Internet service providers always want to sell you a faster connection. But forget marketing: How much speed do you really need? The answer is more complicated than you might expect. Higher speed tiers aren’t always worth the money.
Internet connection speeds are usually measured in megabits per second, often written as Mbps. It takes eight megabits to form one megabyte, so if you have a 1000 Mbps connection (gigabit), it will take 8 seconds to download a 1 GB file.
Speed vs. Data Caps
It’s important to clarify the difference here. Internet speed is the measure of how much data you can download at once, and a data cap is a measure of how much you can download in a given month. They’re certainly related—if you have a faster connection and actually use that bandwidth, it’s much easier to max out your data cap.
Data caps are commonplace in the mobile industry, giving you a limited amount of data to use on your phone each month. They’re mostly just a way to split their service into tiers and charge you more money for “premium” options, and data requirements are growing faster than service providers can keep up.
While your phone might have a data cap, home ISPs like Comcast also impose a cap, usually at 1 terabyte of data (1024 gigabytes) per month—with an additional $50 per month option if you want no data cap. According to Comcast, most Xfinity internet subscribers use around 174 GB per month as of December 2018. But, if you have multiple people in your home and stream a lot of content, it’s very easy to push the data cap.
What Uses the Most Bandwidth?
Your internet speed is ultimately a measure of your bandwidth. If you have a 25 Mbps connection, you can watch five simultaneous 5 Mbps Netflix streams. With the average Internet speed in the US being close to 100 Mbps nowadays, most people won’t max out their connection. In rural areas, however, the maximum available speeds can be in the single digits.
In general, streaming video uses the most bandwidth—at least for the average user. Netflix uses around 5 Mbps for 1080p streams, and advises 25 Mbps for 4K streams. YouTube is usually a bit higher, since many videos are filmed at 60fps (twice the bandwidth), and it uses about 7 Mbps at 1080p60fps.
But this isn’t the whole picture. While a YouTube video might average out to be 7 Mbps, that’s not really how much bandwidth it actually uses. Since it will buffer in advance, YouTube will usually try to max out your connection, peaking in our tests at nearly 250 Mbps (on a 400 Mbps connection).
The opposite is also true. If you don’t have enough bandwidth available, YouTube will drop you down to 480p30fps or even lower, letting you watch videos even on a measly 1 Mbps connection. Netflix operates largely the same way by adjusting quality to available speed. If you have multiple devices running, your router will balance the traffic between all of them, and your stream will adjust accordingly.
So, in a sense, it doesn’t really matter how fast your connection is, as streaming video will generally use as much bandwidth as it can. As long as you have enough speed to at least support a low-quality stream, you won’t experience any buffering. Having a higher bandwidth stream will just enable higher quality video playback. This isn’t the case everywhere though, so having a surplus is always good.
Does Upload Speed Matter?
You upload speed is another part of your Internet plan that matters quite a bit. Far too often, Internet service providers will sell packages with great download speeds and terrible upload speeds. The reasoning is that people will do far more downloading than uploading. That’s true, but when you do upload something, your suburban connection will start to feel rural.
Your upload speed determines how fast you can upload content to the Internet. If you’re uploading files to Google Drive or Dropbox, you’re limited by upload speed. And it’s not just files—upload speed can affect your Facetime and Skype quality, since you’re essentially uploading a live video. If you’re thinking of streaming on a site like Twitch or YouTube, you’ll need a high upload speed. You don’t use it as often as you use your download speed, but it’s very important when you do.
You’ll be limited by the plans your ISP offers. They’ll usually advertise the download speed, and you’ll have to dig to find the upload speed. Xfinity here sells “gigabit” Internet, but only gives “up to” 35 Mbps upload. That’s 965 Mbps shy of being gigabit.
If you’re one of the many Americans stuck with a single service provider, you may have to invest in a more expensive plan if you want a reasonable upload speed. Getting a faster upload speed often involves opting for a more expensive business-grade internet connection from your ISP.
So How Fast Should Your Internet Connection Be?
There are two main factors that should influence your decision—how many people you have in your home and how much downloading you do. If you’re just streaming video in HD (not 4K), we would recommend at least 5 Mbps per person for a stable, decent quality stream with no buffering. Having a surplus is fine, but you likely won’t notice it in this use case.
If you’re doing anything bandwidth-intensive besides streaming video, like regularly making large downloads, your internet speed generally determines how fast you’ll download. You will definitely notice a surplus here. Downloading a 10 GB game from Steam at 5 Mbps takes nearly 4 hours, but it will take 15 minutes on a 100 Mbps connection. You’ll still be capped by the server you’re downloading from though, so don’t be surprised if you buy a gigabit plan only to see diminishing returns. In other words, even with a gigabit (1000 Mbps) connection, you probably won’t get gigabit speeds when downloading from Steam.
In general, you can browse the web and do most of your daily tasks just fine even on fairly slow connections. If your downloads are taking a bit too long for your liking, try investing in a better plan. If you regularly live stream, upload large files, backup your computer to the internet, or make video calls, you’ll want to make sure your upload speed isn’t throttled.
Are Fiber Connections Faster?
Fiber is usually faster because it can transfer a larger amount of data at once. A higher bandwidth pipe means your ISP can sell you a large chunk of that larger pipe. But this isn’t always the case, and depends on what your local ISP offers.
Fiber connections do offer another small advantage over cable connections: latency. Latency is how fast the signal can physically move from your computer onto the Internet. Fiber cables aren’t technically faster than good copper cables, but it’s a much newer standard and is usually faster than the (often decades old) cables powering most broadband Internet.
Latency doesn’t matter too much. Latency does matter when you click links on websites—higher latency means a longer moment before the next web page starts to load—but you won’t necessarily notice an incremental improvement. If you do a lot of online gaming, it can help lower your ping by a small margin and you might notice that in fast-placed gameplay requiring twitch reflexes. But fiber isn’t magic, and copper is still pretty good. The difference is only a couple milliseconds, and you likely won’t notice it at all most of the time.