Just How Fast Is Your Internet, Anyway?
by Robert McNicholas on November, 17 2014
For most people, the Internet comes in two speeds: fast and slow. Most Internet users probably don’t know or care what the actual numbers on their Internet speeds add up to. But here’s something that Internet service providers don’t tell you:
It’s not all about the speed.
About a year ago, I switched from one ISP (Internet Service Provider) to another because it offered a substantially faster Mbps (megabits per second) speed. Great, I thought. Faster is better.
Not so. Sometimes faster is also slower. How?
Learn about types of Internet here.
The Two Factors Behind Internet Connection Speeds
Now, I can hear some technical folks yelling at their computers right now: There are more than two factors that affect your Internet connection! Yes, this is true. Wired connections tend to be faster than wireless. The number of things using the Internet at any given time will impact its speed. But when it comes to the data chunks flowing to and from your modem, there are actually two things that matter: speed and quality.
If you want to find out your pure speed, you need to know three things: your download speeds (information traveling into your PC), your upload speeds (information going from your PC to the web), and your ping time (the time that it takes for your computer to send a packet of information to another site, such as Google).
Testing the Speed of Your Internet Connection
Here’s a try-this-at-home test: Use speedtest.net to determine your download, upload, and ping speeds.
It’s normal for these speeds to vary from one second to the next, so you may want to run two or three tests and average them out. Don’t be surprised if you’re being promised download speeds of 30 mbps and you’re only getting 10 mbps; those numbers generally mean the top speeds your ISP will grant you, and it’s usual to have things run a bit slower, especially on a Wi-Fi network. Your ISP isn’t cheating you.
Now, when I did this test with my unsatisfactory ISP, I was pulling decent speeds for the area I live in, but the performance was awful. It could take up to five minutes to load a web page—if it loaded at all. What was going on?
A rotten connection, that’s what.
Testing the Quality of Your Internet Connection
I used another site, pingtest.net, to test the quality of my Internet connection. This site measures the following factors:
- Ping time
- Packet loss—Data travels through the Internet in tiny chunks called packets. Think of them as envelopes going through the mail. If you’re losing packets, there’s a significant problem with your Internet connection.
- Jitter—interference with your Internet connection. Like interference on a radio, it can make the data hard to read. While a bit of jitter is normal—after all, you’re not the only person connected to the Internet—too much can be like trying to have a conversation in a noisy room.
What did my results show? Despite decent download and upload speeds, my ping time was excruciatingly long, about 10 times longer than average. And the jitter on my connection was so bad that the signal was often dropped altogether—hence the failed webpage loads. Overall, my ISP rated an F.
So I did something that seemed counterintuitive. I changed to an ISP that offered a lower speed. Because they used a more stable technology than the other service, my slower speed is actually faster. The signal is much better in quality, the ping time is a fraction of what it was, and pages now actually load when I click on them. Lesson learned.
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