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Internet Speeds

19 Oct, 2021 | 5 min read

So how fast is your internet? If you listen to your internet service provider, then you’ll no doubt have “blazing fast” broadband, sometimes “up to one hundred meg!”

What’s a “meg”? Why does “up to” make it sound like they’re lying? How come your internet is so slow even though you pay so much? All of these are great questions, and here I’ll try to unpack them.

But first, let’s get some numbers to work with. Go to https://www.speedtest.net/ and then click on the big “Go” button on screen. You should get back something that looks like this:

Speed test results

These three numbers together make up your internet speed. This test was done in an office with corporate-grade internet, so don’t be too disappointed if your numbers aren’t quite the same.

Let’s go through what they mean.

What is Ping speed?

Your “Ping” is the time it takes for a packet of information to travel from your laptop, over the internet to an external point, and then come all the way back again. For nerdy technology professionals, it’s one of the most accurate ways of assessing the responsiveness of your internet speed.

Unlike the Download and Upload numbers where bigger is better, you want your ping number to be as low as possible. Lower numbers mean that the data packet is returning more quickly. In practical terms, this is most apparent in online-gaming, or in video calling. High ping usually results in lagging - in other words what you see on Zoom is delayed by some seconds, rather than real-time. It can also lead to “jittering” of the video call, as the software tries to compensate for the lag by buffering the stream and then throwing it at you all at once.

For video calling, a Ping of 25ms or lower should be fine. Higher than this and you might see some stuttering or lagging, but you shouldn’t be overly concerned unless you’re seeing a ping of 150ms or more.

Fun fact for you, “pings” borrow their name form sonar technology, where bursts of high-frequency sounds are sent out and the echoes uses to determine information about surroundings.

What is Download speed?

This what companies reference when they quote their speeds. Simply put, this is how quickly you can get information from the internet into your computer / device. This includes seeing other people’s faces on video calls, as well as watching Netflix, and general web browsing.

When your internet provider tells you you can get “up to X meg speeds”, what they mean is that the theoretical maximum download speed is X Mbps (megabits per second). The likes of Virgin Media and Sky typically start their X number from 50 and work their way up. In practice, you’re not likely to get close to those speeds. We explore why later down the page.

If you’ve taken the speed test and your Download number is anything north of about 15/20Mbps, then you should be good for most internet activities. Theoretically, you can run a Zoom call with as low a Download speed as 3 Mbps. But bear in mind that your speed test is showing you the total available speed to you, meaning that not all of that number is going to be available to one application.

What is Upload speed?

Upload speed is how quickly you can send data from your laptop to the rest of the world. This includes sending your voice and image to others via video conferencing. When everyone else is having a great time on Zoom, but your video quality is poor, it’s likely because your upload speed is too slow.

Typically upload speeds and download speed track each other fairly well, with Upload being slightly - but not usually noticeably - lower.

Because of this, it’s rare that people worry about Upload speeds. In practice, anything above 5Mbps should allow you to handle video calls fairly well, so if your download speeds are 25Mbps or higher, you upload speed is rarely going to be a problem.

Why am I not getting what I’m paying for?

Every single internet provider is very careful about how they advertise to you. They will all claim “up to” speeds, but rarely if ever will you see them. There’s a number of reasons why:

  • The speed they quote is usually the speed at the router. This will be different from the speed you get if you’re connected to the WiFi, as there is a significant drop-off in connection speed from about 10 feet away.
    • Top tip: If you’re able to plug your device directly into the router, this will usually give you a much better internet connection. Working from a different room to your router? Have a read of the WiFi Boosters Guide to see if these might help.
  • Your distance from the exchange will make a difference. Have you ever noticed those green metal boxes on the side of the road? That’s where the little internet gnomes live. Well, not really, but it is where the internet comes from the exchange and then “branches out” to the various houses. The further you are from this box, and the further the box is from the exchange, all make a difference to your speed. If your a fan of bad analogies, think of the green box as the source of a river. The more people you have upstream to you, the poorer the quality of the water. Sadly, the only thing you can really do about this one is move house - which isn’t really a practical consideration for most people. The good news is though that as technology improves, this is becoming less and less of a limiting factor.
  • Are there other devices are connected to your router? That 50Mbps that Virgin Media promises you? That’s for your whole house. If you’ve got multiple people doing multiple things, you aren’t all likely to get 50Mbps speeds. It’s also worth thinking about what else other people are doing. Streaming (e.g. watching Netflix), Video calling (including FaceTime / WhatsApp video calling), and online-gaming are all high-impact activities. If you have people in one household doing all of these simultaneously, then you’re likely to need a fairly robust internet connection.

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