Your Internet service provider probably wants to sell you a faster Internet connection. Pay more money every month and you’ll get faster Internet speeds. It sounds simple, but do you really need those speeds, and when would they be useful?
How Fast Is Your Connection Now?
If you’re curious about what Internet speeds you’re getting from your Internet service provider (ISP), run a connection speed test. For the most accurate results, don’t just head to the website and click the button. First, be sure nothing else is already using your Internet connection.
You can also check the speed tier you’re paying for using your account on your ISP’s website, or by looking at your monthly bill. There’s a good chance your ISP offers even more expensive plans. If you’d like to pay more for a faster Internet connection, your ISP will be very happy to let you do so—assuming the infrastructure is in place to offer it to you in your area.
The trouble is, you may not actually get the speeds you’re paying for in the first place, depending on your ISP, the infrastructure in your area, and your neighbors. That’s why the speeds are advertised as “up to” a certain speed.
Will You Notice a Faster Connection?
Bear in mind that getting a faster Internet connection won’t actually speed up everything you do online. In many cases, speed is limited by the site you’re connecting to. If you visit a website, it won’t necessarily max out your Internet connection to deliver you the web page. If you download a file from somewhere, the download speeds may be slow because the site is slow–not you’re connection. But, overall, you’ll probably experience faster downloads with a faster connection.
On the other hand, streaming videos from a service like Netflix or YouTube won’t necessarily get a benefit from faster speeds. Yes, at low speeds you’ll be forced to use lower quality settings and perhaps wait for buffering. But, once you get to a certain speed, you’ll be able to stream high-resolution video. Going beyond that speed won’t get you “smoother” video.
On the other hand, remember that your connection is shared between all the people, devices, and apps on your house. So yes, you may not need a faster connection to watch Netflix on the highest HD quality setting. But you might need a faster connection if several people wanted to watch Netflix in HD at the same time or if you wanted to use Netflix at high-quality while downloading a large video game or other large file at the same time.
How Much Bandwidth Do Streaming Services Use?
Download speeds can increase dramatically with faster connections. There’s no theoretical limit—it’s all up to what the remote server can provide. But, if all the files you want to download already do so quickly, you don’t necessarily need more speed.
For streaming, you only require a certain amount of speed. For Netflix HD streaming, Netflix says it will take 5.0 Mbps (Megabits per second). Other services—from YouTube to HBO Go—should require a similar amount of bandwidth for their HD, 1080p streams. If you’re using Netflix’s 4K UHD stream, that requires 25 Mbps. Music streams require much less bandwidth than video streams.
Take all this into account. If you’re using a Netflix HD stream, upgrading from 25 Mbps to 50 Mbps won’t really help you—Netflix’s bitrate is the bottleneck, not your internet speed. But upgrading from 5 Mbps to 15 Mbps would definitely give you some wiggle room, allowing you to handle multiple streams or a stream and some downloads without problems.
And, of course, if you have multiple devices in your home that often simultaneously stream content, you’ll need to take this into account as well.
Upload Speeds Matter, Too
Your Internet connection has two speeds that matter. The most important is download speed—the speed you can download something from a remote server. ISPs normally trumpet and promote their high download speeds.
The other is upload speed—the speed at which you can upload something to a remote server. This is often dramatically slower than the download speed in an equivalent plan, but it can matter. For example, when syncing files to Dropbox, uploading photos to Facebook, putting videos on YouTube, or having a Skype video call, your upload speed can make a difference.
So, don’t forget about upload speed when looking at Internet connection speeds. You may need to read the fine print here if you’re comparing plans between different ISPs.
In some cases, there may be other benefits to higher Internet connection tiers. For example, if your ISP imposes a download limit on your Internet connection, you may have a higher limit if you pay for one of the more expensive connections. You may also get a faster Internet connection included if you sign on for additional services, such as landline phones and cable TV.