When customers and providers talk about what internet speeds to order, they’re actually referring to bandwidth. It’s not strictly accurate to use these terms interchangeably, but it’s useful shorthand because bandwidth is the main factor that determines whether you experience your internet connection as fast or slow..

But bandwidth isn’t the only factor that affects how fast your internet is—i.e., how long downloads or uploads take, how long it takes for a website to respond when you click, and more. Check out this list to learn the other factors that determine your speed.

Factors that affect your business internet speeds

Bandwidth

Bandwidth measures how much data can be transmitted through your internet “pipeline” per second. If you have a small data pipeline and try to do an activity that takes a large amount of data (like streaming HD video), you’ll experience that as slow speed because the pipeline can’t funnel all the data at once.

If you have a large data pipeline, more data can get through, and your connection will be faster.

Latency

Provided you actually have the bandwidth to do the activity you’re trying to do, latency measures how long it takes before you get the information you requested when you clicked. The following are the latency rates of each network type: 6

  • Satellite. Latency is high, ranging from 599 ms (milliseconds) to 629 ms.
  • DSL. Latency is manageable, ranging from 28 ms to 58 ms.
  • Cable. Latency is low, ranging from 12 ms to 30 ms.
  • Fiber. Latency is also low, with the same range of 12 ms to 30 ms.

Direction of traffic

It’s common to see internet packages advertised with just the download speed, but in reality, every internet connection has two speeds—one for incoming data (downloads), and the other for outgoing (uploads). Some activities just require one type, while others require both:

  • Activities that require download speeds: audio and video streaming, software downloads
  • Activities that require upload speeds: cloud backup, sending email or files
  • Activities that require both: video conferencing, any chat or live messaging application

Download speeds are usually higher than upload speeds, but providers are working to raise upload speeds because there’s increasing demand for them. If you have a high-speed plan but still have trouble with some online activities, it could be that your download speed is fine, but you need more upload speed.

DSL, cable, and satellite typically offer upload speeds that are significantly lower than download speeds. Fiber can offer upload speeds as fast as download speeds.

Additional factors

  • Individual applications and websites. Your provider could be sending data at the speed advertised, but if an application is set up inefficiently or your video-chat partner’s connection is slow, you may experience slow speeds on that website or app.
  • Old or incompatible router. Routers are built with different speed capacities. If your router can only handle 40 Mbps and you order 150 Mbps, you’re wasting money on speed you can’t use.

What speed do I need?

Factors to consider when deciding on an internet speed

  • Activities you’re doing on the network. Different activities send and receive different amounts of data. The more data there is going back and forth on your network at once, the more bandwidth you’ll need. The table below shows a general rule of what activities require what amounts of bandwidth.

 

Activities requiring download speed        Activities requiring upload speed          Activities requiring both
Low to medium speed Internet browsing Posting text to social media Email

Text chats

File sharing (small)

Medium to high speed Streaming audio

Streaming video

Cloud backup File sharing (large)

Videoconferencing

Digital phone systems

Other cloud-hosted applications

  • Number of users on the network. The more employees are actively using your network at once, the more bandwidth you’ll need. For example, if two people are streaming a video from a recent conference on their own computers, you’ll need twice the bandwidth that it would take for one person to stream the video.
  • Number of devices used on the network. The more devices are connected to your network and actively sending data requests, the more bandwidth you’ll need. In addition to desktop and laptop computers, these devices could include cell phones, tablets, mobile devices, and more.

Will higher speeds help improve productivity?

The answer to this question won’t be the same for everyone, but there are some common cases in which you’d need more bandwidth to maintain or improve productivity:

  • You’re planning to use new applications, particularly cloud-hosted ones, for bookkeeping, inventory, or other purposes. According to a survey conducted by the FCC, 56 percent of business operators say running new applications is a major reason they look to upgrade speeds. 7
  • You want to increase communication with customers. This is the second-leading reason businesses want to get higher speeds, with 54 percent citing it as a major reason. 8 Increased communication could mean a faster, more responsive website; new chat functionality; or a VoIP phone system with features like visual voicemail and mobile twinning to help smaller staffs be more flexible.
  • You’re getting new employees and want the per-person bandwidth to stay the same as it was before, if not increase.
  • You’re about to start sending or receiving larger files: for example, if you’re hiring freelance designers or video specialists who will be emailing you native files or uploading them to your project management platform.
  • You want to decrease lag so that your employees’ experience with the internet is smoother. A slow connection can hurt productivity on a micro scale—the longer it takes for a web page to load, the more likely the user is to get distracted, and the more divided their focus can become.

Speed vs. reliability: Which matters more?

If your provider’s network isn’t reliable, you’ll experience many of the same pain points you could have with slower speeds.

What you stand to lose from unreliable internet

Large businesses often pay for a backup internet connection through a separate provider because if there’s an outage, they can immediately lose money in call-center sales, website purchases (if the website is hosted on-site), or delayed projects.

For small businesses like yours, the immediate dollar loss from an outage may not be as high, but unlike an enterprise-level business, you probably won’t have backup. That leaves you running business from your cell or tablet, which may not have the computing power or program features you need. It also leaves you using up mobile data in a hurry.

How to measure reliability: Network uptime

Average network uptime is the percentage of time that a provider’s network is up and running with full functionality and little-to-no interference from environmental factors.

Uptime depends on the reliability of the network type but also on the specific ways each provider runs and maintains the network (e.g., how quickly the company sends out technicians, how quickly those technicians finish the repairs, and more).

 

Geography affects availability of speeds

Keep your expectations in check before you get your heart set on a speed; internet availability in the U.S. is a constellation of different providers, and speeds from a single provider can vary within the same state, city, and even neighborhood.

Most providers have an address check you can use to find out if you’re in their area of service. If you are, you’ll probably be able to see local speeds and pricing, too.

 

Summary: What to remember about speed when you’re looking for business internet

  1. The speed you experience depends mostly on the bandwidth you buy, but it can also be affected by latency, individual websites, and router compatibility.
  2. Internet service comes with two speeds: download and upload. Upload speeds are usually significantly lower than download speeds, except with fiber-optic connections.
  3. The demand for upload speed is rising as more businesses turn to the cloud for file storage and for voice or messaging applications, which require two-way communication in real time.
  4. Higher speeds are especially helpful when you’re planning to run new programs, improve communication with your customers, or hire more people.

Onward to Part 3: Wi-Fi

Back to Part 1: Network Type

 

6. FCC, “Measuring Broadband America Fixed Broadband Report 2016

7. FCC, “Business Broadband Capability Survey Results November 2010

8. FCC, “Business Broadband Capability Survey Results November 2010

 

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