How much download speed do you really need?

ByLance T. Lee

May 6, 2022

Your local Internet Service Provider (ISP) likely offers a variety of plans ranging from budget options to the fastest speeds available in the area. But what download speed do you really need?

To find out how much download speed you really need from your ISP, let’s look at what common internet activity requires, how to calculate what your household needs, and when the fastest speed available offers certain benefits.

How much bandwidth common activities require

One thing we’ve noticed when talking to various friends, family members, and neighbors is how often their internet plan doesn’t match the internet activities they actually participate in.

For example, the other day I found out that an elderly neighbor of mine, who uses the internet for little more than social media to keep up with family and light YouTube browsing, was paying for a gigabit fiber connection.

Yet the family next door, who have spent the past two years working from home, were using a slow DSL connection barely a fraction of the speed of the elderly neighbor’s fiber optic line. Worse still, slow DSL was even more expensive than fiber! Obviously, internet packages don’t fit their users, but how is the average person supposed to know that?

The easiest way to put the amount of bandwidth or download speed you need into perspective is to consider the amount of bandwidth required by various common Internet activities, and then consider the importance of the role these activities play. in your use of the Internet.

Let’s look at some common activities, ranked from least demanding to most demanding.

internet activity Minimum recommended download speed
E-mail 1 Mbps
Continuous music 2 Mbps
General web browsing 3 Mbps
social media 5 Mbps
Online games 5 Mbps
Video conference 5 Mbps
HD video streaming 5 Mbps
4K video streaming 15 Mbps

It may come as a surprise to many people, but when you look at individual internet activities, they just aren’t that demanding. Low-bandwidth activities like using email (or other text-based communication like chatting), streaming music, or just browsing the web looking for things or reading posts on your forum preferred, don’t use as much bandwidth.

And what you might think would be a high-bandwidth activity, like video streaming, isn’t actually particularly high-bandwidth in the grand scheme of things. You just don’t need that much download speed to stream video. With a gigabit fiber optic connection, you could probably stream 4K video to TVs in every room in your home, as well as all portable devices, and still have bandwidth to spare.

Also, before leaving this section, it is important to point out that more bandwidth does not improve a less demanding bandwidth activity.

There is an upper threshold to the amount of bandwidth a given activity will use. If you need 5 Mbps of bandwidth to enjoy a smooth, stutter-free HD video stream, having 500 Mbps doesn’t make for an exponentially improved experience. It’s just extra bandwidth that you don’t use, but pay for the privilege of staying on perpetual standby just in case.

Calculating your household’s bandwidth needs

A family using tablets and laptops in an airy, open plan living space.
Monkey Business Images /

If you’ve read the above about how a gigabit connection can stream 4K to a dozen or more devices in your home effortlessly, you might have thought “But I don’t need to stream 4K in every room of my house, it’s silly.” And that’s silly. For the vast majority of people, buying the highest level of internet service available to them, especially if it’s gigabit speeds, is overkill.

Instead, they should look at how their household actually uses the internet and purchase an internet plan that aligns with that.

For a one-person household where regular internet activities take place on Instagram while watching Netflix after work, there really isn’t a need for more than 15-20 Mbps of bandwidth – and that’s assuming the person watch 4K content and scroll furiously through Instagram at the same time.

You can easily adjust this estimate by looking at the table above and estimating how often high-demand activities occur simultaneously. Do you have a larger household where multiple adults or teens are all streaming videos at the same time in the evening and, perhaps, gaming at the same time while they binge watch Netflix? Multiply the number of users in your household by these activities.

Point: Want a simple rule? Multiply the number of users in your household by 25 Mbps to determine your total bandwidth requirements.

Again, you might be surprised to see that the number, even if you thought your household was pretty internet hungry, is actually quite low.

The reality is that despite the gleaming appeal of gigabit internet access, most households really only need around 50-100 Mbps of internet bandwidth to meet all of their needs.

Even a household full of people living in a more or less permanent online state probably won’t need more than 200 Mbps to give everyone a satisfying experience.

If you have a connection in this range (or even faster) and you’re not satisfied, we don’t recommend calling your ISP. We strongly recommend skipping the gigabit internet plan and upgrading your router instead.

Once you reach a certain level of bandwidth, the source of your dissatisfaction with your home internet isn’t the available bandwidth, it’s your router’s inability to do anything with it. useful.

If we had to choose, we’d still choose a home setup with a modest broadband plan, but fantastic Wi-Fi and network setup on the fastest connection paired with a dusty old router.

High speeds only benefit sustained downloads

an image showing the download panel in the Steam game client.
For downloading big games on demand, a faster internet connection is always nice.

It sure looks like we’re pretty low on top-tier broadband internet plans, so you might be wondering when it’s worth having a gigabit connection.

There’s definitely one area where having a very fast connection shines: downloading things quickly.

Say, for example, you have a 100Mbps internet connection and want to download a new game. Most AAA titles these days are massive and regularly weigh in at over 100GB. you can expect a sustained download speed of around 12.5MB/s. (The reason it’s not 100MB/s is that your internet speed is measured in megabits and data storage is measured in megabytes. To translate your advertised internet speed to actual download speed, divide it by 8 to convert bits to bytes.)

So, to download a 100GB game, it would take around 2 hours and 15 minutes under ideal conditions. In contrast, on a gigabit (1000 Mbps) connection, the maximum sustained download speed would be around 125 MB/s. Under ideal conditions, it would only take around 13.5 minutes to download your game. emphasis on “ideal conditions”, by the way. Even with a gigabit connection, you are often blocked by the remote server.

However, when you scale the download size, the differences become less significant. To download a 1 GB file, it would take 8 seconds with a 1000 Mbps connection and 1 minute and 20 seconds with a slower 100 Mbps connection.

Armed with this information, you just need to do some simple math and decide if the price difference between the lower tier internet plan and the higher tier internet plan is worth the time savings for you. If you can get a 100 Mbps internet connection for $25 per month and a 1000 Mbps gigabit internet connection for $100 per month, the cost difference over a year is $900.

If you download a ton of stuff and hate waiting, it might be worth that $900 bounty (or whatever) to get your games, files, and other downloads. at present.

But unless there’s something else that entices you to upgrade to the Internet, like wanting more download speeds or getting a “free” Netflix or HBO Max account with the upgrade, you’re probably better off saving some money and doing something more useful with it like investing it in a better router.

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