What is bandwidth?

In Internet terms, bandwidth refers to the amount of data that can transfer over a connection.

What is Internet bandwidth and is it the same as Internet speed or low latency?  

Language is a funny thing. Sometimes, we use two words interchangeably when they’re not synonymous, even though they seem to be. For instance, “guarantee” and “warranty” aren't necessarily the same, even if they have similar implications.   

We see this in cybersecurity too. Many people incorrectly use the terms “computer virus” and “malware” interchangeably. The difference between malware and a virus is that a virus is just one type of malware, while malware is a catchall term for all types of malicious software, from viruses and worms to ransomware, spyware, and Trojans. It’s a similar story for tech terms like “bandwidth”, “Internet speed”, “latency”, and “throughput”.

So, let’s walk through these terms to learn what bandwidth is and clarify the differences between bandwidth and related terms like speed, latency, and throughput.

What is bandwidth (in Internet terms)?

Bandwidth in telecommunications refers to a range of frequencies within a band (e.g. a radio band or radio spectrum). In Internet terms, bandwidth refers to the amount of data that can transfer over a connection. It’s typically measured in megabits per second (Mbps) and isn't the same as Internet speed.

The term “bandwidth” is also often used in other colloquial ways. In work settings, you might talk about your bandwidth or your team’s bandwidth to handle a certain amount of work. In family life, a parent might speak of their “bandwidth” to tolerate their kids' shenanigans.

Back to Internet bandwidth, a good analogy would be to picture two car tunnels with the same speed limits. While one tunnel has a two-lane road, the other with the greater bandwidth has an eight-lane road. Either tunnel will do for a trip if traffic volume is low, but the tunnel with the lower bandwidth is more likely to slow down from congestion during peak hours. Similarly, an Internet connection with less bandwidth may suffice if it only serves one user. But a larger household with people streaming films, games, and other content simultaneously will benefit from greater bandwidth.

Is bandwidth the same as Internet speed?

No, bandwidth is not the same thing as Internet speed. While bandwidth is the maximum theoretical volume of data that can transfer in an Internet connection, speed is how fast data transfers. However, bandwidth can impact speed. For instance, a high-speed but low bandwidth Internet connection can slow down if multiple users are downloading 4K movies simultaneously.

Is bandwidth the same as latency?

Latency isn’t the same thing as bandwidth. It’s a measurement of delay in a network. Low latency connections are best for competitive gamers, IT professionals, or doctors performing remote procedures.

Bandwidth vs. throughput

Bandwidth and throughput are similar but not quite the same. In a nutshell, bandwidth is the theoretical level of data, while throughput is the actual volume of data that transfers. Throughput is generally lower than bandwidth due to the following factors:

  • High latency
  • Bad and lost packets, typically because of hardware issues, bottlenecks, or cybersecurity threats
  • Network capacity limits, often due to congestion from peak hours
  • Bandwidth throttling from your ISP because you’re a heavy Internet user
  • Interference from devices nearby
  • Long distance from the Internet Gateway

How do I check my Internet bandwidth?

Bandwidth measurement tools like PRTG Network Monitor or Test TCP utility (TTCP) can help you determine your bandwidth. Many ISPs also have tools to check your Internet bandwidth. You can visit your ISP's website and check your Internet package for more information.

What is a good bandwidth?

Your ideal bandwidth depends on your needs. While 1Mbps is fine for less demanding users, other households require around 50 Mbps. Here is a quick summary to help you out:

  • 0.5 – 1 Mbps: Sending emails, surfing the Internet, streaming low-quality online radio, VoIP calls
  • 1 – 2 Mbps: Browsing social media pages, streaming music at basic quality
  • 2 – 3 Mbps: Making personal video calls and streaming high-quality music
  • 3 – 6 Mbps: Streaming videos at 480p, streaming music at HiFi quality, playing multiplayer video games, HD video teleconferencing
  • 5 – 25 Mbps: Streaming videos at 720p or 1080p
  • 25 Mbps to 50 Mbps: Streaming videos at 4K

How can I increase my bandwidth?

The most obvious way to increase your bandwidth is to contact your ISP and upgrade to a better package. You can sometimes negotiate better deals when you have a long relationship with your Internet company or if your area boasts several competitors. Periodically restarting your router or directly connecting to it with an Ethernet cable instead of wirelessly can improve your bandwidth too. 

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