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Broadband Speed: How Much Do You Need?

Speeds Have Become As Important as Physical Access

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Broadband Speed: How Much Do You Need?

Broadband Speed Requirements Continue to Rise

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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.

Broadband Speeds by Technology

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 must your Internet connection be to perform specific tasks, and run certain programs?

Table of Broadband Speed Requirements for Common Applications

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 travelling within. Speed refers to the rate at which the data is travelling 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 travelling.

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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.

Broadband Providers and Advertised Speeds

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 travelling, or when specific demands will be placed in 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 provider offers broadband Internet packages in the following ranges for download speeds:

  • 768 kbps to 1 Mbps
  • 1.5 Mbps to 3 Mbps
  • 4 Mbps to 7 Mbps
  • 10 Mbps to 15 Mbps

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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.

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The Difference Between Upload and Download Speed for Broadband

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.

Units of Measurement – Bits, Bytes, Kilobytes, 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 per second.

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Broadband introduced the use of larger units of measurement. The FCC definition of broadband was initially 200 kbps, but was increased to 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload making the megabyte the most common broadband speed unit. This is also what the new standard is for a minimum broadband connection.

A megabyte (MB) is approximately 1,000 kilobytes. As applications continue evolving, broadband speed requirements also rise. The next rung in the broadband speed ladder is the gigabyte, which is approximately 1,000 megabytes. To put the size in perspective, filling two CD-ROM’s with data would consume just one gigabyte. Continuing to use a multiplier of one thousand brings us to terabytes (1000 gigabytes), petabytes, exabytes, zettabytes, yottabytes, brontobytes, and geopbytes. The FCC lays out an ambitious goal in the National Broadband Plan with regard to broadband speeds. The 100 squared initiative proposes to make 100 Mbps broadband available to 100 million people by 2020.

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

Not All Broadband is Created Equal; Different Broadband Technologies

If you already have a broadband connection, how do you measure your connection speed? A recent FCC survey found that 80 percent of broadband users in the United States don’t know the speed of their broadband connection. Many people don’t know what speed they are paying for, or what they are getting compared to what the broadband provider is claiming to offer. There are many free commercial broadband speed applications which measure the speed of your connection. The FCC also hosts an application which will measure the speed of your connection. You can access the FCC speed website by clicking here: FCC Broadband Speed Test.

Broadband Speed and Bandwidth

Broadband Speed will continue being an important factor - in differentiating competing broadband provider offerings, and for keeping up with increasing bandwidth appetites of emerging applications. Bandwidth is a precious and limited commodity, of which the FCC and Congress are grappling with. The Obama administration outlined a strategy to make 500 MHz of spectrum available for wireless broadband.

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