Broadband Internet Speeds Explained

How much speed do you need?

Jill Ferry Photography / Getty Images

Physical access to broadband is obviously the most important factor in gaining access to the Internet. However, broadband is delivered via different technologies, and the type of technology determines the range of speeds delivered to your computer. Many other factors will determine the speed of your connection and more importantly, how quickly you can access information, download files, or receive e-mails.

Speed = Quality

Speed can also determine the quality of the video you are watching or audio you are listening to. Everyone has experienced frustrating delays waiting for a movie or song to download, or watching a movie that stutters and skips on your monitor, or displays a message indicating that your connection is “buffering.” (Buffering simply means your connection cannot handle the speed at which the video is being delivered to your computer screen, and must therefore momentarily collect data to play back, just as a printer collects data you send from your computer to print.) Depending on which application you are using, the speed of your connection will often determine whether it is even possible to run the application effectively. A movie is not enjoyable to watch if it takes twice as long to watch, and stops playing every few minutes. So, how fast of a connection do you need to perform specific tasks and run certain programs?

Bandwidth vs. Speed

There are two different factors to consider when measuring speed. Bandwidth refers to the size of the conduit in which the data is traveling within. Speed refers to the rate at which the data is traveling at. Using that definition, you can quickly see that a larger bandwidth will permit more data to travel, which will also increase the rate at which it travels.

However, this does not necessarily mean that the speed of your broadband connection will be the same as your bandwidth. Bandwidth simply refers to the size of the “pipe” in which it is traveling.

For example, let's say you're transferring a file at 128kbps. If you start to transfer another file it will compete for bandwidth and slow your speed down. If you increase your bandwidth by adding another 128kpbs ISDN line, your first file will still travel at 128kpbs, but now you can transfer both files at 128kbps without sacrificing speed. An analogy would be a highway with a 65mph speed limit. Even if more lanes were added to handle more vehicles, the speed limit is still 65mph.

What Is Net Neutrality?

Broadband providers advertise speeds in ranges for this very reason. It is difficult to estimate specifically how fast a specific connection will be. Providers know they can provide a certain amount of bandwidth to handle specific amounts of data – but they do not know precisely when this data will be traveling, or when specific demands will be placed on the network. So, instead of promising speeds that would be impossible to continuously maintain, they offer speeds which fall within certain ranges.

For example, one major broadband provider offers broadband Internet packages in the following speed ranges (download/upload):

  • 15 Mbps/5 Mbps
  • 50 Mbps/25 Mbps
  • 75 Mbps/35 Mbps

Broadband Providers and Advertised Speeds

Your connection speed should fall within the ranges listed for the packages offered. The bandwidth for these offerings should not be less than the maximum speed listed. For example, you cannot have speeds of more than 15 Mbps with a bandwidth of 15 Mbps. Some providers offer speeds “up to certain speed.” In these cases, the “up to” speed is the bandwidth, which means that the speed you will actually experience could be much lower.

The Difference Between Upload and Download Speed for Broadband Bandwidth

In essence, there is no difference between uploading data and downloading data aside from the direction of the data transfer.

The faster your Internet connection speed, the faster your uploading and downloading capability. Bandwidth plays an integral role in both your upload speed and your download speed. Ideally, upload and download speeds are most easily measured when they are symmetrical, which means the same speed for uploads and downloads. However, often providers only advertise the speed of the data in the fastest direction, which is usually the download speed. Download speeds are also usually much faster than upload speeds because most Internet users retrieve data from the Internet – not transmit data and files to the Internet. If you are a user who uploads large files or other information over the Internet, you should look for faster upload speeds. Many providers are able to easily provide higher upload speeds by adjusting download speeds lower while maintaining the same broadband plan. 

Another term you may hear in relation to broadband speeds is symmetrical, which simply means that download and upload speeds are equal to one another.  While download speeds are often emphasized by broadband providers, upload speeds are also an important consideration.  This is particularly true if your business depends on uploading large amounts of data to cloud-based services.

Units of Measurement - Megabits and megabytes

Broadband speed is measured in megabits per second, commonly stated as Mb or Mbps (i.e. 15Mb or 15 Mbps). The smallest unit of digital data is a bit. A byte is equal to 8 bits, and a thousand bytes is a Kilobyte. Several years ago, this is the highest level of speed you would need to know. Typical dial-up connections were no more than 56 kbits.

Broadband speed is typically measured in megabits per second, commonly stated as Mb or Mbps (i.e. 15Mb or 15 Mbps).  However, speed requirements are rapidly increasing, with gigabit speeds quickly becoming the new standard for economic development and institutional use.

Which Technology is Best?

Now that you are able to determine what speed you need to run the applications you want, which broadband technology is able to deliver those speeds?

By its very definition, broadband is a high-speed Internet connection which is also always on. Dial-up access, on the other hand, requires a modem to initiate a 56 Kbps connection to the Internet. The FCC raised the minimum speed of broadband to 4 Mbps downstream, and 1 Mbps upstream. This is now the new standard for a minimum broadband connection, although this speed tier is inadequate for many applications, including streaming video services, such as Netflix.

The FCC outlined out an ambitious goal in the National Broadband Plan with regard to broadband speeds. One of President Obama's primary broadband goals was to connect 100 million people to 100 Mbps speeds by 2020.

Broadband Technology and Speeds

Broadband TechnologyDownload Speed RangeConnection
Dial-upUp to 56kbpsPhone Line
DSL768 Kbps - 6 MbpsPhone Line
Satellite400 Kbps - 2 MbpsWireless Satellite
3G50 Kbps - 1.5 MbpsWireless
Cable Modem1 Mbps - 1 GbpsCoaxial Cable
WiMaxup to 128 MbpsWireless
Fiberup to 1 GbpsFiber optics
4G / LTEcurrently up to 10 MbpsMobile Wireless