What do broadband speeds actually mean?

Today’s post isn’t really about computers or computer repair but instead tries to answer a question we are asked all the time here at Dave’s Computers in New Jersey. What do broadband speeds mean and how are they determined? As speed is one of the major factors we use to make buying decisions, I thought it high time we found out.

Speed is just one factor in our broadband choices. Bandwidth is another. Bandwidth measures the size of the cable or connection and broadband speeds tells us how fast traffic can use that bandwidth.

Broadband basics

Depending on the service you use, your broadband will be delivered through a copper phone line or cable connection. Copper phone lines can achieve speeds of up to 80Mbps while fiber optic can be anything up to 1Gbps if you have fiber to your home. Cable can achieve 300-400Mbps depending on where you live and what services are available.

The Mbps part is megabits per second. Gbps is gigabits per second which is a measure of internet speed.

To give you an idea of what speed is required for what:

  • 1 Mbps is okay for streaming music, streaming SD quality video and normal web browsing.
  • 2 Mbps is required for streaming lossless music and better streaming of SD quality video.
  • 5 Mbps is good for streaming HD (720p) video.
  • 10 Mbps is ideal for streaming Full HD (1080p) video with high definition audio.
  • 25 Mbps is required for streaming 4K or Ultra HD video.

Speed for copper phone lines is determined by how far you are from your local telephone exchange and whether the phone company has fiber to the building or cabinet. Cable is available either as fiber to the cabinet or fiber to the home depending on where you live. Other services such as Google Fiber lay cable to the property too where available.

The quality of your broadband connection depends on this speed to be able to deliver the content you want quickly.

Up to not much good

One term you see a lot when you see commercials for broadband is ‘up to X speed’. This isn’t necessarily the company hedging their bets. Some technologies are subject to something called contention.

Contention is mainly on non-cable connections and is down to how phone networks were put together. It essentially means lots of subscribers having to share the same network. The more people online at the same time, the more contention you get and the slower the speed. How slow it goes depends again on where you live and how many people in your city using the service at once.

You can perform speed tests to see just how fast your broadband connection is. Just search for ‘broadband speed test’ and try one. You will need to enter your Zip code but nothing else.

Broadband speed is an important deciding factor in how we buy and everyone should know at least a little of how it works. Hopefully now you do and will be able to make much more informed decisions about your next broadband contract.