertainment. 

A family with young children might have some of these characteristics:

  • They regularly stream video from an online service (e.g., Netflix or Youtube) on one device.
  • They occasionally use the internet on two devices at once (e.g., one family member shopping online while another streams video).
  • They don’t regularly upload large files.

A family with young children such as this could accept an Internet speed of 25 Mbps. This would allow them to stream HD videos on one device comfortably (e.g., a smart TV).

What Internet Speed Does a Family With Older Children Need?

Families of 3 or more people with older children — where everybody uses the internet independently — might need to consider a faster broadband speed.

A family with older children might have some of these characteristics:

  • They regularly stream HD video across multiple devices at once (e.g., one family member watching a smart TV, one watching on a mobile device, another on a laptop).
  • They sometimes use the internet for several different bandwidth-heavy activities at once (e.g., one family member playing an online game, another streaming video, and another downloading media).

A family with older children such as this might require an internet speed of 50-70 Mbps.

What Internet Speed Do Gamers Need?

Having a fast and reliable internet connection can be important for online gaming. Although playing online games isn’t necessarily very bandwidth-hungry, gamers may see some competitive benefit from paying for higher internet speeds.

For online gaming on Xbox Live, Microsoft recommends some relatively low minimum speeds:

  • Download speed — 3 Mbps
  • Upload speed — 0.5 Mbps
  • Ping — Under 150 ms

However, the more bandwidth is available, the smoother an online gaming experience will be.

Households with multiple gamers (e.g., student households) will want to consider a high-speed internet connection. This is because gamers often need to download games to play them. Downloading games requires a lot of bandwidth.

Gamers living in shared households should consider a high-speed fiber-optic broadband connection of over 100 Mbps.

What Internet Speed Does a Business Need?

Time is money, and a fast internet connection is a worthwhile investment for virtually any business. 

The necessary speed for a business depends on the nature of N its operation. But businesses should always consider spending more on a fast internet connection — even if they primarily engage only in bandwidth-light activities.

For example, using an online point-of-sale such as PayPal’s iZettle only consumes a few kilobits of data per transaction. But if the connection to a point-of-sale terminal is slow or unreliable, this can lead to lost sales and sales and reputational damage.

Some types of business are very bandwidth-hungry, such as call centers that use internet-based telecommunications or IT businesses that upload large amounts of data.

Businesses should usually consider paying for the fastest and most reliable internet they can afford.