Understanding speed test data and other broadband performance metrics

Bowling Green, Kentucky (February 28, 2023) – When I’m watching TV these days, I’m inundated with commercials from internet service providers (ISPs) advertising the “fastest speeds” in the nation. For many Americans, this message likely strikes a chord.

We’ve come to rely on the internet for so much – communication, entertainment, work, gathering information, home security – the list goes on. Given how much we rely on it, it’s not surprising that we expect fast and uninterrupted internet service. If that service doesn’t meet our expectations, we’re bound to search for answers, and these ads represent one possible solution.

Surely upgrading to a faster internet package would solve this problem, right? Maybe, but not necessarily. Despite the importance of the internet in our lives, many consumers don’t know how to evaluate whether they’re getting what they paid for or if they’re subscribed to the best plan for them. Some people might benefit from upgrading their service, but others might not truly need the extra capacity.

In this blog, I will detail the most common network performance metrics from a speed test and what they signify. Better understanding these numbers can help identify the current state of your home internet. From there, I will describe common dilemmas that may affect network performance and offer some steps you can take to remedy them.

The need for speed

The most common performance metric for broadband internet is bandwidth, often expressed as download and upload speeds. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband internet using a minimum download/upload speed threshold that changes over time.

Download speeds refer to the maximum volume of information that the internet can download in a given unit of time – often reported in megabits per second (Mbps). Upload speeds refer to the maximum volume of information that the internet can upload in a given unit of time (Mbps).

You can check your internet speeds by conducting a speed test, such as this one through Ookla. As of 2015, the FCC requires at least 25 Mbps as the download speed and 3 Mbps as the upload speed (sometimes abbreviated as 25/3) to qualify as high-speed internet.

If you take a speed test, your results will almost certainly differ from the speeds advertised by your ISP. For example, while I subscribe to home internet with a 500 Mbps download speed, my recent speed test indicates that I’m currently connected at 123/23 Mbps. Providers advertise the maximum download and upload speeds that you can achieve with your service package. However, your actual connection speed varies based on several factors.

Differing speed demands

First and foremost, speeds vary based on the number of devices connected to the internet and what each device is doing. Different online activities require different bandwidths because they involve transferring more or less information. Something like browsing the internet or sending an email requires very little data transfer; the FCC suggests that these activities need a minimum download speed of 1 Mbps to perform adequately, but higher speeds are recommended.

Fiber Optic cables and UTP Network cables

Activities involving video require different levels of data transfer depending on the picture resolution. For example, Zoom requires a minimum of 0.6/0.6 Mbps for standard 1:1 video calling, but 3.8/3 Mbps for 1:1 video calling with 1080p HD resolution. Similarly, Netflix requires a minimum of 3 Mbps to view standard definition video on a TV, but 15 Mbps to stream 4K resolution video on a TV.

Activities like gaming and virtual reality interactions may require even more bandwidth. Moreover, for each of these activities, operating at the minimum speeds might not produce the experience you’re looking for. If you subscribe to 25 Mbps internet, for example, you might be able to stream a movie in 4K on your TV, but it will likely buffer and interrupt your viewing.

Having more than one device connected to the internet complicates things further. Let’s say your home internet is connected to four devices – one laptop, one smart TV, and two smartphones. You’re on the laptop video chatting with a relative (with HD resolution) and someone else is on the TV watching a movie (with 4K resolution). The individual watching a movie is also passively scrolling through social media on their phone, and a third individual is doing the same on theirs.

Using the minimum bandwidth requirements listed above, you can theoretically calculate your home broadband needs in that scenario – 3.8 Mbps + 15 Mbps + 1 Mbps + 1 Mbps = 20.8 Mbps. However, since these are minimum requirements, this is a conservative estimate, and you will likely need more bandwidth to operate all four devices in tandem.

Various online calculators like this one from BroadbandNow and this one from Consumer Reports may provide more accurate estimates to quantify your internet needs. If you’re experiencing slower internet than expected, cutting down on the number of devices in use (if possible) can increase speeds overall.

Other internal and external forces can also affect your speeds. If you’re using an old router or modem to connect to the internet, it may not be equipped with the newest Wi-Fi technology. Your speeds might be faster if you upgrade or connect your device via an Ethernet connection. Background processes on your computer or phone might be using data without you realizing it and slowing down your connection. In some cases, even inclement weather can impact your internet speeds; if you receive your internet via satellite or fixed wireless (as opposed to fiber, cable, or DSL), precipitation can impact the quality of your signal.

While this isn’t an exhaustive list, it highlights that network performance is complicated and that subtle changes can make a substantive difference in the quality of your online experience.

How data travels over time

That said, download and upload speeds aren’t the only indicators that impact your network performance. Latency also plays a large role, but most people have never heard of it.

Latency refers to the time that it takes data to travel from one point within a network to another (often measured in milliseconds). Sometimes people call this phenomenon “lag.” Many speed tests (like the Ookla test linked above) also check your latency and display the information alongside download and upload speeds.

Unlike speeds, lower numbers represent shorter delays and faster performance. The idle latency during my recent speed test was 22 milliseconds (ms). Using video chatting as an example, if I say something over Zoom, there would be a 22 ms delay between saying it and seeing myself say it. This delay might not be noticeable, but higher latency can affect your overall experience. Aside from video chatting, latency makes the biggest difference for interactive activities like gaming or streaming a live performance, where there’s constant data transfer.

Unfortunately, there’s little that you can do if your latency is high. According to the FCC’s latest Measuring Broadband America report, certain transmission technologies have higher latency than others.

For example, if you have DSL internet, your latency will likely be higher than an individual with fiber internet at the same bandwidth, but much lower than someone with satellite internet. Switching to a different service package could be a solution if you have alternatives in the area. You could also move closer to your router to reduce the time it takes to transfer data.

Hopefully these descriptions leave you with more answers than questions. Everyone’s internet situation is different, and I cannot purport to have all the answers to every problem. But understanding the language used to talk about broadband should help in troubleshooting online, communicating with ISPs more effectively, and bringing us closer to closing the Digital Divide.

About the Author: David Nunnally is the Connected Nation Research Assistant. David is responsible for using qualitative and quantitative techniques to interpret survey data, in addition to collecting data from secondary sources to help support those findings. David works with internal and external stakeholders to help develop research and provide critical information in support of the Connected Nation mission.

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