CBT Nuggets

How Much Bandwidth Do You Really Need?

by David Zomaya
How Much Bandwidth Do You Really Need? picture: A
Published on July 2, 2019

When you ask someone how good their Internet is, they'll typically respond with the amount of bandwidth they're getting from their ISP (Internet Service Provider). However, bandwidth isn't all that matters when it comes to network speed and performance. Just purchasing more bandwidth won't necessarily solve your network performance issues.

So, how do you know how much bandwidth you really need? The short answer is: It depends. Hardware limitations and usage requirements will be driving factors in making an informed decision.

This means those looking to optimize their networks and spend wisely need to understand the answers to questions such as:

What's the difference between throughput and bandwidth? Will upgrading your bandwidth actually improve your slow connection? Should you upgrade your hardware when you upgrade your internet service? What amount of bandwidth & throughput do you need for gaming or HD video streaming?

Let's explore the answers to these questions and take a deep dive on the topic of bandwidth. With this information, you'll be able to optimize your network and potentially save yourself a lot of time and money.

Bandwidth Explained

When referring to network speeds, bandwidth is simply the amount of data allowed to go from point A to Point B.  This means when you're signing up for a 100Mbps plan from your ISP, you're paving a road that will allow you to travel speeds up to 100Mbps.  The important thing to note is that this isn't measuring the actual speed (more on that later), just the amount of data you can move. For example, let's compare bandwidth to a highway.

Let's picture a single car (plaintext email) traveling down a single lane highway (1 Mbps connection). This car will start driving uninterrupted until it reaches its destination (your network). Now, what if 10 cars were trying to get through?  You'll end up waiting for each car to individually reach its destination delaying the amount of time for all cars to arrive.

Now, let's increase the number of lanes on this highway (go from 1 Mbps to 10 Mbps). With this new road, all 10 cars can reach their destination at the same time, that is, if we assume they're all traveling at the same speed. Bandwidth is the road that allows data to travel through, the more bandwidth you have available the more traffic can come through at once.

Sorting Through the Bandwidth Acronyms 

There are a variety of different acronyms associated with internet services and network hardware. Understanding what they all mean is an important part of making informed bandwidth decisions.

Mbps stands for Megabits per second.  On the other hand, MBps (notice the uppercase "B") stands for Megabytes per second. There are eight bits in one byte.  This means an 8 Mbps connection is equivalent to a 1 MBps (residential connections will typically be measured in bits).

The same lowercase vs uppercase "B" rule applies to Gigabits and Gigabytes as well. Gigabits and Gigabytes are just bigger numbers. A Gigabit or Gb is 1000 (technically 1024) Mb. A Gigabyte or GB is 1000 (1024) MB.

Why does this matter? A 10 Mbps connection might look exactly the same as a 100 Mbps connection to someone only using their Internet to send and receive text-based emails.

A typical text-based email is usually under 1 Mb. In this case, this person will see no benefit by upgrading to a 100 Mbps connection from their current 10 Mbps. However, if another user on your network starts watching YouTube videos or gaming, the 10 Mbps connection starts to show its limits. In this situation, increasing the connection to 100 Mbps might actually make sense.  You'll widen the highway and get rid of congestion created by the other users on this network.

Bandwidth vs. Throughput

The terms bandwidth and throughput are often used together or even interchangeably. However, they are not the same and it's important to know the differences between the two. To put it simply, throughput refers to the actual speed of the data being transmitted.  While bandwidth is the maximum amount of data you can pass through. In the highway analogy, bandwidth is the road and throughput is the speed of the cars.

This means if you're currently downloading a file at 50 Mbps then your throughput is 50 megabits per second.  This is important to know so that you can better monitor your network and better diagnose other problems that might not be caused by low bandwidth.

Keep in mind, though, when you pay your ISP for service, they provide bandwidth. What you get is throughput.This means your throughput will always be lower than your bandwidth because that is the limit you are being provided.

The Impact of Network Congestion on Speed

One of the things that can affect your network connection is other people on the network. Let's say you started downloading a 5 GB file (GB = gigabyte, one of which is made up of 1,024 megabytes) and you are currently downloading data at 10 Mbps, you would be done in a little over an hour.  However, let's say you have another person join the network and download a similar file size.

Now you will see this download time double to more than two hours now. If a third person joins you'll now be receiving sharing your bandwidth and get 1/3 of what you started off with. This will only get worse as more people start to join your network. In this situation, bandwidth plays a very important role.  In this example you're getting 3.33 Mbps while sharing with two other people at 10 Mbps. You would get 33.33 Mbps in the same situation at 100 Mbps. Remember to factor in others when trying to determine how much bandwidth is right for you.

The Impact of Latency on Speed

If you are downloading a 10 Mb file from a 1 Gbps network, the download should be lightning fast, right? Not exactly. While you might think you can just immediately open small files up, the real world is a little more complex. You have to take into consideration one important thing: latency.

