What is Bandwidth?

Understanding internet speed and bandwidth.

In this age of technology and social media, definitions often time get lost in a sea of memes and misinformation. A prime example of this is bandwidth, Most times people just use this word without knowing what it means exactly. What is bandwidth? Bandwidth is the maximum data transfer rate of a network or Internet connection. Simply put, it’s the speed/rate at which data transfers back and forth between your device and a website, app, streaming service etc. It can be a rather confusing concept, so when I’m explaining it to people who are not so technologically savvy I like to use the example of a highway.

picture of highway lanes for a bandwidth analogy

Think of the highway as your bandwidth and the cars driving on it as data. The more lanes you have, the more cars that can drive on the highway; this also means you can have a higher speed limit. In tech terms, that means is the more bandwidth you have the more data you can download/upload, and at a faster rate. Now understanding this you can imagine that there are many different highways with many different numbers of lanes, and the same goes for your bandwidth. The fewer the number of lanes, the slower the traffic. The smaller your bandwidth, the slower your data speed.

Pretty straight forward right? Now let’s apply this to everyday life. Let’s say you’re shopping around for internet or a hosting service. Services providers hit you with that b-word “bandwidth” and they’re throwing numbers at you like 50Mbps or 100Mbps. You become the deer in headlights again. So remember we talked about the lanes on the highway and the speed limit? Those speed limits you see are the speeds for your bandwidth. Bandwidth is measured in bits per second, commonly seen as Kilobytes(Kbps), Megabytes(Mbps) or the more familiar Gigabytes (GB) or Terabytes(TB).  Another reason I like the highway analogy is because of the average speed limit on a highway is between 55-60mph and it’s a decent speed for everyone to drive. It just about the same for bandwidth, 50-60Mbps is usually enough for the average family to watch Netflix and go about their daily tasks like email, Facebook, etc. See the chart below for a list of connection speeds courtesy of the University of Florida.

A list of the different Bandwidth speeds

There are a few different categories of bandwidth but what it boils down to is broadband (high speed), and non-broadband (wide band /narrow band). If you’re an Engineer then those second 2 types might mean something to you but for the average joe, you’re mainly worried about broadband and getting the most speed for your buck.

For those of you that have already braved the terrain and selected your bandwidth one thing you want to do is ensure that you are getting what you’re paying for. You can do that by checking your internet speed on one of many sites. My two personal favs are http://www.speedtest.net/ and http://speedtest.xfinity.com/

picture of results from a bandwidth

Results from an internet speed test.

 

Both of these sites are free and easy to use. They will test your upload speed, and your download speed. These may be different based on whether you are testing your wired connection (The internet wire is plugged directly into your laptop/computer) or testing your wireless connection (using Wifi). Either way, it’s not a bad idea to know where you stand.

Hopefully, this article helped shed a little light on the subject and gave you a better understanding. Now when your friends ask you “What is bandwidth?” you can answer like a Pro.

 

Calvin Gilbert

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Calvin is a graphic tee and pizza loving techie who runs on lattes. If he's not knee deep in lines of code, or playing with the latest gadget, you can find him at your local mini golf course putting away.

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