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Broadband? Bandwidth? What Does It All Mean!

Cel Mengata from St Paul, Minnesota writes:

What is the difference between bandwidth and Broadband, and how do they work?


There is a term called technobabble, which is when industries use language and words that are common knowledge in that industry but to the rest of the world make little or no sense. I’ve yet to figure out why Internet service providers still insist on referring to terms like bandwidth, broadband, symmetric/asymmetric, and latency without making sure to explain what they mean and why they matter. I’ll go over each term and what they mean to you as a subscriber.

Bandwidth: This is the measurement of the data that can transfer from or to your computer per second. It is measured in kilobits per second (kbits) or megabits per second (mbit). For the purposes of internet advertised speeds 1000 kbits =  1 mbit. This is especially confusing because your computer stores information in megabytes (MB)  and kilobytes (KB). To convert the measurement, divide the kilobits or megabits by 8 to get the kilobytes or megabytes.

Broadband: This is the minimum speed at which your connection will transfer information. The minimum to be called broadband in the United States is 256 kbits per second, (or 0.25 megabit per second) but this speed is generally considered pretty slow. Most Internet providers start around 768 kbit and go up to 30 or 40 mbits.

Upload/Download: The term upload refers to the information being sent from your computer out to the Internet. Download refers to when your computer is receiving information from the Internet. Most providers will offer much higher download speeds than upload speeds. Most actions on the internet by users consist of receiving, not sending information.

Symmetric/Asymmetric: This term refers to if you receive the same amount of kbits or mbits traveling to your computer and from your computer. Symmetric lines of service are usually for businesses and offer the same amount of upload and download bandwidth. Asymmetric lines are usually for consumers and generally offer higher download speeds than upload speeds.

Latency: This term refers to how long it takes for your computer to contact another address on the Internet. This can be affected by the layout of the providers network, the server you’re connecting to the network and the type of connection. This is measured in ms or milliseconds. To determine the latency of a connection, you can open a command prompt (Windows Key + R, type cmd.exe and press enter) and type ping www.worldstart.com [1]. You will receive a line that shows a time in ms with times under 100ms being considered low latency, times 100>200 ms being average latency and times over 200 ms being high latency. Latency is most important in communication and gaming situations where the time delay could prevent the services from working correctly.


P.S. Don’t be surprised if you have a 50mbit connection but get much slower download speeds. Websites are not all set up to provide unlimited bandwidth, so if 1000 users are downloading from a popular site, there may not be 50mbits available from that site.