Everything you need to know about internet speeds

Alex Sheehan
AS
Alex Sheehan
May 30, 2019

Internet speed is one of the biggest considerations when choosing an internet service provider. It determines not only how quickly you can perform tasks online, but how many of those tasks your network can handle at a single time. Unless you’re living solo and only browsing Facebook, you might need more than the minimum speed.

Below, we’ll go over why internet speed matters, how to check your speed, and what to do if it’s not fast enough to handle your household connection needs.

What is internet speed and why does it matter?

Internet speed refers to how much data and information can be transferred over the web on a single connection at any given time.

This is important for consumers because your internet speed determines what types of activities you can do on the internet, as well as how many devices you can connect at once. Understanding how you and your family use the internet at home will help you determine which internet speeds you need to get from your provider.

If your internet speed is too slow, you might run into trouble performing tasks on the web like streaming video, playing video games or uploading files. If it’s too fast, you could be overpaying for internet services.

Many internet service providers advertise their upload and download speeds. However, these numbers aren’t always accurate. It’s always a good idea to do your research and find out what their real internet speeds are.

Internet speed glossary: terms you should know

When understanding internet speeds and how they work, it’s helpful to arm yourself with some handy definitions:

  • Bandwidth – Bandwidth measures the total number of frequencies, or capacity, a network connection can handle at any given moment. The higher the bandwidth, the faster your internet speed.
  • Broadband – Broadband basically tells you how fast your internet connection is.
  • Bit – Internet speed is measured in bits per second (bps). This is the smallest unit of computer information, so you’ll often see internet speeds referred to as megabits per second (Mbps).
  • Byte – 1 byte is equal to 8 bits. We use bytes to refer to how much memory is available or being transferred.
  • Download – This tells you how quickly information from external sources is received by your router.
  • Latency – Latency measures the delay in data transfer, telling you how fast data gets from a source to its destination.
  • Mbps – “Megabits per second” is how we gauge internet speeds. This number represents the bandwidth of an internet connection, which is how much data can be transferred each second.
  • MBps – “Megabytes per second” measures the file size when talking about how much data can be transferred each second. You might also see this figure represented as MB.

Read more about the difference between Mbps and MBps

  • Modem – The modem is what connects the devices on your private network to external global networks.
  • Ping – A ping is a test which determines if a server is reachable. The test sends a data packet to the server to see if the data comes back.
  • Ping time – Measured in milliseconds, ping time tells you how fast a data packet travels to the server and back. If your connection doesn’t register the data request for a couple of seconds, you may see a lag in your connection.
  • Router – This piece of hardware is at the center of private internet networks. It facilitates all of the connections between devices and your network.
  • Upload – This tells you how quickly information from your network is sent to external networks.

Learn more about the difference between uploading and downloading

  • Wi-Fi – Wi-Fi offers a wireless internet connection, negating the need for devices to connect via hardware, such as an ethernet cable.

How much bandwidth do you need?

Your internet speed needs really depend on your usage. The FCC recommends 12–25 Mbps for homes with multiple internet users or for frequent online streaming.

General use activitiesMinimum download speed (Mbps)
General browsing and email1
Streaming online radioLess than 0.5
VoIP callsLess than 0.5
Student5 – 25
Telecommuting5 – 25
File downloading10
Social media1

Let’s break it down by activity:

Streaming

To stream videos, you’ll need at least 3 Mbps. It takes at least 25 Mbps for 4K streaming on your computer or Ultra HD-enabled devices. Some streaming services suggest faster speeds:

  • Fubo TV – at least 40 Mbps
  • Netflix – at least 3 Mbps for standard definition; 5 Mbps for HD; 25 Mbps for HDR or 4K
  • Hulu – at least 3 Mbps for on-demand; 8 Mbps for Live TV
  • DIRECTV NOW – at least 2.5 Mbps; 2.5–7.5 Mbps for HD on mobile devices; 12 Mbps for streaming via web browser on a computer
  • Amazon Prime Video – 900 Kbps for SD; 3.5 Mbps for HD
Watching videoMinimum download speed (Mbps)
Streaming Standard Defintion (SD) video3 – 4
Streaming High Definition (HD) video5 – 8
Streaming Ultra HD 4K video25

Gaming

At a minimum, you need 4–8 Mbps for online gaming. For consistently efficient gaming, 10–25 Mbps tend to be best.

For gamers, it’s also important to pay attention to ping time, because you’re doing a significant amount of both uploading and downloading. For ping time, aim for 20 milliseconds or less, but you can get by with 20–100 milliseconds.

GamingMinimum download speed (Mbps)
Game console connecting to the internet3
Online multiplayer4

To make your internet faster at home, boost your Wi-Fi signal. Resetting or moving your router can boost and stabilize your signal. You could also add a Wi-Fi repeater or extender to improve internet signals for gaming devices further away from your router.

Working from home

There are no one-size-fits-all answers when it comes to working from home; it really boils down to what kind of uploading and downloading you need to do in your job.

If you frequently download and upload large files, you’ll want internet speeds of at least 40 Mbps. For simpler computer programs (word processing, for example), you can get by with just 3–4 Mbps. For lots of video conferencing, you’ll want to sit somewhere in the middle with at least 10 Mbps.

