What Is the Difference Between Internet Connecting Speeds?

by Josh Fredman

    Most utilities are there when you want them, in the quantities you want. You don’t usually have to think about how wide your water pipes are, or how fast water comes out of the tap, for example. Contrast this with your Internet service. The speed of your Internet connection differs depending on the type of Internet connection you have, your provider, your service plan and the physical capabilities of the Internet infrastructure in your neighborhood. This speed limit helps to shape the limits of what you can do online.

    Typical Internet Speeds

    The typical American gets an Internet downloading speed of 6 to 10 megabits per second, and an uploading speed of 768 kilobits per second to 2 megabits per second, according to figures from Speedmatters.org. People living in or around very big cities typically have access to higher speed limits, while people living in remote ruralities tend to a much more primitive service. The main long-distance lines of the Internet operate well below their capacity, so the speed limit of your personal Internet connection depends entirely on your Internet service provider and on the hardware capabilities of your property.

    Types of Connections

    Most home Internet users have either a DSL or cable connection, offering broadband speeds that seem typical in the U.S. but are slow compared to other developed countries. These connections come either through your telephone lines or your TV cable line, respectively, and their speed limits have to do with the bandwidth limitations of the lines themselves: they can only carry so much data at a time. In places without DSL or cable Internet service, the only broadband option is satellite Internet, which requires a more expensive equipment installation and delivers service speeds on the very low end of broadband. About six percent of American Internet users still use dial-up Internet, an older technology than DSL, which offers speeds less than 1 percent of broadband and prevents you from using your phone line for telephone calls while you are online. On the other end of the spectrum, elite users in well-connected areas can purchase fiber-optic Internet service, or augmented DSL or cable service, with speeds 10 or even 100 times faster than typical broadband.

    Factors Affecting Speed

    The speed limit bottleneck for home Internet use occurs very close to your home. Telecom companies can build long-distance lines across the country on the cheap, but those last few yards from the local distribution equipment to your Internet jack are much more expensive to upgrade. Outside your property line, it is the financial responsibility of your Internet service providers to upgrade infrastructure, and they don’t like to do it because of the costs. This is why typical U.S. broadband speeds are so low: Internet service providers conserve the bandwidth they do have by limiting the speeds available to their customers, or by charging a steep premium for faster service plans. Inside your property, upgrades become the financial responsibility of the landowner, and if you rent or own a condo your landlord may be reluctant to spend money upgrading the building’s hardware.

    Interpreting Internet Speeds

    Dial-up speeds, which range around 40 kilobits per second, are unsuitable for browsing most websites, but acceptable for checking e-mail and visiting noninteractive Web pages with few or no graphics. Typical broadband speeds of 6 to 10 megabits per second are fast enough to allow you to download an average sized MP3 in under 10 seconds, or to download a typical JPEG image in under 2 seconds. You can easily stream Internet radio at these speeds, and you can stream video too, but the video quality will be very limited. You can also play online massively multiplayer games such as Second Life and World of Warcraft. High-end FiOS connections permit basically all Internet activities, including streaming HD video.

    Computer Hardware

    Your computer’s internal hardware is not a limiting factor on your Internet speed. All computers produced this century have the means to connect at a much faster speed than what you can get in a residential setting. However, very high Internet connection speeds may overwhelm your CPU or RAM if you try hardware-intensive activities like streaming HD video, causing the extra Internet speed to go to waste. This presents less of a problem for nonstreaming downloads, such as a simple file download.

    About the Author

    Josh Fredman is a freelance pen-for-hire and Web developer living in Seattle. He attended the University of Washington, studying engineering, and worked in logistics, health care and newspapers before deciding to go to work for himself.

    Photo Credits

    • Dynamic Graphics Group/Dynamic Graphics Group/Getty Images