When searching for a new internet service provider (ISP), the choices can be overwhelming, not to mention confusing. Each ISP offers a variety of plans, each with different download and upload speeds at different price points. With more people working from home than ever before, understanding your needs for both download and upload speed is more important than ever.
Let’s break down the basics: download speed versus upload speed. What’s the difference?
Bandwidth vs. Speed
Before getting started on your search, it’s good to have a baseline understanding of what you’re purchasing. Plans are designed around the amount of bandwidth you will receive from your provider, measured in megabits per second (Mbps). So, when looking at a plan that says you’ll receive 25 Mbps, that is the maximum amount of data your internet connection can handle at one time. It’s important to know that while bigger bandwidths increase the amount of data flow you can have, it does not necessarily mean you’re getting higher performance. More on that later.
The other important factor is speed. Internet speed is the rate at which data can be downloaded or uploaded, or downloaded to a given device (also measured in Mbps). There are two types of speed: upload and download. Again, when comparing plans, the speeds listed are only the potential peak speed you might receive.
To understand the relationship between bandwidth and speed, think about a highway. Bandwidth is essentially the number of lanes on a highway. The more lanes on a highway, the more cars that can be on the highway at a given time. When there are less cars on the highway, the cars move quickly. The more cars you add to the highway, the slower the cars move because the highway becomes congested. With bandwidth, the more users and devices you have on one connection lessens the speed at which you can upload and download data.
It’s important to consider the number of users and the number of devices that will be used in your home on a regular basis. You want to be sure that you have enough bandwidth to accommodate your needs, while not compromising speed. You can get a sense of your current internet speed using an online speed test to help determine a baseline of your needs.
What Is Download Speed?
Download speed is how fast data goes from the internet to your computer. Most home internet usage relies on fast download speeds — loading webpages, images, listening to music, downloading files, streaming video, etc. Streaming requires especially fast download speeds, so you aren’t stuck wasting time while you wait for your show to buffer.
What Is Upload Speed?
Upload speed is how fast data goes from your computer to the internet. Things like sending emails, uploading media files, and live video calls are all activities that utilize upload speed. Historically, this has been less important for home use, but it’s an important factor to consider if you’re working from home and spend your days on Zoom.
In relation to connection, symmetrical speeds refer to an internet plan with the same data speeds in both directions. In other words, your download and upload speeds are equal. This is one feature you will want to keep an eye out for when shopping for a new provider.
Many providers prioritize download speeds over upload speeds because they’re typically used for more online activities like web browsing and gaming. When your download and upload speeds are different, they are called asymmetrical speeds.
If you are a remote worker or content creator that frequently uploads files to the internet, you will want to pay attention to this feature of your internet plan. Sub-par upload speeds can be the difference between you uploading a work assignment on time or past the deadline.
What Internet Speed Do I Need?
In general, internet plans offer anywhere from 1 Mbps to 1000 Mbps or more of bandwidth. Anything above 25 Mbps is considered usable for modern applications, but speeds below 200 Mbps can be challenging for a large household. Check out the FCC’s recommendations on the right amount of bandwidth for your needs.
Definitely take note of what speed your plan offers, as well. Most plans offer asymmetric speeds, since more users consume content rather than upload it. Generally, download speeds are faster than upload speeds. Plans advertised as “5/1” mean that you’ll get 5 Mbps of download per 1 Mbps of upload. Check out the FCC’s broadband speed guide to get a sense of what speeds are ideal for different activities.