Internet Speeds and You

I’ll have more info about how I got my agent in days to come, but I have to spread out the story a bit for reasons I can’t get into at the moment. In the meantime, here’s an important PSA (public service announcement) from yours truly, reposted from my entry over on my library blog.

Cars - Movie Poster (Disney / Pixar) (Lightning McQueen Close Up) (Size: 36" x 24")

In today’s tech Tuesday post, I want to talk a bit about internet speeds, since many people I’ve talked to over the years seem not to understand them. They know there’s “fast” and “slow”, but that’s about it. Allow me to explain. The slowest of the slow these days would be dial-up–using something like AOL or another internet provider to connect via your phone connection. This clocks in around 56 kbit/second (theoretically–in practice it’s more like 40-50). This is very slow. Painfully slow.

Remember: painfully slow=50 kbit/second.

So what’s fast? Blazingly fast in America these days would be around 50 mbit/second. This is about 1000 times as fast as dial up. It also is only available in large cities, and costs an arm and a leg to get. ($155/month)

Fact: you do not need internet speeds this fast.

So what’s reasonable? Well, I get 3 mbit/sec at my house, and that’s adequate. I’d like 4 or more, but such is life. It’s a balance between cost and return. At work, I get something like 35 mbit/sec, which is very appreciated, especially when I have to download large files. Of course, there’s the other side of the coin: upload speeds.

When you’re using the internet, sometimes you’re getting information–you’re watching a movie, looking at pictures, listening to music, etc. That’s the speed people usually look at, and it’s the one I’ve discussed so far. But sometimes you’re giving information–putting pictures on Facebook, trying to Skype with a friend, playing a video game with other friends, etc. This is called upload speed, and it can be just as important, but as a rule, if you get a high download speed, you’ll get a relatively high upload speed, as well.

So what people do is they call up their cable or phone company and say “I want fast internet.” The cable or phone company cackles and hooks them up with “fast internet.” Since people don’t understand what fast is (or how to measure speed), they just accept the idea that they now have “fast” internet. It’s certainly faster than dial-up, so why worry? This is crazy to me. If you’re paying for a certain internet speed, you should be sure you’re getting what you’re paying for.

How do you tell?

Go to and follow the onscreen instructions.

Don’t use anecdotal evidence. Don’t assume that it “feels” fast, so it must be fast. Test it. Your internet service provider (ISP) should be obligated to provide you with consistent speeds at least 80% of what they’re advertising. (Sometimes internet speeds can bog down, but if you’re paying for 10 mbit/sec and only getting 1, there’s a problem.) If you note a problem, contact your ISP. Complain. You’re paying the money, they need to provide the services.

Why does it matter? If you don’t notice you’re slow, why care? I suppose if all you do is look at websites with no videos or Flash or the like, it doesn’t. (But then, why are you paying for really fast internet?) If you’re trying to play games, stream movies on Netflix, Skype with video and the like, a faster connection will give you a noticeable improvement.

In the end, this is just a message to encourage you to be aware of what you’re paying for and what you’re getting in return. Because a well-informed consumer is a happy consumer.

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