Video conferencingMinimum download speed (Mbps)
Standard personal video call (e.g. Skype)1
HD personal video call (e.g. Skype)1.5
HD video teleconferencing6

How to check Wi-Fi speed

To figure out how fast your internet and Wi-Fi connections are, use Allconnect® to take an online speed test with a computer that’s connected to your home network. We’ll also tell you your ping time and upload vs. download speeds.

Internet speed fluctuations

You might have noticed that sometimes your internet is faster or slower than usual. This is normal and could be due to a number of reasons.

Type of internet connection

There are several types of internet connections, and each one has its own speed accommodations.

  • Dial-up – Dial-up uses a phone line connection, which means there’s no broadband connection. This makes it the slowest internet connection. Dial-up continues to be increasingly uncommon.
  • DSL – Digital Subscriber Line uses copper wires (similar to phone lines) which can accommodate a broadband connection. It’s faster than dial-up but caps out at about 3 Mbps.
  • ADSL – Asymmetric Direct Subscribe Line is the same as a DSL connection except it focuses on fast download speeds instead of upload speeds. This is pretty common among internet service providers. Typically, download speeds are faster than upload. This can pose a problem for gamers and people who upload large files.
  • Cable – This type of internet connection uses coaxial cables (the same ones as cable TV) and are known to have high-speed capabilities. Coaxial cables can carry data faster than copper wires. However, because there’s the potential for many households to share the same cables — especially in highly populated areas — you may be more susceptible to slower speeds during peak times (more on that in a bit).
  • Satellite – Satellite internet doesn’t rely on wires or cables. Instead, data is sent up into the air, where satellites receive it and send it back down to its destination. This type of connection is widely available, even in rural areas, but can be slower because of the long distances information must travel. Generally speaking, satellite is relatively quick and can reach broadband speeds, but can have issues during bad weather or other circumstances which may interfere with data transfer.
  • Fiber – Instead of phone lines, coaxial cables or copper wires, fiber uses fiber-optic cables which can handle larger amounts of data at a time. This makes it the fastest internet connection available. Because the technology is new, it’s also the least widely available.

Router location

Where you put your router can weaken the signal. Avoid putting it in places near potential signal-blockers like radios, microwaves or thick/dense walls. You also want to get it off the floor, as other signals might travel along the floor and interfere with your internet.

The best place to put your internet router is the middle of your home in an elevated, clear spot.

Router settings

This is a bit more technical, but there are potential issues you can troubleshoot to see if you can make your internet faster:

  • Your router may be on a busy 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi channel. If other people are using overlapping channels, bandwidth is eaten up and your connection slows down. Switch to channel 1, 6 or 11 to avoid overlap.
  • Your router’s Request To Send (RTS) threshold settings may be too low. The maximum is 2346. If you have lots of users, adjusting the threshold could help your network become more stable because it tells your router to send data more often. Try 2304 bytes at first since it’s best to test small changes.
  • Your router may have data packet size settings that limit how much data can be sent or received at once. Most routers have a default Maximum Transition Unit (MTU) setting of 1500; make sure it’s not set any lower than that. (Note: If you work from home using a VPN, you’ll want to keep a lower setting.)

Malware

Malware can infect your computer’s hardware, software or applications. One type is internet malware that infects computer applications such as web browsers. This kind of malware can open multiple browsers in the background which can slow internet speeds.

Luckily, we’ve put together a few ways to prevent malware from infecting your devices.

Throttling

It’s not uncommon for internet service providers to throttle internet speeds when you exceed your plan’s data limit, and some have even been accused of throttling internet speeds for certain websites or activities.

If it’s the latter, it could be time to change your plan and up your speeds. For the former, run a speed test outside of the 7–11 p.m. busy period, then install a VPN and run the same test. If the speeds are similar, throttling likely isn’t the culprit. If they’re different, this could be a sign of throttling.

Why is my internet slow at night?

Most people use their home internet in the evening, particularly during “rush hour” from 7–11 p.m. This can slow internet speeds, especially for cable internet users. There really isn’t much of a solution to this issue, other than reducing the number of devices using the internet at this time or increasing the speed on your plan.

Your own internet activity

Much like your neighbors can affect internet speeds, so can you. If you’re connecting many devices at once or doing high-bandwidth activities like uploading 4K video to YouTube or a 500 GB PDF to a server, this can impact other devices on your network and the speed with which you’re able to connect.

You could try to connect via hardwire (such as an ethernet cord) to help with these issues, as well as limit the number of devices connected while you’re doing these high-bandwidth activities.

How to speed up Wi-Fi

If none of the solves above address your internet speed issues, you can take a few additional steps to boost your connection:

  • Make it a habit to restart your router. This allows them to “refresh” and clear stored up data.
  • Upgrade your router. Look for a high-quality, long range router to deliver the best internet speeds.
  • Amp up your security. Other users may have found a way to leech off your connection. Use hard-to-guess passwords and WPA2 security.
  • Switch from your 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi channel to the 5 GHz one. A 5 GHz channel has 23 overlapping channels compared to 16 for 2.4 GHz, which can increase speeds.
  • Angle one Wi-Fi antenna straight up and the other to the side. This will send the connection both directly up and down through ceilings and horizontally through walls for well-rounded coverage.

Conclusion

It’s important to get set up with the internet you need. Learn how to choose your internet connection.