Modern broadband is fast, but how fast is fast enough?
We live in a golden age of cheap and fast broadband internet, but that doesn’t mean you should pay over the odds for it, or underestimate your actual needs. Before you make a decision over the best broadband package to sign up for, let’s examine the most important factors you should consider before making your choice.
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How broadband speed is measured
Broadband speeds are measured in megabits per second (Mbps) – which may sound a lot like “megabyte”, but the two are different. Eight megabits make up one megabyte, while a megabyte represents a million bytes. As such, a megabit represents a million bits. Incidentally, a “bit” or binary digit is the smallest unit of data a computer can understand, being either a one or a zero.
We measure network speeds in bits per second, because this is a neutral, raw measurement of transmission speed. Other measurements, such as megabytes, can vary based on your operating system, disk format or simply convention.
So when you refer to a 100Mbps connection, theoretically,you’re looking at 12.5MB/s (or megabytes per second).
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Symmetrical versus asymmetrical broadband
The number usually advertised in big bold letters by broadband companies is the download speed. If you have a “symmetrical” connection, then download and upload speeds will be the same.
If you have an “asymmetrical” connection, on the other hand, the speeds will be different – quite often, dramatically so. For example, a 100Mbps connection might deliver an upload speed of just 10Mbps. While you may think that it’s only download speed that really matters, modern internet usage depends heavily on how quickly you can send data. If you use cloud applications such as iCloud or Google Drive, you stream on Twitch or otherwise need upstream bandwidth, this is a crucial part of the calculation. As such, it’s always important to check the upload speed of your prospective internet plan.
Your home network speed matters
The speeds you see advertised by broadband providers is what they promise to deliver to your home, but what you see day to day will depend on the setup in your home. For example, if you’re paying for 500Mbps fibre, but you only have 100Mbps ethernet or 300Mbps Wi-Fi in your home, then you’re missing out on that additional speed.
If your current router or mesh Wi-Fi setup is limiting the internet speed you receive, you’ll have to factor in the expenditure of upgrading the kits into the overall cost of your new internet connection.
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There’s more to an internet connection than how many megabits can travel down the pipe. Latency is another crucial factor, and that can vary depending on the type of internet you opt for. For example, though both a 5G wireless broadband connection and a fibre connection may run at the same speed, the fibre connection will almost certainly suffer less latency.
Sometimes called “ping”, this is the time it takes for a request from your computer to reach the remote server and for the response to return to you. Some types of internet service, such as online video games and video or voice calls, are particularly sensitive to latency. Ideally, for these types of apps, you wouldn’t want a latency figure of more than 50ms. So, for this type of internet use, opting for something like fibre or cable internet is better than wireless or satellite internet, for example.
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Throttling, shaping and fair-use policies
When choosing a broadband package, you would be wise to pay particular attention to the fine print – even though there might appear to be quite a lot of it. Sometimes, an amazing price might mean signing a long-term contract, while other times, the fast advertised speeds denoted by asterisk come with caveats attached.
“Throttling” happens when an ISP (internet service provider) reduces your connection’s speeds when certain thresholds are met. These thresholds could be virtually anything; but, commonly, it will happen when you hit a certain amount of data used for the month (a “soft” cap), or at specific times of day when the network is busy.
“Shaping” is a practice where an ISP limits broadband speeds by traffic type. So, for example, you might get blazing-fast speeds for browsing the internet, but you’ll see these drop when you might be downloading a game or watching streaming videos.
Both of these practices are applied according to a fair-use policy (or FUP), or through special terms and conditions that will be outlined in your agreement with the ISP. The FUP will specify under which conditions your speeds will be limited.
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How many people share the connection?
If you’re the only person in a household using an internet connection, then it doesn’t have to be particularly fast to offer a good experience. However, with every additional simultaneous user, you’ll be dividing up that bandwidth into smaller slices.
Your experience won’t only be determined by the number of people online at any one time; multiple devices such as laptops, smartphones and gaming consoles could be downloading data in the background, even when no-one is using them.
So, to calculate the speed of the connection that’s ideal, multiply the amount of bandwidth you would personally be happy with by the number of people who require bandwidth in your home; or, you could add together the bandwidth needs of each individual person in your household. Keep in mind that if the various users in your home will be connected at different times of the day, then you can perhaps get away with less.
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What applications do you need to run?
The last piece of the puzzle is matching your speed requirements with the types of internet applications you use, and how well you need them to run. For example, modern video games often exceed 100GB in size.
Downloading them at 10Mbps will take nearly 24 hours, whereas a Gigabit fibre connection will have the job done in 15 minutes. While you’ll get your game in both cases, what really matters is how much value you attach to the time saved.
Other types of internet applications, such as streaming media, don’t run in the background and need sufficient in-the-moment bandwidth to work correctly. For example, you need 5Mbps of bandwidth to watch HD Netflix, and 15Mbps to watch 4K Netflix. For two people running those two 4K TVs at the same time in a household, you would need 30Mbps of bandwidth – and that doesn’t take into account the bandwidth required to run other applications. So, as you can see, it can add up pretty quickly.
Our speed recommendations
Taking all of the above into consideration, see below some recommendations for broadband speeds that will suit different use cases. As always, your specific situation should guide the choice you make, but these general guidelines should help you decide where to focus your search.
- 25 – 100Mbps – If you’re a single user who watches one HD or 4K stream at a time, and doesn’t mind waiting for big downloads, then this broadband speed bracket will deliver a decent experience overall.
- 200Mbps – We consider this figure to be at the lower end for a typical household of four, or very comfortable for one or two users.
- 500Mbps – This will offer a great experience for most households of four people, and will be pure luxury for one or two people.
- 1,000Mbps – Joining the Gigabit club is where small business, or single power users thrive. It’s also the sweet spot for a modern household of four.
- 1,000Mbps+ – While this isn’t yet common, there are home users in some parts of the world being offered speeds of up to 10Gbps. In general, it’s unlikely that any home user will need such speeds yet; but if you’re running a business, or have a large household with lots of heavy users, opting for a connection that’s over a Gigabit might make sense for you.
Of course, there are many different points between these broad brackets – but, overall, we think these are the right estimates at the time of writing.