As consumers, most of us don’t give a second thought to the Internet speed we need until the Internet we have no longer works the way we need it to, or we need to change providers. This guide serves to help you determine your needs based on your usage and how to sift through the technological data to find the right plan from the providers in your area.
Determining Broadband Speed: What is it?
Your broadband speed is measured in megabits-per-second, or Mbps. As each piece of a website is built using files comprised of data bits, the speed is measured by how fast the data files move across the network to and from your computer. Different technologies allow for different speeds. Dial-up Internet using a telephone line moves much slower than a DSL line, which moves slower than a cable line, which moves slower than fiber-to-the-home. The broadband service you get in your home will vary based on the technology type, and service plan you purchase. Each broadband plan actually has two speeds to pay attention to: download and upload. Download speed refers to how fast your computer or other Internet connected device will receive information from the network, and upload speed refers to how fast the device will send information to the network.
How You Use the Internet: What Speed Do You Need?
The Internet speed you need depends on two main factors:
- What you’ll be doing on the Internet: “Light” activities such as simple web browsing and checking email do not require fast Internet speeds. Streaming video on demand, video conferencing, and online gaming will add strain to a standard or low speed plan.
- How many devices will be connected to the Internet: If only one device at a time will be connected to the Internet, then the overall Internet speed won’t matter much. The more devices you have connected to the Internet at a time, the faster the connection will need to be, regardless of what you’re doing online.
With an increasing number of households running more than one computer, a tablet, a smartphone, gaming console, and Internet Ready TVs and blu-ray players to access HD video and gaming content, there is a greater need for faster Internet services. The chart below will help you choose the right speed for you usage.
Checking email, social media, simple web browsing
Light use plus streaming HD video, video conferencing or gaming
Light use plus more than one device simultaneously engaging in moderate use activities
Basic Plan Speeds: 5 to 10 Mbps
Medium Plan Speeds: 10 to 50 Mbps
Advanced Plan Speeds: 50 Mbps or faster
How Much Speed Typical Internet Tasks Require to Function Correctly
The chart below demonstrates the minimum Internet speeds typical tasks will need to function. Use this chart to help gauge the speed you need to get the best Internet experience for your usage.
|Task||Minimum Download Speed (Mbps)|
|Navigating basic websites: job searching, government websites, etc.||1|
|Navigating interactive and feature rich websites, watching short videos||1|
|Listening to live streaming radio||1-3|
|Making phone calls with Skype or other VoIP telephone service||2-5|
|Streaming standard video (YouTube or similar service)||2-10|
|Streaming feature movies (Netflix or similar service)||2-5 constant stream|
|Streaming HD feature movies or video lectures||4|
|Basic video conferencing||2|
|HD video conference and online learning||4|
|Connecting console to the Internet to access online content||3-20|
|HD Two-way gaming||5-20|
Beyond Download Speed: Looking at the Plan as a Whole
While download speed is an important part of any broadband plan, there are at least three other factors to consider when shopping for a new plan, whether you are changing to a new service provider or not. To ensure you’re getting the best possible plan, also take a look at:
- Upload Speed: Upload speed refers to the speed at which you can send information from your computer (or other device connected to the Internet) to the Internet. It is not particularly important for simple browsing tasks, but when you are involved in online learning, video conferencing, or have a need to send large files to others on a regular basis, the upload speed dramatically impacts your browsing experience.
- Latency: Latency refers to the time it takes packets of data to move across the network. It is what creates a lag that cause video playback to be choppy, and online phone conversations to cut in and out. This “lag” is barely noticeable when it comes to light Internet usage, but the heavier your usage across one or more devices, the more importance the latency issue becomes.
- Data Limits: Some companies will greatly reduce your Internet speeds, in a technique known as “throttling,” or completely shut off your Internet usage if you use too much data over the course of the month.The data limit will vary, but commonly ranges between 150 to 250 GB each month. They do this to conserve data, and to alleviate network stress to provide service to more customers. To help you see how much data you could “consume” consider this: a standard definition full length movie typically ranges between one and two GB and a HD full length movie is generally anywhere from three to five GB. Most consumers will not every reach the data limit, which is why there is an illusion of unlimited data. Regardless of your usage amount, being aware of data limits from the start can help you choose the most valuable plan. If your provider does not advertise a data limit, ask about one.
Find Providers in Your Area
Depending on where you live, different technologies and providers may be available. While historically BroadbandMap.gov has been a great tool to find providers in your area, new websites have jumped into make the shopping experience better.
To locate high speed Internet providers in your area we recommend checking:
- BroadbandNow.com — This is the most authoritative database of internet service providers on the internet.
- ProvidersByZip.com — While not as authoritative as BroadbandNow they collect huge amounts of plan data for bundles and deals allowing consumers to compare plans in plain English.
If these two resources turn up empty or you live in a very rural area, ask friends, family, and neighbors about the service they use and how happy they are with it.
Compare Plans for the Best Value
Compare the various plans from each provider to see which plan offers the speed you need at the price you can afford.
These providers will have basic lower speed plans for the least amount of money, while the faster plans will be more expensive. Consider the speed you need, and see what company provides this option at the price you can afford.
Contact Customer Service Regarding Contracts and Additional Fees
Some companies offer a lower price when customers agree to sign a contract, usually lasting one to two years. If you do not want to sign a contract, contact customer service to determine what this will do to your monthly rate. If you do sign a contract, make sure you are aware of early termination fees for canceling the service, or if there are any fees in the event that you need to upgrade or downgrade your service.
This is also a good time to discuss installation and equipment fees, and to determine if there are any promotions that will waive installation and activation. You may have the option to rent your modem and/or have the provider setup your wireless network for an additional monthly fee. You can save money buy purchasing your own modem and router and setting up the network yourself after the service has been connected.
Is Your Connection Slower than Anticipated?
If after you’ve established service you find that it is running slower than you expected, it is important to remember several factors impact your speed. The provider may not be at fault if you are running slower than their advertised “up to” speed due to things such as:
- an old/slower computer
- an old/slower router
- your network configuration
- too many devices on the network at once
- using the Internet during peak hours of 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.
- using feature rich websites and online applications
Before calling your provider, see if changing your configuration seems to speed it up. If after you’ve made changes you still do not see speed increases, contact your provider’s tech support department.