A person using a laptop while sitting on their couch.
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Your local internet service provider (ISP) likely has a variety of packages ranging from budget options to the fastest speeds available in the region. But how much download speed do you actually need?

To get to the bottom of how much download speed you actually need from your ISP, let’s look at what common internet activities require, how to calculate what your household needs, and the times when having the fastest speed available actually provides some benefit.

How Much Bandwith Common Activities Require

One thing we’ve noticed when talking to various friends, family members, and neighbors, is how frequently mismatched their internet plan is with the internet activities they’re actually engaging in.

For example, just the other day, I discovered that one of my elderly neighbors, who uses the internet for little more than social media to keep up with family and some light YouTube browsing, was paying for a gigabit fiber connection.

Yet the family right next door, who spent the last two years working from home, was using a slow DSL connection a mere fraction-of-a-fraction the speed of the elderly neighbor’s fiber line. Worse yet, the slow DSL was even more expensive than the fiber! Clearly, the internet packages are mismatched to their users, but how is the average person supposed to know that?

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The easiest way to put how much bandwidth, or download speed, you need into perspective is to consider how much bandwidth various common internet activities require and then consider how big a role those activities play in your internet use.

Let’s look at some common activities, ranked from the least demanding to the most demanding.

Internet Activity Minimum Recommended Download Speed
Email 1 Mbps
Music Streaming 2 Mbps
General Web Browsing 3 Mbps
Social Media 5 Mpbs
Online Gaming 5 Mpbs
Video Conferencing 5 Mpbs
HD Video Streaming 5 Mbps
4K Video Streaming 15 Mbps

It might come as a surprise to many people, but when you look at individual internet activities they simply aren’t that demanding. Low bandwidth activities like using email (or any other text-based communication like chatting), streaming music, or just browsing around the web searching for things or reading posts on your favorite forum, just don’t use that much bandwidth.

And what you might think is a high bandwidth activity, like streaming video, isn’t actually particularly high bandwidth in the grand scheme of things. You just don’t need that much download speed to stream video. With a gigabit fiber connection, you could likely stream 4K video to TVs in every single room in your house, plus all the handheld devices, and still have some bandwidth to spare.

Further, before we leave this section, it’s important to emphasize that more bandwidth doesn’t make a less-demanding bandwidth activity better.

There is an upper threshold to how much bandwidth any given activity is going to use. If you need 5 Mbps of bandwidth to enjoy a smooth and stutter-free HD video stream, having 500 Mbps doesn’t make for an exponentially improved experience. It’s just extra bandwidth you’re not using—but paying for the privilege of keeping on perpetual standby just in case.

Calculating Your Household’s Bandwidth Needs

A family using tablets and laptops in an airy open-concept living space.
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.com

If you read that bit above about how a gigabit connection could stream 4K to a dozen or more devices in your home without strain, you might have thought “But I don’t need to stream 4K to every single room of my house, that’s silly.” And it is silly. For the vast majority of people, purchasing the highest tier of internet service available to them, especially if that’s gigabit speeds, is overkill.

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Instead, they should look at how their household actually uses the internet and purchase an internet package that aligns with that.

For a single person household where the regular internet activities are playing around on Instagram while watching Netflix after work, there really isn’t much need for more than 15-20 Mbps of bandwidth—and that assumes the person is watching 4K content and furiously scrolling through Instagram at the same time.

You can adjust that estimate easily by looking at the chart above and guesstimating how often high-demand activities happen simultaneously. Have a larger household where multiple adults or teenagers are all streaming video simultaneously in the evening and, perhaps, gaming at the same time while they binge-watch Netflix? Multiply the number of users in your household by those activities.

Tip: Want an easy rule of thumb? Multiply the number of users in your household by 25 Mbps to determine your total bandwidth needs.

Again, you might be surprised to see that the number, even if you believed your household to be pretty internet hungry, is actually fairly low.

The reality is that despite the shiny allure of getting gigabit internet, most households really only need around 50-100 Mbps of internet bandwidth to meet all their needs

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Even a household full of people living in a more-or-less permanent online state likely won’t need more than 200 Mbps to give everybody a satisfactory experience.

If you have a connection in that range (or even faster) and you’re not happy with it, we don’t recommend you call your ISP. We strongly recommend you skip the gigabit internet package and upgrade your router instead.

Once you hit a certain bandwidth tier, the source of your dissatisfaction with your home internet isn’t the available bandwidth it’s your router’s inability to do something useful with it.

If we had to choose, we would always choose a home setup with a modest broadband package but a fantastic Wi-Fi and network setup over the fastest connection paired with a dusty old router.

High Speeds Only Benefit Sustained Downloads

For downloading big games on-demand, faster internet is always nice.

It sure sounds like we’re pretty down on top-tier high-speed internet packages, so you might be left wondering when it’s useful to actually have a gigabit connection.

There’s certainly one area where having a very fast connection shines: downloading things quickly.

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Let’s say, for example, that you have a 100 Mbps internet connection and you want to download a new game. Most AAA titles these days are massive and routinely weigh in at 100+ GB. On a 100 Mbps connection, you can expect a sustained download speed of around 12.5 MB/s. (The reason it’s not 100 MB/s is that your internet speed is measured in megabits and data storage is measured in megabytes. To translate your advertised internet speed into actual download speed, divide it by 8 to convert bits to bytes.)

So to download a 100GB game, it would take around 2 hours and 15 minutes under ideal conditions. By contrast, on a gigabit connection (1000 Mbps) the maximum sustained download speed would be around 125 MB/s. Under ideal conditions, it would only take around 13.5 minutes to download your game. Let’s put a big emphasis on the “ideal conditions” bit, by the way. Even with a gigabit connection, you’re often bottlenecked by the remote server.

When you scale the size of the download back though, the differences become less significant. To download a 1GB file it would take 8 seconds with a 1000 Mbps connection and 1 minute and 20 seconds with a slower 100 Mbps connection.

Armed with this information you just have to do some simple math and decide if the price difference between the lower tier internet package and the higher tier internet package is worth that time savings for you. If you can get 100 Mbps internet for $25 a month and 1000 Mbps gigabit internet for $100 a month, the difference in cost over a year is $900.

If you download a ton of stuff and you hate waiting, maybe it’s worth that $900 (or whatever it may be) premium to get your games, files, and other downloads right now.

But unless there’s something else incentivizing you to move up to the higher internet tier, like you want more upload speed or you get a “free” Netflix or HBO Max account with the upgrade, you’re probably better off saving the money and doing something more useful with it like investing it in a better router.

The Best Wi-Fi Routers of 2022

Best Wi-Fi Router Overall
Asus AX6000 (RT-AX88U)
Best Budget Router
TP-Link Archer AX3000 (AX50)
Best Cheap Router
TP-Link Archer A8
Best Gaming Router
Asus GT-AX11000 Tri-Band Router
Best Mesh Wi-Fi Router
ASUS ZenWiFi AX6600 (XT8) (2 Pack)
Best Budget Mesh Router
Google Nest Wifi (2 Pack)
Best Modem Router Combo
NETGEAR Nighthawk CAX80
Best VPN Router
Linksys WRT3200ACM
Beat Travel Router
TP-Link AC750
Best Wi-Fi 6E Router
Asus ROG Rapture GT-AXE11000

 

Profile Photo for Jason Fitzpatrick Jason Fitzpatrick
Jason Fitzpatrick is the Senior Smart Home Editor at How-To Geek. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at How-To Geek, Review Geek, LifeSavvy, and Lifehacker. Jason served as Lifehacker's Weekend Editor before he joined How-To Geek.
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