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Latency vs. Bandwidth

Slow internet can be caused by latency or bandwidth problems. We break down what you’ll need to understand about each.

If you’re troubleshooting your slow internet performance, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with bandwidth and latency. Bandwidth describes how much data your internet connection can transfer at once, while latency is how long it takes for internet data to reach its destination.

Bandwidth and latency help determine your home internet speed, and they’re affected by everything from your internet service provider (ISP) to the age of your Wi-Fi router. Here’s why bandwidth and latency matter for your home internet.

Bandwidth and latency

What is bandwidth?

Bandwidth is the maximum amount of data your internet connection can handle.

To keep things from getting too wonky, let’s say that your home’s internet connection is like a highway and all your household’s online devices (like a TV that’s using Netflix) are traffic on that highway. When you send a file like a photo, that data is like a car that’s going from one exit to another.

Pro tip: Remember that bandwidth and internet speeds are two different things. Bandwidth measures internet capacity, while real-world download and upload speeds depend on your ISP and home internet setup.

Think about bandwidth like the number of lanes on that highway.

A low-bandwidth connection is like a one-lane highway, and it’ll take a while for your car to reach the exit when that narrow road has to accommodate your house’s internet traffic. But when you’re going down a giant eight-lane highway, you can easily pass the traffic and reach your destination.

Similarly, your data will have an easier time going down a high-bandwidth connection versus a low-bandwidth connection. A high-bandwidth connection can be a speedy 1,000 Mbps internet plan, while a low-bandwidth connection can be a basic 50 Mbps internet package.

What is latency?

Latency is the amount of time it takes for your data to reach its destination.

If bandwidth is like the number of lanes on a highway, latency is like the distance between two exits on the road. On a low-latency connection, the exits are closer, so your file will reach its recipient in a few milliseconds. But on a high-latency connection, the exits are further apart, you’ll have to wait for a few seconds until the file transfer is completed.

In the real world, think about latency and the exits on our metaphorical highway like the distance between your bedroom and Wi-Fi router or an overseas email that goes from one country to another. High latency means that your data has to take time to physically reach its last stop. You’ll always want an internet connection with low latency since that’ll help ensure fast internet performance.

Understanding latency, bandwidth, and your internet

Bandwidth issues

Generally, bandwidth problems are traffic problems.

If you’re cramming multiple laptops, tablets, smartphones, gaming consoles, and smart home devices onto a 25 Mbps internet plan, you’ll run into problems like long loading times and low video quality. If your internet connection is like a highway, all of these devices are like cars that are clogging up lanes and creating traffic jams.

Every device takes up its share of your internet plan’s total bandwidth, which means you’ll have more consistent internet speeds on a high-bandwidth 940 Mbps internet plan versus a low-bandwidth 25 Mbps internet connection.

Latency issues

To understand how latency affects your home internet, stay with us as we get a little technical.

Your network’s latency heavily impacts your home internet’s actual speed, which is known as throughput. Latency also depends on the type of internet you have in your house. Fiber internet generally offers the lowest latency times, followed by cable internet, DSL internet, and satellite internet providers sitting in last place.

Low latency times are important because they help ensure internet performance that’s as fast as advertised. Even if you have a high-bandwidth internet plan, high latency means you’ll still experience routine problems like slow loading times. High latency also makes it hard to play most online games (lots of getting shot while you’re lagging) or take video calls (lots of out-of-sync talking).

We’d recommend using an internet speed test to find out your current latency time. Most households will be fine with sub-100 ms latency, but if you’re gaming online, you’ll want your time to be less than 40 ms.

You can bring your latency down by adjusting your network setup, but if your latency is still higher than you’d like, consider shopping for a new ISP.

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Fixing bandwidth and latency problems

If your internet connection isn’t working as well as you’d like, try these quick tips to optimize your bandwidth and reduce latency.

Use an Ethernet connection

Wi-Fi is convenient, but when it comes to latency, Ethernet connections offer the best internet performance.

Ethernet cables use a physical wire to connect devices to the internet, so they aren’t affected by any wireless interference. We’d recommend connecting any devices near your Wi-Fi router to it with an Ethernet cord for better internet performance.

Optimize your router

If you’re still experiencing internet problems with a fast internet plan, try checking your Wi-Fi router’s Quality of Service (QoS) settings to make sure they’re properly configured.

Router QoS tools vary by manufacturer, so check your manual if you’re new to using QoS. But generally, QoS settings help your router direct internet traffic and maximize your bandwidth. You’ll want to make sure that devices like laptops and TVs are prioritized above devices like a smart camera or kids tablet.

Check out our guide to speeding up your home internet to learn more about QoS.

Upgrade your internet equipment

Wi-Fi routers and internet modems are rated for certain internet speeds, so if you’ve got a 500 Mbps internet plan and a 100 Mbps modem, you could be missing out on better internet speeds.

Double-check your router to make sure it supports 5 GHz Wi-Fi networks and see if your modem supports DOCSIS 3.1. If your internet hardware is more than four to six years old, it likely doesn’t support either standard and will slow down your internet connection.

Check out our combo modem/Wi-Fi router and cable modem buying guides for more equipment tips.

Get a new internet plan

Upgrading to a faster internet plan can help if you’re hitting the speed limits of your current internet package. For households with heavy internet users, we recommend a plan with a download speed of at least 300 Mbps.

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Final take

Latency and bandwidth are two pieces of the puzzle to consider when troubleshooting your internet connection. If you’re trying to solve bandwidth and latency problems, make sure that your home internet equipment is correctly adjusted, connect devices via Ethernet cord whenever possible, and see if your ISP’s plan matches your house’s internet needs.

Latency vs. bandwidth FAQ

What is the difference between bandwidth and latency?

Bandwidth refers to how much data your home internet plan can transfer at once. Latency measures the time it takes for a file like an email or text message to reach its destination.

What is more important: latency or bandwidth?

If your home has cable or fiber internet, bandwidth will be more important than latency. Latency isn’t a big issue on either internet type, so you’ll just need to have enough bandwidth to accommodate your home’s internet devices.

But on DSL or satellite providers, latency will be more important than bandwidth. Latency is naturally higher on both internet types and high latency negatively affects your internet performance. If you’re a DSL or satellite internet customer, minimize latency by optimizing your internet setup or by avoiding applications like video calls that are highly sensitive to latency problems.

What is bandwidth and latency?

Bandwidth is your internet plan’s maximum download or upload speed. Latency measures how long it takes for data to be transmitted.

Does lower bandwidth mean lower latency?

Lower bandwidth doesn’t equal lower latency, since bandwidth doesn’t directly affect latency.