How Much Bandwidth Do I Really Need Anyway?
The right choice is a mix of price and performance
“How much bandwidth do I really need, anyway?”
As internet service providers, we are faced with answering this question many times each day. The simplest answer is that a balance of price and performance is the best choice.
Determining the level of performance you need is a fairly straightforward answer. Pricing might vary quite a bit depending on where you live and the service providers in your area, forcing some compromises.
Knowing the speed you need to support the devices in your home is the first step.
Purchasing a service offering that provides 50 Mbps of download bandwidth will provide a level of performance that will support all typical current use cases for the vast majority of households today.
A speed tier of 100 to 250 Mbps will provide the bandwidth required to support future technologies, such as virtual or augmented reality. In practice, it is difficult to use more than 100 Mbps, even briefly.
This is where the art of balancing price and performance comes in. There are two main factors to consider: the growing importance of upload bandwidth, and the constant trend toward services and applications that require more bandwidth.
Upload bandwidth typically receives much less attention, but is a critical factor in ensuring many applications, especially gaming and interactive applications such as video calls, work well. A service offering that provides 3 Mbps as a minimum for your household is recommended.
We are seeing a trend of increased use of cloud backup tools, including Apple’s iCloud, Google Cloud and other photo or home data backup services. In many cases, these services are automatically enabled on new phones or tablets and may be running quietly in the background. If these services are using much or all of the available bandwidth, it can cause slow page loads, buffering while watching movies or increased latency in online games.
The bandwidth needs of internet users have consistently grown since the early days of the internet with video and gaming being two of the largest drivers of higher bandwidth. Annual growth rates of 50 percent are typical. While as little as 5 to 10 Mbps may be sufficient bandwidth in many cases today, in five years nearly 40 Mbps will likely be required to provide a similar experience. In 10 years, this is likely to grow to a staggering 300 Mbps. These growth trends are more likely in households that rely on streaming video services, or that have teens or others who are early adopters of new technologies. While it seems nearly impossible to believe, this rate of growth has been observed since the early days of the internet.
There are various articles, including this recent one by The Wall Street Journal, that explore the typical consumer’s ability to fully utilize the services they are purchasing. These articles miss the point slightly by neglecting this growth factor. While the true penetration of high-speed internet remains a contentious topic, the simple fact is that there is a constant trend toward higher bandwidth services. Streaming video services have growing catalogs of 4K video content. Gaming platforms moved to delivering new games first by download, and now services such as Google Stadia are poised to deliver games as a streaming service similar to video. While Google states that speeds as low as 10 Mbps are supported, download bandwidth of 35 Mbps is recommended for the best experience.
Unlike that old clunker of a car that won’t start anymore, understanding when your internet service is no longer meeting your needs can be a hard question to answer. If the last time you called your service provider was 5 or 10 years ago, there is a good chance that an upgrade is available that will be a better fit for your current needs. If you have recently upgraded but are experiencing issues, your service provider may have the ability to review your typical bandwidth utilization and determine if additional bandwidth would improve your experience.
In the end, the best choice is a balance of price and performance. If a service provider is busily upgrading service in your neighborhood and speeds of 500 Mbps or 1 Gbps are available at an attractive rate, or if there is a discounted rate to bring fiber-based services into your home, it may make sense to commit. A service of 50 to 100 Mbps at a price point that makes sense for your household will provide a great experience now and into the future.
For households where speeds greater than 25 Mbps are not financially feasible, or are not available, know that 25 Mbps will typically provide a good experience for the next several years, but like an economy car, it may be something that is outgrown over time.
+ For social media, email or light video streaming: 10-25 Mbps download bandwidth.
+ For gaming or heavy use of video, especially 4K: 50-100 Mbps download bandwidth.
+ For most households: At least 3 Mbps upload bandwidth, or at least 10% of your download bandwidth.
+ For heavy use of cloud backup or gaming: 5-10 Mbps, or at least 20% of your download bandwidth.
+ For households that share a lot of pictures or actively upload or stream video: 5-10 Mbps upload speeds would be more useful.
Editor’s note: This article was written by Ben Wiechman, Director of IP Strategy and Engineering at Arvig, serving as a member of the Forbes Technology Council and originally published at Forbes.com. For more information about the council and to read previous posts, click here.