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What Is Bandwidth: How Much Do I Need Each Month?

Bandwidth is understood synonymously with internet speed. The more you bandwidth you get, the faster internet you have. Equating bandwidth with internet speed is alright in laymen terms but you need to understand what speed is when it comes to sending and receiving information online.

When we talk about cars and their speed, or when we describe speed limits we refer to them in miles per hour, or kilometers per hour. Bandwidth is like that except, the units are different. Bandwidth is the amount of information that can be sent or received in one second.

Digital information is expressed in bits. Bandwidth is expressed as Mbps i.e. Megabits per second and a megabit is 60 million bits. Mbps is the standard unit for measuring bandwidth for broadband networks however, Ethernet networks can support much higher speeds and their bandwidth is sometimes expressed in Gbps i.e. Gigabits per second. Some broadband networks, especially those built using fiber optic cables can also support gigabits per second speeds.

Slow Vs Fast Internet

Slow and fast internet are again expressed in terms of speed i.e. 4Mbps is slower than 20Mbps. The numbers make it fairly easy to understand but what exactly happens, on a slightly technical level, when you have faster internet? Let’s expand on our car analogy from the previous section.

Let’s say there’s a one-way road with two lanes. Traffic can move in two lanes simultaneously. If the road is expanded and two more lanes are added, traffic can move twice as fast, assuming all cars are travelling at the same speed. Bandwidth is a lot like that. When you have 4Mbps bandwidth, you have 120 millions bits moving in one second. When you have 20Mbps, you have 1200 million bits moving per second.

Another popular analogy used to explain bandwidth is that of a tap. If you open a faucet half-way, less water comes out. This is your ‘slow’ internet i.e. low bandwidth. If you open a faucet all the way, more water comes out and this is your fast i.e. high bandwidth.

Slow and fast internet requirements are subject to how an internet connection is used. For example, if you’ve got one or two devices using the same connection, low bandwidth will meet most if not all of your needs. If you have far more devices and you intend to game online or binge on Netflix you’re going to need a much faster connection.

Bandwidth & Data Caps

Bandwidth always comes with data caps imposed by your ISP and your cellular network. A data cap limits how much information can be sent over a period of time. This period of time, usually a month defined by your billing period, dictates how much information can be sent and received.

Remember that bandwidth is essentially information travelling at a certain speed. ISPs and cellular networks impose data caps for three reasons;

  • To prevent network congestion
  • To prevent improper/unethical use of the network
  • To make money when they upsell the next data plan with a higher data cap

There is always a business side to data caps but not all data caps are bad so long as they’re reasonable and your ISP or cellular network allows you to roll over any remaining data to the next billing cycle.

A data cap of 80GB per month means that in one month, you can download 80GB of data. If you cross 80GB, you will have to pay for the additional data that you download. It’s also worth mentioning that data caps and bandwidth speeds aren’t just for downloads. They apply to uploads. Home users are less concerned with upload speeds and data caps on how much data they can upload but it matters a great deal to businesses that will likely upload a considerable amount of data on a regular basis e.g. when they back up data. This is why ISPs have separate data plans for  home users and businesses.

Bandwidth & Net Neutrality

Net neutrality is a very contentious topic at the moment and you might wonder what it has to do with bandwidth. At present all internet access i.e. everything you download and upload is treated the same. This means that you can download an email attachment or watch Netflix at the same speed. Your ISP treats all your internet activity the exact same way and this is net neutrality in the plainest of terms.

When net neutrality is limited, it allows ISPs to throttle your bandwidth depending on what you use your internet connection for. This means that if you have a 20Mbps connection, you can use it to download an email attachment but when you try to watch Netflix, your ISP will throttle the bandwidth speed to something much lower since you’re downloading media. In order to stream media, you will have to pay more more i.e. buy a different or separate data plan.

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