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Your Guide to Internet Speeds

Get the most out of your Wi-Fi and internet plan.

Internet speeds explained

Internet service providers use a lot of specialized language to talk about Wi-Fi and internet plans. If the technical stuff goes over your head, you’re not alone.

But you don’t have to be confused about your internet plan anymore—we’re here to explain internet speeds so you can be a Wi-Fi wiz.

Bandwidth vs. latency

Internet providers advertise internet plan speeds based on the maximum download bandwidth. We usually measure bandwidth in megabits per second (Mbps).

Bandwidth is how much information your internet service can send to your computer every second. Latency is the round-trip time it takes for a small amount of information to reach your computer.

So why do we measure internet speed in bandwidth instead of latency? Latency varies by only microseconds, which is vital for online gaming but negligible for other activities.

To further illustrate why bandwidth is valuable, imagine you’re sitting at a restaurant. A server takes your order and comes back with food. The latency is how long the order and delivery takes, but the bandwidth is how much food your server can carry at once.

Picture a server with only enough upper body strength to bring your salad one piece of lettuce at a time. That would take forever, even if they could run super fast. But when you get a plan with a lot of bandwidth, that’s like having a server who can carry a full-course meal in a single trip.

Bits vs. bytes

Time for binary 101—or should we say binary 00110001 00110000 00110001?

That’s a binary joke. We’ll explain. (Because jokes are always funnier when you gotta explain them.)

All the information on your computer, smartphone, and other internet-accessing devices—whether it’s your startup screen, webpage, or movie—is electronic. And the basic building block of electronic information is the bit, short for binary digit.

Bits are represented by 0 or 1, which some also think of as off or on. Because bits can be only one of two things—0 or 1—this type of information is called binary.

From early computer times, every letter and number you’d see on your computer screen would be a collection of eight bits called a byte.

So in the not-so-secret code of binary, the byte 00110001 becomes the character “1” and 00110000 becomes “0”. This means our joke binary 00110001 00110000 00110001 was just “101” written in binary.

We’re hilarious.

Why bits and bytes are essential for internet

Electronic information has evolved to include pictures, sounds, and videos, but all of this data is still made of bits and collected in bytes.

Bandwidth, as we discussed earlier, is usually measured in megabits per second ( Mbps). A megabit is one million bits. So if your internet download is 50 Mbps, your internet service can deliver up to 50 million bits to your computer every second.

Bytes aren’t usually used to talk about internet speed, but they’re still important for your internet plan. Data caps, also called data allowances, are often measured in gigabytes (GB) or terabytes (TB).

If you have a data allowance of 1 TB, you can access 1,099,511,627,776 bytes of internet data before your internet provider penalizes you, usually with a fee or lowered bandwidth.

Download speeds

Now that you understand the importance of bandwidth and how it’s measured, let’s talk about how you’ll see bandwidth discussed on your internet plan.

Most internet service providers advertise internet plans by download speeds. This refers to how much bandwidth you’ll have to get information from the internet onto your computer.

For example, imagine you’re downloading a two-hour HD video, which is about 8 gigabytes (GB) in size. Or, talking bits instead of bytes, that would be around 8,589,934,592 bits.

The FCC set the standard for broadband internet at 25 megabits per second (Mbps) download speeds, and a plan like that could download a two-hour video in about 46 minutes.

But we recommend 100 Mbps speed tier plans as a good internet speed for most people because they’re fast and usually affordable. With 100 Mbps download speed, you could download a two-hour video in about 11 minutes.

And with a download speed of 1,000 Mbps (often advertised as 1 Gbps or 1 gig speed tier plans), you could download that same two-hour video in only 1 minute.

How much internet speed do I need?

Just because internet plans with 1,000 Mbps download speed are super fast doesn’t mean you have to have one.

Rather than downloading a whole movie file at once, like the example above, you probably stream movies from Netflix or other streaming services.

Streaming lets you watch the movie as it downloads small portions at a time, which means you probably won’t notice the difference between 100 Mbps and 1,000 Mbps download speeds during a Netflix movie marathon.

Upload speeds

Occasionally, but not always, internet providers will advertise their plans’ upload speeds as well as download speeds.

Uploading refers to sending information from your computer to the internet. Even clicking to open a new web page uploads a small amount of data, but posting photos to Facebook or running your side of a video call uploads data too.

While uploading speeds are most important for people who upload large files like videos to the internet (think YouTubers), everyone needs some amount of upload speed.

To go along with the 25 Mbps download standard, the FCC also set 3 Mbps as the upload standard for broadband internet. That’s about the same upload speed Zoom recommends for you to use on a video call.

Data caps

Some internet providers advertise unlimited internet plans. Unlimited internet is ideal because you can download as much information as you want without paying more. But other providers slap on arbitrary restrictions to how much you can download each month.

A common limit is 1 TB, which equals 1,099,511,627,776 bytes. That’s honestly quite a lot, and unless you have tons of people streaming TV for hours at a time in your home, you’re unlikely to hit that limit on any given month.

But watch out for providers that have smaller caps, like 500 GB. That’s easier to run through than you’d think.

For more information on which providers have data caps and the penalties you could face for going over your limits, check out our full data cap article.

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Types of internet

While you’re looking for a new internet provider, you may run into advertisements for fiber internet. The ads say it’s “as fast as light,” and there’s probably a picture of some sci-fi-looking shiny cables. It’s wild.

All those futuristic attention-grabbers try to show off fiber internet as one of the fastest, most effective types of internet networks. And they’re right. But fiber isn’t the only kind of internet out there.

Cable, DSL, and even satellite internet are also internet technologies you might run into. Fiber tends to be the fastest, so most internet networks at least have a fiber “backbone”—using fiber cables to shoot internet across long distances and utilizing existing cable and DSL networks to get internet from there into neighborhoods and to homes.

Unfortunately, the types of internet networks you have access to are limited drastically by location. You can enter your zip code below to see which internet types and providers service your area.

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Wi-Fi and broadband: other words for internet

“Internet” keeps racking up synonyms like that’s its day job. Here are a few you might hear bandied about:

  • Wi-Fi: Wi-Fi is the technology that allows us to connect to the internet wirelessly through a Wi-Fi router instead of using a traditional Ethernet connection. The word Wi-Fi has probably become interchangeable with internet because cafés love to advertise their free Wi-Fi.
  • Broadband: While this word is falling out of common usage, it’s still a way to refer to acceptably fast internet. The FCC set the bandwidth standard for broadband internet at 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed.

Still got questions? Check out our other internet guides.

Now that you’ve become a wiz on internet speeds, push your knowledge to the next level. We can help you master internet troubleshooting, deals, and more. Use the links below to bulk up your internet mastery.

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