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What broadband speeds do I need?

The difference between feeling the need for speed, and knowing it

Broadband providers offer a wide range of speeds, at an even wider range of prices. So, when choosing the best broadband provider for you, what speed should you go for? There are no hard and fast criteria to determine exactly what you must have, but we can help you, with a basic rule of thumb, to work out what you’ll need to get by.

How are broadband speeds measured?

Generally, broadband speeds are measured in megabits per second, or Mbits/sec (sometimes abbreviated as Mbps), which refers to the rate at which data travels over your connection, from the server to your device.

Data transmission is measured in “bits”, or binary digits (for example, a one or a zero), with a megabit representing a million bits, so knowing how many bits can be transmitted in a second will be indicative of the speed of your connection.

Note that megabits and megabytes are not the same. There are eight bits in one byte, which means that a megabyte is eight times larger than a megabit. Therefore, a 100Mbits/sec internet connection equals 12.5MB/sec.

That’s the theory; however, in practice, a connection rarely delivers the exact speed that’s been promised. For example, on this author’s Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) connection – a gigabit is one billion bits, or one thousand megabits – it’s more typical to see speeds up to 800-900Mbits/sec.

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Upstream versus downstream speeds

Most people will only be concerned with how quickly they can get information from the internet, but it’s important to remember that data travels both ways. Some broadband connections are symmetrical, which means the upstream and downstream speeds are the same. Other broadband packages are asymmetrical, which means that the upload speeds are different – usually slower – to the download speeds. You’ll often find the latter to be cheaper.

In some instances, the difference between the upstream and downstream can be striking. An upload speed that’s 50% of your download speed is unlikely to be a huge deal for most folks, but if it’s only 10% then that’s a potential sticking point, especially if your download speed isn’t earth-shattering to begin with.

Modern internet users can have plenty of reasons for wanting a fast upload speed, whether that’s using cloud data storage, uploading video clips and photos to social media or using applications such as Twitch or Skype to stream video to others. Whatever you might be using it for, it’s just as important to check the upload speed as it is the download speed of any broadband offering.

Latency matters too

Superfast speeds are desirable then, but latency – the delay between action and response, measured in milliseconds (ms) – matters too. Different types of broadband will suffer different levels of latency, with figures for full fibre broadband often sitting in single digits. The majority of users will find latency of 50ms or less acceptable, but gamers will want the lowest latency possible, where 20-40ms is considered ideal.

How bandwidth works

Bandwidth refers to the capacity at which data is transferred over your connection. Say, for example, your internet package offers a download speed of 500Mbits/sec; that does not mean that every device connected to the internet on that connection will get 500Mbits/sec. The bandwidth will be divided between the different devices using it. As such, the more devices you have using the internet simultaneously, the more bandwidth you’ll need.

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How much bandwidth do applications need?

Different types of internet applications will have different requirements when it comes to bandwidth. Some applications work equally well regardless of whether you have low or high bandwidth. For example, you can download a 100GB console game perfectly fine over a 100Mbits/sec or a 500Mbits/sec connection, the only real difference being that the latter will complete the job more quickly.


However, the same isn’t true of streaming video or video games. These tasks will need a minimum speed to work correctly at all, though the exact amount of bandwidth needed by each application will vary. For example, Netflix requires at least 15Mbits/sec for 4K video, while Amazon Prime Video requires 18Mbits/sec, any less will result in the video freezing when you’re trying to watch.

For general web browsing, 10Mbits/sec of bandwidth is usable, but can be noticeably laggy when loading many modern web pages. The best advice is to research the recommended bandwidth requirements of the specific applications you want to use, as this will inform your final decision over which supplier you choose.

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Calculating your bandwidth needs

If you can calculate the peak bandwidth that you’ll need, you’ll have a better idea of how much you can expect to pay for your broadband. To illustrate one method you might use to estimate your peak bandwidth, consider this scenario:

  • There are two people using the same internet connection.
  • Each person has a smartphone, a laptop and a gaming console. For the sake of argument, we’ll assume they have set their updates and downloads to run overnight.
  • Both people may watch 4K video streams simultaneously, using up to 25Mbits/sec each.
  • Since it’s common for people to browse the web while streaming, let’s allocate an additional 10Mbits/sec for each person.

In this example, once we have added together all the devices that are likely to be using bandwidth at the same time, we have 25 + 25 + 10 + 10, giving us a total of 70Mbits/sec.

Perhaps even easier would be to assume everyone’s needs are the same and allocate an appropriate amount of bandwidth to cover all of the needs of every person using the connection. For example, if there are four people in the household and you want to ensure that each person has at least 50Mbits/sec available, you would have to opt for at least 200Mbits/sec of bandwidth in total.

Making the most of your bandwidth

Regardless of the amount of bandwidth you have, you can optimise levels to serve you better.

Your router decides how much of the total bandwidth is allocated to each connected device, and you can usually tweak its approach by accessing its settings and flipping a few virtual switches. For example, you can instruct your router to prioritise certain devices and restrict others, or to give priority to specific uses, such as video streaming, multiplayer video gaming or downloads.

You can also change the settings on your devices, or on certain software applications, to control when and where they use bandwidth. For example, you can put a bandwidth cap on your downloads in Steam, or you can manually opt for lower quality video on your streaming apps. Likewise, you can choose to run updates or perform downloads of large apps overnight, when no one else needs to use the internet.

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