Internet service providers always want to sell you a faster connection. But forget marketing: How much speed do you really need? The answer is more complicated than you might expect. Higher speed tiers aren’t always worth the money.
Internet connection speeds are usually measured in megabits per second, often written as Mbps. It takes eight megabits to form one megabyte, so if you have a 1000 Mbps connection (gigabit), it will take 8 seconds to download a 1 GB file.
Speed vs. Data Caps
It’s important to clarify the difference here. Internet speed is the measure of how much data you can download at once, and a data cap is a measure of how much you can download in a given month. They’re certainly related—if you have a faster connection and actually use that bandwidth, it’s much easier to max out your data cap.
Data caps are commonplace in the mobile industry, giving you a limited amount of data to use on your phone each month. They’re mostly just a way to split their service into tiers and charge you more money for “premium” options, and data requirements are growing faster than service providers can keep up.
While your phone might have a data cap, home ISPs like Comcast also impose a cap, usually at 1 terabyte of data (1024 gigabytes) per month—with an additional $50 per month option if you want no data cap. According to Comcast, most Xfinity internet subscribers use around 174 GB per month as of December 2018. But, if you have multiple people in your home and stream a lot of content, it’s very easy to push the data cap.
What Uses the Most Bandwidth?
Your internet speed is ultimately a measure of your bandwidth. If you have a 25 Mbps connection, you can watch five simultaneous 5 Mbps Netflix streams. With the average Internet speed in the US being close to 100 Mbps nowadays, most people won’t max out their connection. In rural areas, however, the maximum available speeds can be in the single digits.
In general, streaming video uses the most bandwidth—at least for the average user. Netflix uses around 5 Mbps for 1080p streams, and advises 25 Mbps for 4K streams. YouTube is usually a bit higher, since many videos are filmed at 60fps (twice the bandwidth), and it uses about 7 Mbps at 1080p60fps.
But this isn’t the whole picture. While a YouTube video might average out to be 7 Mbps, that’s not really how much bandwidth it actually uses. Since it will buffer in advance, YouTube will usually try to max out your connection, peaking in our tests at nearly 250 Mbps (on a 400 Mbps connection).
The opposite is also true. If you don’t have enough bandwidth available, YouTube will drop you down to 480p30fps or even lower, letting you watch videos even on a measly 1 Mbps connection. Netflix operates largely the same way by adjusting quality to available speed. If you have multiple devices running,…
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