Bandwidth vs. Speed: Which Is More Important?

It can be confusing to identify and figure out all of the capabilities of your devices and connectivity. Much of this is because conversations around connectivity often use the terms “bandwidth” and “speed” interchangeably, though they mean very different things. Understanding this difference helps you select the right equipment to purchase for the best internet connection.

A Breakdown of Bandwidth

Bandwidth is the capacity available and has nothing to do with speed. For example, a stadium that can hold 75,000 fans doesn’t improve the running speed of an athlete on the field. How fast that athlete can run is determined on a variety of factors– including training, health and natural aptitude. In the same way, the speed of the athlete isn’t determined by the size of the stadium.

When ISPs advertise “blazing-fast speeds” and make other such claims, it could seem like purchasing the highest-bandwidth plan will provide those top speeds. This simply isn’t true.

Bandwidth doesn’t necessarily affect any single computer, and certainly won’t affect connection speed. If each computer takes up one “lane,” bandwidth is how many lanes are available. The speed of each lane is completely independent of the amount of lanes.

Where bandwidth will limit you is with data limits. Bandwidth itself is how much data can be transferred and processed at any given moment. It’s restricted by cabling and laws of physics-– though it shouldn’t be confused with data caps.

Data caps have always been common in wireless internet plans, but they’re relatively new in wired plans, which have only started implementation within the last decade. It’s common to see tiered data cap limits ranging from 50-500GB in consumer lines, though enterprise lines (along with associated costs) can get much larger.

Data caps limit the amount of data transferred per month and are imposed by the cable provider and not the laws of nature. Data caps are a way for providers to estimate usage per user and manage the entirety of the network they service. And based on the plan you have, they’ll most likely charge penalties for exceeding this cap.

Bandwidth is measured from the nearest node to your modem. You’ll never hit a bandwidth limit with a single computer-– once you reach the bandwidth limit of your computer, another computer can still be connected and receive bandwidth. However, there will still likely be a largely reduced speed because it’s all running through the singular modem or router.

By increasing the amount of routers, the entire site can hold more bandwidth. However, it will likely be funneled and bottlenecked through one modem, reducing speeds. At this point, it’s necessary to pay the data provider for another connection.

A Quick Summary of Data Speeds

Speed relates to how quickly the data within your bandwidth can be transferred. If you were to increase bandwidth to its outer limits, you could only use it as fast as the bandwidth allows. Where you’ll start to notice the differences and correlation between speed and bandwidth in your connection is when you start adding multiple connections.

For example, a 10Gb Internet connection will allow ten computers 1Gb each for the bandwidth, though how fast each computer can transfer data will depend on where in the network it is, the type of router, modem, cabling, and other network infrastructure qualities.

Your actual download speeds could reach over 1Gbps, though not likely for long, as cable providers monitor and adjust to only provide you enough bandwidth to support the devices actually connected. This throttling drops your average download speed to around 700Mbps on the primary computer and 500Mbps in each secondary.

In sum, bandwidth is the amount of speed available for use, and speed is the data transfer rate. Regardless of how much of either you have, you’ll have to pay the cable provider if you hit a data cap.

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