A Guide to Internet Speeds: How Internet Speeds Work and What You Actually Need

A Guide to Internet Speeds: How Internet Speeds Work and What You Actually Need

You can’t really get by without the internet these days – especially not if you’re a cord cutter. The internet is where you get everything from our clothes to our date on Friday night (hey, you can wear those new clothes!), so it’s no wonder that many people consider the internet to be an essential utility. But, unlike many other utilities, the internet comes in different forms and at different speeds. You pay for your water and your electricity based on how much you use, but – for now, at least – you pay a flat rate for your internet. Your choice instead becomes how fast you want your internet to be, which can be pretty confusing if you don’t know how internet speeds work or how fast your internet should be (or needs to be). That’s why we’re here with a guide to internet speeds. Below, we’ll explain what the heck a Mbps is and how internet speeds are actually measured. We’ll also explain how fast your internet needs to be for various common online activities. Read? Let’s do this.

What Internet Speed Actually Is

The internet is, of course, a network. In the early days, it involved a lot of physical wires. These days, a lot of stuff is connected wirelessly. But the basics are still the same: the internet is a big network that connects your device – your computer, your phone, or whatever else you’re using – to other devices.

So when you view a website, what is actually happening is that the internet-connected server that is hosting that website is sending information to your device so that your device can display the page. Your device sends information back, too, both in obvious ways (when you send an email, for instance) and less obvious ones.

When we talk about the speed of the internet, what we’re really talking about is the speed at which that information is traveling back and forth on the network, to and from your device.

We see internet speeds in things like loading times. Slow internet isn’t the only reason that your computer might struggle to load a website, of course (more on that later), but, all else held equal, a faster internet connection will deliver the information your device needs to that device faster, which will mean faster loading times for everything from websites to streaming videos.

How Internet Speeds Work: What Is Mbps?

So internet speeds are just a measure of how fast information is sent to and from your computer over the internet: that’s simple enough. So what’s with all of these numbers?

The numbers you see when you research internet speeds are usually measures in Mbps. That stands for “megabits per second,” and it’s just a measurement of a rate – like “miles per hour.” In this case, the rate tells us how much information (in megabits) is being transferred over time (in seconds).

What’s a megabit? It’s a unit of data that is equal to a bit over 1 million bits. “Bits,” in turn, are the smallest measure of data in confusing: a 0 or a 1.

If this sounds not-quite-familiar, that’s because other areas of computer often use the megabyte, which is bigger than a megabit – eight times bigger, to be exact. That’s because a byte is 8 bits. Computers like dealing with multiples of two, since everything is built on binary data points – those 0-vs.-1, yes-vs.-no “bits.”

There’s no need to get too hung up on things, though. Suffice it to say that the more bits you can move over your internet connection in a second, the faster your internet is; and that the best unit for measuring this number is megabits per second, or Mbps.

Next up: why are there often two numbers?

Well, as you may have noticed, there are two directions that information can move on the internet, relative to you: toward your computer and away from it. We call these things “downloading” and “uploading,” and that’s all the two numbers are: the download and upload speeds.

And you don’t really need those two numbers to be the same! Most of what we typical consumers do on the internet requires more speed on the way to us: we want 4K video and music and all of that good stuff to stream quickly from internet servers to our devices. What we send back is usually less bulky: text, the occasional photo upload to Facebook, and so on. So, generally speaking, you’re going to see download numbers be equal to or greater than upload numbers on most internet deals.

How Fast Should Your Internet Be?

Hey, wait a minute, we already wrote a post that covered this!

How to Get Internet Without Cable: Your Guide to Choosing the Right Plan and Saving Money

Okay, okay, let’s recap here. While we’re at it, we can tie our guidelines into the broader question of how internet speeds actually work.

We’ve established that internet speeds refer to how fast information is moved over the internet. We’ve also established that we’re measuring that information in megabits and, therefore, the speed of our internet in megabits per second (Mbps). And we’ve established that we care about upload and download speeds.

Before we go any further though, we should mention that “download speed” affects you even if you “don’t download” things on the internet. You probably know that you are “downloading” something when you save a file from the internet onto your computer. But you should know that the term “download” can refer to all the information your computer gets from the internet – even if that information is not being stored. See, your computer still has to receive information from the internet in order to show the websites and all the other good stuff on your screen. When you navigate away, your computer is going to toss most of that data – but it was on your computer, and it was downloaded.

This is an important thing to remember, especially in our world of cord cutting. People who would never download strange files on the internet are often surprisingly willing to stream video on the internet from sketchy, illegal sites. But make no mistake: when you stream, your computer is downloading a bit of a video, showing it to you, and throwing it out while it downloads the next bit. Every bit (literally!) of that video ends up on your computer at some point or another.

So be careful, and remember: download speeds matter! They matter if you just visit websites, and they matter if you deliberately download files, and they matter if you stream video or music. It’s all downloading!

Which brings us to the big question here: how much downloading – in this broad sense of the word – do you need to do?

And remember, your internet covers all the devices you connect it to! Even light browsing can be taxing if you’re doing it on a lot of devices at once.

So our question can be subdivided into two basic questions:

  • What do you want to use the internet for?
  • How many devices do you want to use at once?

Okay, let’s get to the bottom of this!

How Fast Your Internet Needs to Be

For light internet browsing, you’ll be able to get away with download speeds as low as 25 Mbps or less. But add more devices or start streaming stuff, and you’ll have to look for quicker download speeds. For a little Netflix watching in 720p or 1080p and on just one device, 25 Mbps is more of a minimum.

Add more simultaneous streaming or opt for 4K Ultra HD, and you’ll want more like 50 Mbps or more. Online gamers, you’ll want to start looking at 100 Mbps. Same goes for you folks who want to stream on multiple devices in 4K!

And if you have a big family and want more than 4 or 5 devices going at once, you’ll want to go even further, looking at speeds of up to 150 or 200 Mbps.

For the most part, upload speeds aren’t something to worry too much about. But if you want to host a website or do other upload-intensive stuff, keep an eye on those, too.

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About the Author

Stephen Lovely
Stephen Lovely
Stephen Lovely is a freelance writer and a longtime cord cutter with a passion for technology and entertainment. You can find his work on Cordcutting.com and his tweets at @stephenlovely.

1 Comment on "A Guide to Internet Speeds: How Internet Speeds Work and What You Actually Need"

  1. Really? We often have two simultaneous HD streams at our house with additional mobile devices connected and in use. We have had zero problems on 24 Mbps.

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