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How to Choose a Internet Speed

No one wants slow internet, but faster speeds can quickly get expensive. You’ll want to find a sweet spot between “still buffering” and “Internet costs how much?”

Understanding bandwidth

Generally speaking, bandwidth is the maximum rate at which you can download data from the internet to your computer

Think about bandwidth like a water hose. Say you need to fill a 400 litre tank. If your garden hose puts out only 20 litres of water per minute, you’ll be waiting 20 minutes to fill the tank. But a huge firehose that puts out 4 litres of water every second will fill the tank in less than two minutes.

Bandwidth is like the size of the hose. The larger it is, the more data you can pull down in a given time.

Bandwidth is measured in bits per second. Note that bits are different than bytes, the common measure of file size. One byte equals 8 bits, so 1 megabyte (MB) equals 8 megabits.

If you have a 1 megabit-per-second connection, a 1MB file will take eight seconds to download.

On a 1 Mbps connection, an MP3 file, which might measure about 6MB, will take about 48 seconds to download. A 5 gigabyte, or 5,000MB, movie will take about 11 hours.

How much bandwidth you need

The bandwidth you’re allotted is shared among all devices on your connection. How much you need depends on how you use the internet.

If you’ve got one person downloading a video game, someone else streaming a movie and another person refreshing Instagram on his phone, you’ll need enough bandwidth to keep everyone happy.

Video streaming tends to eat up the most bandwidth, so households running simultaneous streams may want to pony up for higher speeds. Netflix recommends a 3 Mbps connection for one standard-quality stream and 5 Mbps for a high-definition stream. Two simultaneous HD quality streams would need around 10 Mbps, and so on.

Online video games don’t require much bandwidth to play. However, downloading a video game or other huge file takes lots of bandwidth.

Frequent file-sharers and downloaders might opt for higher speeds, although it’s easy enough to schedule your downloads when network demand is low and more bandwidth is free, like late at night.

If you use the internet just for general web surfing, emailing and social media you won’t need much more than 1 Mbps.

In the chart below, you’ll find bandwidth estimates assuming one user performing one activity at a time. If you have multiple users on the same connection, you’ll need to account for the extra bandwidth.

What internet speed do you need?

If you want … You’ll need about…

  • General web surfing, email, social media (1 Mbps)
  • Online gaming* (1-3 Mbps)
  • Video conferencing** (1-4 Mbps)
  • Standard-definition video streaming (3-4 Mbps)
  • High-definition video streaming (5-8 Mbps)
  • Frequent large file downloading (50 Mbps and up)

*A connection with low latency, the time it takes your computer to talk to the game server, is more important than bandwidth for gaming.
**You’ll want at least a 1 Mbps upload speed for quality video conferencing.

Based upon this data, a four person household’s bandwidth utilization might look something like this:

  • Mom – Streaming Video on Smart TV (4Mbps Usage) + Social Media (0.1Mbps Usage)
  • Dad – Streaming HD Movie on Smart TV (5.3Mbps Usage) + Sending Email (0.1Mbps Usage)
  • Teen Child – Streaming Music (2Mbps Usage) +Playing online game (0.2Mbps Usage) + Audio call with other players (0.3Mbps Usage)
  • Primary School Child – Streaming Video on Tablet (5.3Mbps Usage)
  • Home Security 1 device (1.2Mbps Usage)
  • Smart Phones 3 phones (3Mbps Usage)

Peak Total Household Usage = 22Mbps*

Real-Time Total Household Usage = 10mbps**

*It’s important to note that the bandwidth estimates for phones and other devices is when they are IDLE.  Should they update or send/receive other data, they will use more bandwidth.

**Please note that because streaming video buffers data to be used when needed the indicated speed is varied as it requests more data. For example a HD Video stream can run multiple 6mbps streams without seeing any degradation of quality. So even if the peak usage is above 20mbps a 10mbps connection is capable of delivering a proper Quality of Experience.  

Keep in mind that the speed you sign up for isn’t always the speed you get. Rather, you can get up to the listed speed; your available bandwidth can be affected by other households’ network demand, your own hardware and your provider’s infrastructure quality, among other factors.

In some cases, like when overall network demand is low, you might even get faster speeds than you signed up for.

While download speed is the major criteria you’ll be looking at, upload speed can be important, too, especially if you’re recording video for others to stream. Upload speed is usually listed as the second number after download speed — for example, 4 Mbps/1 Mbps — and will often be smaller than your download bandwidth.

Article Written by Stephen Layton