Bandwidth is one of the critical factors to consider when choosing a broadband service. This is precisely why in addition to price, all internet service providers, or ISPs, quote their download and upload speeds when they market their services.
Moreover, the recent Digital Britain report by the government has made discussions over bandwidth a chief concern. However, some in the general public have trouble discerning all the terminology associated with ISPs and bandwidth.
The following guide provides information to help consumers make more informed decisions regarding their internet service provider.
The Difference Between a Megabit and a Megabyte
Most computer users deal with files in terms of megabytes. The use of the term is so ubiquitous that when an ISP quotes their speeds using the abbreviation Mbps, many assume this translates to megabytes per second. However, broadband speeds are actually measured in megabits per second, as indicated by the lower case Mb as opposed to MB. In terms of data, 1 megabyte (MB) is equal to 8 megabits (Mb).
Therefore an ISP that promises a bandwidth of 24 Mbps can theoretically download a 3 MB file in one second. This is an important distinction to consider as most downloads are measured in MB.
Similarly, there are 8 kilobits (Kb) in every kilobyte (KB). As bandwidth speeds listed in kilobits are also quite common, consumers should be wary of the difference between the two.
- 1 MB (megabyte) = 8 Mb (megabits)
- 1 KB (kilobyte) = 8 Kb (kilobits)
- 1024 Kb (kilobits) = 1 Mb (megabit)
- 1024 KB (kilobytes) = 1 MB (Megabyte)
Internet Speeds Explained
The download speed indicates the pace at which data, whether it be programmes, websites, or streaming movies, is ingested by your computer. At the moment, broadband speeds are sold at anywhere between 8Mb to 50Mb plans, depending on the type of connection and service. This figure is expected to rise dramatically over the course of the next decade, with speeds of up to 200Mb possible within the UK.
However, for most individuals, faster download speeds are irrelevant given their use. For casual internet and email users, the slowest broadband packages will more than suffice. On the other hand, for those who download large files and stream standard resolution video, a more suitable speed is required. Lastly, those who want to stream high definition video or games typically need to subscribe to the fastest bandwidth tier provided.
While in theory a 25 Mbps connection is capable enough to stream a video in 720p, all ISPs advertise their download speeds at optimum conditions, and consumers who experience lag during peak hours should consider upgrading their service.
Upload Speeds Explained
The upload speed indicates the rate at which data is sent to the internet or another computer. Whenever an individual uploads a photo to their Facebook page, or a video onto Youtube, the speed at which this data is sent is determined by your ISP’s upload speed. As uploading is a less critical aspect of the internet experience, ISPs tend to give far less priority to uploading as opposed to downloading.
Typically upload speeds are only important to individuals whose computers serve as a remote server or users who play high resolution games online. For these consumers, choosing a broadband package that offers higher upload speeds should be paramount. Currently, providers such as O2 and Be offer higher tier packages that promise upload speeds of up to 2.5 Mbps, although like download speeds, that may fluctuate depending on a variety of external factors.
Advertised Speeds Versus Actual Speed
As stated earlier, consumers should note that all advertised speeds reflect the speed under optimum conditions. Realistically, a variety of factors may influence the actual speed you receive. For instance, the distance from your ISP can severely impact your bandwidth. Old wiring in the home may also bottleneck your data, as well as an outdated router or modem.
Some of these factors may be more or less critical depending on the type of service you subscribe to. For example, an ADSL connection might be significantly impacted by the distance to the server, while a cable modem connection will see little to no effect.
However, as a cable modem connection is shared by a number of users in the same region, broadband speeds will oscillate throughout the day, while ADSL speeds tend to remain more constant. By the same token, those in the city may have access to higher quality broadband, but also must share their connection with more users.
Other ISPs will deliberately hinder the bandwidth of high data consumers during busy hours. This practice, known as ‘traffic shaping,’ is meant to ensure that a few individuals do not consume all the available bandwidth. Some who engage in extensive file sharing may even experience drops during the day.
How To Test Your Internet Connection Speed
With so many extraneous factors affecting broadband speed, you may be curious how your current connection fares. There are a number of broadband speed testing sites available which can give you an approximation of your download and upload speeds.
However, it is important to keep in mind that these speeds represent your current output, and it is a good idea to run the test at different times of the day and different days of the week to get an overall outlook on the quality of your ISP. Also, be sure to verify you have closed any other applications that may consume data and diminish the accuracy of your test.