A Comprehensive Guide to Internet Speeds and Different Connection Types

Internet speeds are an essential part of our lives, it can affect our work, downtime, and cause frustration when it doesn’t meet expectations. Navigating the process of selecting an internet plan and Internet Service Provider (ISP) can be a confusing task, particularly when it comes to deciphering technical jargon. From the cable going into your home to trying to pick the perfect spot for your router this article will break down all you need to know about internet speeds.

Bandwidth vs Throughput

Bandwidth refers to the maximum amount of data that can be transmitted over a network at a given period of time. Throughput refers to the actual rate of data being successfully transmitted at a given period of time. Bandwidth is measure of capacity; throughput is a measure of performance.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is throughput-vs-bandwidth.png

Putting Speeds into Perspective

What is high-speed? Per the Federal Communications Commision the minimum requirements to be considered a broadband (high-speed) internet connection is 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. What are Mbps? The internet transfers data at a very fast pace, so fast that it is measured in thousands of bits per second (1 Mbps = 1,000,000 bits per second). How do I choose the right plan for my household? The average internet speeds in the US are around 200 Mbps download and 25 Mbps upload according to speedtest.net, which should be more than adequate for most household. Assessing your data consumption is key in deciding the right speed for you, here are some general rules to follow.

A large household using multiple smart devices, streams daily, and gets a lot of usage out of their network will need at least 100 Mbps. Someone who lives alone, is not working from home, and keeps streaming and overall internet usage to a minimum will be fine with a 25 Mbps plan. Here are some rough estimates of application data usage to put these plans into perspective: Netflix ~5 Mbps, Zoom ~3 Mbps, YouTube ~4 Mbps, Gaming ~4Mbps, Web Browsing ~1 Mbps. If you plan on using multiple devices wirelessly on your network you will run into issues choosing the minimum plan, Wi-Fi generally only provides ~60% of the maximum bandwidth advertised by ISP’s. Each device actively using the internet will use ~20Mbps so when choosing a plan remember to account for all devices that will be simultaneously using the network. If you work or learn from home download speeds can greatly affect productivity, here is a chart from allconnect.com showing download speed (grey) vs internet speed (blue).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is speeds.jpg

Types of High-Speed Internet

There are three main types of fixed broadband internet services. Understanding these terms will help you differentiate the internet options when calling your ISP. The most available service across the US is DSL (phone lines), cable internet is usually twice as fast as DSL, and the best and most expensive option is fiber. Where there are limitations in fixed broadband services a cellular or satellite connection may be more feasible. There are some exciting advancements in both satellite and cellular networks that will be discussed in another article. Here is a chart of ISP service tiers measured by the FCC.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is capturecomp.jpg

DSL

Uses existing telephone lines to transmit data and provide internet connectivity. This is not to be confused with dial-up, it uses separate frequencies and will not block phone traffic while using the internet.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dsl-1.jpg

There is a variety of connection speeds that can be offered by your ISP. It is secure and reliable, but its main draw is its availability and affordability. Using phone lines has its benefits, but also in comparison to other choices is weighed down by its disadvantages. Phone lines provide a direct connection to your ISP therefore your household will receive the full bandwidth rather than sharing bandwidth with your neighbors. DSL uses copper wire inside the phone lines to transmit signals which means performance is directly correlated to the quality of the phone lines. Degradation of phone lines and distance to your ISP will both affect the overall performance of your internet.

  • Download Speeds: 5-35Mbps
  • Upload Speeds: 1-10Mbps

DSL is the most available fixed network, but areas that are not physically close to an ISP will not get broadband speeds. Here is a map of DSL broadband reach across the US from the FCC.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dslbroadband.jpg

Cable

Uses coaxial cables, which are the same cables that are used to deliver cable TV signals, to provide internet access. A coax cable is a copper cable covered in insulation to protect it from signal interferences, it uses electrical signals to transmit data similarly to DSL.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is cax.jpg

To save on your internet, cable, and phone bills cable providers offer a bundling service to combine all the bills. Cable comes in a variety of speed and prices and is a great choice for those seeking a reliable and fast, but not lightning-fast network. A major advantage of cable is its ability to offer consistent speeds as the connection is not affected by distance from the ISP or the quality of phone lines, unlike DSL. It uses a shared network infrastructure where multiple users in the same neighborhood or vicinity can connect to the same cable node. However, during peak usage times, such as in the evenings when many users are streaming videos or playing online games, there may be some congestion and a slight reduction in speeds. The faster speeds and higher performance come with a slight premium, however to many an upgrade in their internet performance is worth the $10 dollars or so.