Going back to our hypothetical highway, latency is the speed at which we're traveling. Data is a two-way street you need send and receive in order to establish these connections. Think of this as a courier picking up and dropping off a package.  This transaction isn't complete data is picked up and dropped off. The speed at which this happens is latency.

If you're in a situation where small simple files are taking too long to open on a large bandwidth connection. Bandwidth probably isn't your problem, but something else can be causing increased latency. Upgrading bandwidth does no good in this situation.

The Impact of Hardware on Speed

In many cases, upgrading your bandwidth makes sense. If you're looking to stream high-definition video all day, 1 Mbps isn't going to cut it. However, it is important to keep in mind that your hardware also has limitations.

When changing your package with your ISP to get more bandwidth, you'll need to consider the age of your equipment and its limitations. If you upgrade to 1000 Mbps, but your PCs & switches only supports 10 Mbps you'll create a bottleneck. Although you're getting a large amount of bandwidth, your hardware just can't keep up this connection. It will provide what it can — not necessarily what you're paying for.

No matter what you do in this case, you have reached the limits of that hardware and will likely need to upgrade it in order to see performance upgrades. Always consider the hardware side when considering a bandwidth upgrade. This holds true in home and business networks alike.For example, a 100 Mbps switch, router, or firewall could be the bottleneck to achieving 1 Gbps speeds.

Wi-Fi can be especially tough to troubleshoot when it comes to network speed. If you're looking for some pro-tips on getting the most out of your wireless network, check out our 5 Errors That Will Slow Down Your Wireless Network post.

Practical Examples of Bandwidth & Throughput Requirements

With the information we've discussed thus far, you should be able to conceptually understand bandwidth. However, we still lack reference points to what amount of bandwidth people need in the real world. Online calculators such as this one can help, but it's still useful to have a practical understanding yourself.

Video streaming is one of the most bandwidth-intensive activities, so recommendations from Netflix and YouTubeare a great starting point here. Whether you're watching the latest episode of your favorite series or streaming CBT Nuggets training, you can use the information below as a reference:

  • 0.5 Mbps: Minimum required speed for Netflix video streaming. Quality may not be ideal at these speeds.

  • 0.7 Mbps: Minimum "goodput" for SD streaming with YouTube. Lower than 0.7 Mbps, you can expect poor quality and buffering.

  • 1.5 Mbps: Minimum recommended speed for Netflix video streaming.

  • 2.5 Mbps: Minimum required "goodput" for HD (720p) video streaming on YouTube.

  • 3.0 Mbps: Netflix minimum recommendation for SD (generally less than 720p) video quality.

  • 5.0 Mbps: Netflix minimum recommendation for HD (generally 720p or better) video quality.

  • 25 Mbps: Netflix minimum recommendation for Ultra HD (4K) video quality.

It's important to remember that the requirements here are throughput (or "goodput") and not bandwidth. That is, paying an ISP for 25 Mbps won't mean you have enough speed for Ultra HD. You'll need to be able to get at least 25 Mbps out of whatever bandwidth you have. Remember, bandwidth is the upper limit of how fast your data could go. Throughput is how fast your data is going.

Pro Tip: Many video streaming apps and websites offer ways to tweak video settings to improve performance. For example, here's what we suggest for our training videos.

Other Throughput Requirements

While video streaming is a big part of life on the internet, we all do other things, too. What sort of bandwidth is needed for those activities? Here are a few reference points:

  • Online radio: The FCC's Broadband Speed Guide is a useful reference that indicates online radio requires less than 0.5 Mbps.

  • Basic web browsing: If you just need to browse a few web pages and check email, you may not need much throughput. You can likely get by with 1 Mbps speeds for basic web browsing. 

  • Voice call with Slack: Phone calls over the internet is very popular. Persistent chat provider Slack recommends 200 kbps download and 100 kbps upload speeds for voice calls. For reference, the FCC indicates VoIP calls require less than 0.5 Mbps.

  • Video call: Videoconferencing is also quite popular. For a video call with five or more participants, Slack recommends 4 Mbps download and 600 kbps upload.

  • Online gaming: Using Nintendo Switch recommendations as a reference, you'll need at least 3 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload for quality gaming. Generally speaking, the more throughput the better for online gaming. Additionally, ping response times have a big impact on gaming quality. Target ping responses less than 150 milliseconds (ms) to help achieve the best quality.

Final Thoughts

While there's no one size fits all answer here on how much bandwidth you actually need, understanding what it is will help you make a better decision overall.  If all you plan to do is visit a few websites and check your email, something like a 1000 Mbps bandwidth might be overkill for you. You'll probably be just fine on a 10 Mbps connection and never think twice.

However, if you're sharing a home with three other gamers all using the connection at once in order to play online.  That that 10 Mbps connection to 1 Gbps might be what you need to increase your overall speeds and don't forget to upgrade your hardware if needed.  While you might be tempted to just get the largest plan your ISP is providing, step back and take a moment to look things over. You probably don't need as much as you think and your wallet will thank you.


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