What are internet speeds?

by | Nov 4, 2021

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Do you have a need for speed? If you’re into gaming, use a lot of IoT technology, or the whole household likes to stream different shows simultaneously, you might wonder if your internet speed is fast enough. What is a good internet speed anyway? And what does it mean when you pay for 80 Mbps but regularly only get 60?

Internet speeds are complex. But don’t worry—they can be explained. In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about internet speeds. Bandwidth, factors that impact your speed, and how much speed you need for your favorite online activities. Let’s jump in!

Internet speed vs. bandwidth

Often, people use the words “speed” and “bandwidth” interchangeably. However, they aren’t the same thing. Each term refers to something different when it comes to your internet service.

Let’s use the metaphor of a highway to illustrate. Highways come in different widths. In Texas, the Katy Highway is 26 lanes wide, allowing more traffic to flow along on the I-10, as it serves over 200,000 vehicles a day. Other highways may only be four lanes wide because less traffic uses the road. Then there are four-lane highways that become clogged because there’s so much traffic using them, and the highway system hasn’t expanded yet.

Bandwidth is like the highway, while the cars using it are like the bits of data sent over an internet connection. In the same way that a wider highway allows more traffic to flow, an internet connection with better bandwidth keeps internet speeds up.

Both speed and bandwidth are measured in Megabits per second (Mbps). To add some perspective, let’s say your internet plan has an advertised bandwidth of up to 80 Mbps. That means the highest volume of data (or the maximum number of cars on the highway) is 80 Mbps. The more vehicles that are on a 4-lane highway, the slower they will have to travel.

Certain types of internet services have better bandwidth, thanks to their technology. Fiber internet, for example, is a high-bandwidth type of internet. That’s because it’s made of fiber-optic wires, which can transmit data at nearly the speed of light. It helps prevent traffic jams of data along those wires.

It’s important to be aware that the advertised speed simply refers to the speed at which data can be sent from your internet service provider to your modem. The actual speed you get on your devices may vary due to a handful of factors.

Upload speed vs. download speed

You may also see something like 80/40 Mbps on your internet plan. This basically means you have a download speed of 80 Mbps and an upload speed of 40 Mbps. Download speeds are usually what people focus on when it comes to internet speeds. Whenever you stream a movie or browse the web, you’re downloading content from other servers. Your internet connection then delivers that data to you. Upload speeds are important when you are videoconferencing or trying to publish your latest vlog. It’s how fast your internet connection can deliver your data to the network.

Most of the time, internet plans offer asymmetrical download speeds like we just described above. Your download speed will usually be much faster than your upload speed. But thanks to advancements in internet technology (like fiber-optic networks and better hardware), you can enjoy symmetrical upload and download speeds. For example, if you have high-speed fiber internet, you can get download and upload speeds up to 940 Mbps. Information can move to and from your devices at the same top speed.

A young woman listens to music and scrolls on her smartphone.

The factors that impact internet speed

Let’s say you did purchase an internet service plan for 80 Mbps, but you aren’t seeing internet speeds that fast on your devices. You could be getting those slower speeds for a variety of reasons. Maybe you’re too far away from the router that’s distributing your WiFi signal. The type of internet you have could have an impact too. Or it could be related to the age of the wiring inside your home or building.  Here are a few other factors to consider:

You have a lot of devices connected to your internet connection.

All the devices you connect to the internet send and receive data. And they all use up some of your bandwidth to do so. The more devices that you connect to your internet, the less bandwidth will be available. Each device will experience slower internet speeds.

Illustration of number of connected devices

Your devices may be outdated.

Did you know that each device you own, from your IoT devices to your gaming console to your 4K smart TV, all have their own speed limits? These devices are like minor roads branching off your bandwidth highway, and they can only handle so much data. Newer devices usually have faster processing times and more antennas to receive a WiFi signal.

Also, the type of device you’re using matters. Laptops usually have more wireless antennas than smartphones. Because of this, your laptop can probably transfer data faster than your phone.

Illustration of older versus newer devices

Older devices could be slowing your entire network down.

Your old smartphone might have been the fastest device of its time, just like a ’68 Dodge Charger. But since all the data your household needs must wait in line at your residential gateway, that old smartphone is slowing everything down.

Your residential gateway is outdated.

Just like your devices, residential gateways (your modem/router) get older. Internet service providers usually recommend replacing this essential equipment if it is more than 3-4 years old.

You’re not using a wired connection.

When was the last time you connected to the internet via Ethernet? We’re guessing it’s been a few years. With routers built right into many modems, getting online pretty much equates to using WiFi for many of us.

However, some of your internet speed gets lost when the signal is broadcast wirelessly. A wired connection will give you the best experience when you want to get online. If you’re able to, try to use a LAN or Ethernet cable when you can. It can make a significant impact on gamers and streamers.

You’re on the wrong WiFi frequency.

Some WiFi signals use the same frequency (2.4 GHz) as microwaves, cordless phones, baby monitors, and garage door openers. Since your WiFi must compete for that frequency with these other devices, moving to a different frequency (5 GHz) can help improve internet speeds.

On the flip side, using the 5 GHz frequency far away from your router may affect your speeds. That’s because 5 GHz doesn’t do well with physical obstructions, like walls. When you use the 5 GHz frequency, it’s best to be as close to your router as possible.

Your residential gateway may already support automatic band-switching. That means it can detect and switch your device to a better frequency. But you can always go in and manually adjust if you need to.

Illustration of 2.4 GHz versus 5 GHz WiFi frequency

The speed of the sending party.

Remember the traffic jam metaphor earlier? Well, just like rush hour clogs up roads, trying to use the internet during peak hours could be a slower experience. Some websites or apps experience a lot of traffic, which puts a lot of demand on their servers. It may seem like your internet is slow when you visit those sites or use those apps.

Sometimes, content has to go through a third party or another network that may have data caps or bandwidth limitations in place. You might see slower speeds due to their connection.

Let’s go back to our highway metaphor. Imagine a car exiting the highway to drive on other roads and junctions. These roads, roundabouts, and other infrastructure come in various sizes. The maximum speed you can go might be hampered by some narrow side road within the vast network of roads (the World Wide Web).

Your internet service provider may not be delivering your full 80 Mbps.

We left this one almost last because internet speeds from your ISP are usually pretty consistent. Yes, outages and slowdowns do happen from time to time. Still, for the most part, when speeds fluctuate, it’s often related to what’s happening on your side of the residential gateway.

Your internet service provider has data caps.

Suppose you’ve reached the maximum amount of data your internet plan allows. In that case, your ISP may implement data caps on your service. That can slow your internet speeds way down. Activities like browsing probably won’t be affected by data caps. But doing things that use up a lot of bandwidth, like streaming and gaming, may be impacted. Pro tip: get an ISP that doesn’t have data caps.

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So … is your internet speed good or not?

It’s the ultimate question for most internet users. We can look at some of the general guidelines from the FCC to start.

Basic Service = 3 to 8 Mbps

This speed can sustain one to two individual devices for light internet use and activities like checking email, browsing, or watching videos. Basic service can also support one device for more moderate use, like streaming HD video, videoconferencing, or online gaming.

Medium Service = 12 to 25 Mbps

Speed in this range can support three to four devices doing light internet activities, up to three devices for moderate activities, or one to two devices performing more advanced functions, like running high-demand applications simultaneously.

Advanced Service = More than 25 Mbps

Speeds higher than 25 Mbps can support four devices across basic, moderate, and advanced internet activities.

Let’s keep in mind that these guidelines factor in one device per person. Suppose multiple people use multiple devices, or you have several IoT devices running in the background. In that case, you may need more Mbps for optimal performance. And let’s face it—you probably do. The average American household uses 11 connected devices. The more connected devices you have, the more bandwidth you need.

Those guidelines, while helpful, also don’t factor in emerging technologies, like virtual reality or 4K streaming. Both require a lot of bandwidth to deliver the premium visual experiences they offer. 4K streaming needs 25 Mbps alone, and low-quality VR requires 30 Mbps. HD VR clocks in at a whopping 100 Mbps. We also have 8K content and 360 VR on the horizon. The metaverse is coming. It’s all going to need a lot of speed and a lot of bandwidth.

That’s why we built Quantum Fiber.

The future of internet speed—Gigspeed.

Our 100% fiber-optic network offers high bandwidth internet and symmetrical speeds up to 940 Mbps. Our gateways are WiFi 6 equipped (that’s the fastest available technology). Fiber internet can support over 10 connected devices all at once. It’s internet that’s ultrafast all day, all night with 99.9% reliability*. As if it couldn’t get any better, Quantum Fiber offers unlimited data, and we don’t have annual contracts. It’s not too good to be true. It’s internet beyond limits, for a life without barriers.

Upgrade to tomorrow’s speed today.

If fiber internet isn’t in your area yet, try these tips to boost your internet speeds:

  • Make sure your residential gateway and all your connected devices are operating at their maximum speed.
  • Think about how to manage internet speed when you need it most at home. Maybe your IoT devices can take a break while you stream your favorite show.
  • Check for faster internet speeds in your area and upgrade.
  • Add a second line of the same speed to double your bandwidth.

Although our fiber service usually means 100% fiber-optic network to your location, in limited circumstances Quantum Fiber may need to deploy alternative technologies coupled with a non-fiber connection from a certain point (usually the curb) to your location in order to provide the advertised download speeds.

*Based on network uptime or availability.

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