  • Download Speeds: ~50-500Mbps
  • Upload Speeds: ~5-50Mbps

The cable infrastructure is already in place in most of the country bringing broadband internet available to millions of people. Cable beats DSL in overall speed and is also protected against storms and weather outages. In this map produced by the FCC you will see the widespread coverage of broadband cable internet.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is cablebroadfband.jpg

Fiber

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is f.jpg

Uses fiber optic cables to transmit data using light signals, rather than electrical signals like DSL and cable. Fiber optic cables are made of thin strands of glass or plastic that can carry data over long distances at very high speeds, making fiber internet one of the fastest and most reliable types of internet connections available.

The data is transmitted using light signals that do not degrade over distance and offers symmetrical speeds, which means the download and upload speeds are the same, making it ideal for activities such as online gaming, video conferencing, and uploading large files. Fiber, as you will see, has many great features but is only available in ~25% of the country. Fiber optic cables are immune to electromagnetic interference, which can degrade the quality of signals in copper-based cables and is not affected by weather conditions. Fiber internet is typically more expensive than DSL or cable internet, as it offers faster speeds and higher performance. Additionally, installation of fiber internet may require professional technicians to install fiber optic cables directly to your home or business.

  • Download Speeds: 75Mbps – 5Gbps
  • Upload Speeds: 75Mbps – 5Gbps

Fiber optic is the newest, fastest, and most reliable fixed broadband technology. It is powered by expensive specialized cables, fiber-optic, that can transfer data up to 70% the speed of light. If you are living in a high bandwidth household with the option and means of purchasing the best internet look no further than fiber. Here is a map provided by the FCC of the fiber broadband coverage across the country.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is fiberboad.jpg

Hardware

A modem is a device connecting your home to your ISP through a physical connection. The modem translates the data from your ISP into a format that your home network devices can use. Routers guide and direct network data, using packets that contain various kinds of data such as files, communications, and simple transmissions like web interactions. The router creates a LAN and allow us to connect multiple devices while it organizes connections and forwards traffic to the right client. Each type of internet service requires unique hardware to operate. Modem router combos are a convenient option for setting up your network. The ISP will offer rental modem router combos, but with a little research you can save some money and buy your own from the compatibility list on your ISP’s website.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is dslmo-1.jpg
DSL modem router
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is c7000-connection_diagram_tcm148-22831-1.png
Cable modem router
This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is wan-port-1.jpg
Separate modem and router

With convenience comes some disadvantages, modem router combos give the user much less flexibility with their network. For someone who wants to tinker with their network, control security settings, and upgrade their hardware every once in a while, go with a separate modem and router. For less techy people check your ISP’s website and buy your own combos from the compatibility list.

Your internet can only be as fast as your plan, but in some cases the router or modem can bottleneck your network. There is no magic router and there are a variety of reasons for network interruptions, but to make sure you are not paying for speeds you’re not using check the capabilities of your router. Older or outdated modems and routers could be overwhelmed by network upgrades, by doing a few google searches you can find out if your hardware is holding you back.

Network Performance

Using a wired connection will ensure that no bandwidth is lost over a wireless signal. But the reality is we love our wireless devices, so let’s make sure that we are optimizing our setup. Simply moving your router to an area of your home that is centrally located and present the least number of distractions will greatly increase network performance. A well-placed router should reach ~150ft indoors and ~300ft outdoors, a general rule is that you will decrease the throughput of your signal by 1/3 when you double the connection distance. A Wi-Fi extender, upgrading your router, and more involved option for extending Wi-Fi range is using a mesh network which uses nodes to expand converge.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is fs.jpg
Wi-Fi range extender

Monitoring Network Bandwidth

As the number of users accessing a network increases, the available network bandwidth can be impacted. When more users connect to a network and start transmitting data, the available bandwidth is divided among them, which can result in reduced bandwidth per user. This can lead to slower network speeds, increased latency, and reduced performance for all users. To effectively manage and monitor network bandwidth, there are various tools and techniques available. Bandwidth monitoring tools can help track and analyze network traffic, allowing administrators to identify potential bandwidth bottlenecks and take corrective actions. The easiest method to monitor bandwidth is via your router. Log into your router via a browser and navigate to a device list section, here you will be provided with informational bout devices and their bandwidth usage. Once you narrow the issue down to a couple devices you can do some digging into why it is using so much bandwidth. There are many other tools and monitoring software that can give insight into network performance.

Conclusion

I hope this article provided some useful information in regards to internet services and network troubleshooting.

Tagged: