For most heavy internet users, myself included, there is an insistence on having the fastest possible broadband speed. I find myself annoyed that gigabit fiber isn’t yet in my area and that I can get ‘only 56Mbps’ download speed. Do we really need to be so obsessed with speed? How fast is superfast? What internet speed do you actually need to do what you need to do online?
How is broadband speed measured?
First let us cover a couple of basics. How is broadband speed measured and how does a connection work? Internet speed is normally measured in megabits per second (Mbps). The measure is pretty self-explanatory. It measure how many megabytes of data your connection can download per second.
Be aware though that many broadband packages make good use of the term ‘up to’. Originally intended to allow for latency and technological limitations, it is often also used to explain contention, which is too much traffic on a single line at once. So you may be paying for 150Mbps cable but you could get significantly less than that.
What exactly is a connection and how does it work?
An internet connection joins your property to the internet. It helps to think of our road system as an analogy. Your driveway is your personal connection. It joins you to the residential street where you live. This is the local hub connection. As you join a larger route, this is your internet connection joining the provider fiber network. If you then drive onto a highway, this is the internet backbone.
So much like a commute to work, your internet connection is made up of a single line from your property, which joins other lines in your block. These are all then combined into a single or multiple fiber and then join the main provider network. This then joins to the internet backbone which is the ‘information superhighway’.
What influences connection speed?
Connection speed is influenced by the type of connection you have, your provider, the weather, time of day and traffic. If you use ADSL or other type of non-cable or fiber connection, the distance you are from your local telephone exchange will also influence your achievable speed. The further you are away from the exchange, the weaker the signal and the slower the connection.
Cable and fiber connections do not suffer the same fate. Neither do they suffer contention. Contention is the technical term for too much traffic on the network. The same as too many cars on the freeway slows your journey, too much traffic on the network slows your internet. Providers should make every effort to increase bandwidth to stop this but it isn’t always possible.
So how much speed do you actually need?
The internet speed do you actually need depends on how you use the internet. Light users will obviously need less than heavy users. Here are a few examples of the kind of speeds you need to do certain things.
- SD video streaming uses 1.5Mbps on average.
- HD video streaming uses 5Mbps on average.
- UHD video streaming uses 15-25Mbps.
- Twitch streaming requires 2.8Mbps for 720p or 3.5Mbps for 1080p uploads.
- Facetime or Skype with video requires 1.5Mbps up and down.
- Multiplayer gaming needs as much as you can get.
It isn’t all about the speed
Internet speed is just the headline grabber. It isn’t the only thing you need to look for in your package. You also need to look at
- Packet loss
Latency is delay, also known as lag. In the freeway analogy I used above, the delay in the journey is called lag and is usually caused by the amount of traffic on a connection. It can also be caused by low quality connections, equipment faults and other ongoing issues within your provider’s network.
Latency is measured in milliseconds. When looking at broadband providers, the lower the number in ms, the better.
Jitter is actually a technical term that describes a slight variance in timing between your modem and the network. Any variation over a certain threshold will cause instability and packet loss. Most networks buffer against this which has a slight impact on latency but prevents connection loss.
Not all network publish their jitter rates but if they do, lower is better.
All internet traffic is broken down into tiny pieces called packets. They are divided on your computer, sent to where they need to go one at a time and rebuilt at the other end. Packet loss is where a percentage of these packets are dropped or lost on the way. For things like browsing or streaming Netflix, packet loss isn’t too much of an issue. If you’re gaming, it is.
Packet loss can be caused by network issues, latency and contention and is usually shown as a percentage. Lower is better.
As you can imagine, if your internet connection keeps dropping, it doesn’t matter what speed it can achieve, it just won’t work. Reliability is essential for all internet activities. Reliability can be impacted by latency, jitter, packet loss and contention as well as network issues, equipment failures and old modems.
Reliability is usually described as a percentage as in ‘up to 99.9% uptime’. Here higher is better.
I have mentioned contention a few times here, so what exactly does it mean? Contention describes the volume of traffic on a particular connection. Network providers are only supposed to put a finite amount of people on a single connection but as we know, it doesn’t always work out that way in practice. The more people using the connection at once, the slower your internet is going to be.
Using the road analogy, you can easily imagine that the more cars on a single road at once will get to their destination much slower than if they had their own road or lane in a larger road.
If a network provider lists contention ratios, smaller is better.
As you can see, there is more to a broadband connection than the headline internet speeds. There is a lot more to consider when you’re shopping for a new provider. At least now, you have a much better idea of what to look for!