Businesses thrive by selling people things they don’t need, and if you have an Internet connection, there’s a good chance your provider tried to sell you a high-tech-sounding package. But is it something that can make a difference in your life, or are you just wasting money?
We live in an age where ultra-fast internet is available almost everywhere. Cities have cheap fiber packages where gigabit speeds cost the same as a few cups of coffee. Smaller metro areas may include monopolies that overcharge their customers, but there’s still a good variety of speeds on the table. And even rural areas cursed with dial-up a few years ago now have a fairly reasonably priced high-speed option on the table with Starlink.
But if you’re in an area with lots of options, where should you go? Splurging on the fastest package can be tempting, especially if it’s not much more expensive than one of the basic offerings. But, depending on your circumstances, there’s a good chance you’re wasting that extra money.
Be aware of what you are really getting
The English language is very nuanced, and the phrase “until” is powerful but often overlooked. Put it before something like 1 GB/s, and the person reading it might ignore the phrase “up to” entirely and think they’re getting the speed they think has been advertised. However, the phrase “broadband speeds up to 1 GB/s” only means that your Internet speed should not exceed that figure; it is a limit, not a baseline. While many companies hit their targets, others hit the mark that they advertise in a couple of areas and use it to justify the fact that they are essentially lying to their customers everywhere. So make sure your Internet provider gives you what you expect from it.
Even if you get promised speeds through your modem, that doesn’t mean your devices will connect at those speeds. Internet bandwidth is divided among the devices that are connected to it. While all the devices you’ve connected won’t require the same amount of bandwidth, they’ll all take a slice. So if your router is pumping out 100MB/s, and you have a TV, a laptop, and a couple of cell phones connected simultaneously, none of those devices will show 100MB/s on a speed test.
Living alone has its benefits
As I mentioned, the more devices you have connected, the more bandwidth you need. A couple of decades ago, most homes would have had a PC and maybe a game console, but that’s no longer the case. People tend to have their own devices now, so a family of four is likely to have multiple smartphones, laptops, and TVs all fighting for a slice of your modem’s output.
Logically, the more people you have in your home, the more bandwidth you need. Various things, such as an old router, poor signal distribution throughout the house, or a problem with a device, can slow down your connection speed to a minimum. But if you’ve noticed that the internet is super fast while everyone else is out of the house, but starts to lag when your spouse/kids/roommates are home and online, your bandwidth may be the problem.
US News recommends a connection speed of more than 25 MB/s for a household of four living in a “high usage” household. The website also claims that a three-person household with “moderate” Internet users can get away with 12.5MB/s to 25MB/s of bandwidth. But those estimates seem a bit low.
Some online activities are more demanding than others
Even the smallest households may need connection speeds in excess of 25 MB/s due to global events in recent years. The coronavirus pandemic brought about significant changes in the way we live our daily lives, and while it may now be slowing down, some of those changes persist.
Remote work and education can put a huge strain on your Internet connection. There are a few things to keep in mind if your household is still working or learning remotely. First of all, there is the number of video calls you have to make. These are very demanding both in terms of download and upload speed.
Then there is the matter of submitting your work. An online service like Google Docs can usually handle it if you deal primarily with text documents. But if you make a living producing large video or image files, uploading them can take a while if your internet connection’s upload speed isn’t up to par. Upload speed is often overlooked when buying an internet plan, so even if your download speed is very fast, your upload speed may lag.
Finally, you may have a remote job that requires you to interact directly with a device in the office. Remote desktop software tends to need a specialized VPN and can take up a fair amount of bandwidth, especially if you’re watching video on the remote PC. If your remote job requires you to use a remote work computer, it’s worth beefing up your home Internet connection.
Demands will continue to rise
Another factor that could come up if Mark Zuckerberg gets his way is remote work via virtual reality. One of the key goals of the Metaverse was to get people to work and collaborate remotely through virtual reality. This is very demanding, both in terms of hardware requirements and the demands it places on your Internet connection. Even the staff at Meta still don’t agree with this, so don’t rush out and buy a Quest Pro and WiFi 6e router. But it is something to keep in mind.
Video is also getting sharper, with 8K hitting the market a few years ago. It’s still not mainstream, but everyone thought 1080p was fine a few years ago, and now we have homes where nothing less than 4K is enough. You should also consider the fact that everything from light bulbs to toasters require an internet connection these days. So don’t be surprised if you buy something as benign as a coat rack in 10 years and see him throwing your jacket on the floor because his connection speed doesn’t meet his demands. The chrome snob.
Don’t pay for more than your router can handle
Bottlenecks are something you should always be aware of when it comes to technology. With PC building, it happens when an inexperienced builder goes all out on something like a GPU while skimping elsewhere, like the processor. The processor will hit its limit before the GPU reaches its full capabilities, and you’ve just wasted money on an expensive part that will never reach its potential.
The bottleneck concept isn’t just limited to PCs, and you shouldn’t be spending a lot of money on your Internet provider if your home network isn’t up to the task. Many of the problems that spread out your bandwidth will slow down a router to the max. Arguably, a router is affected even more because not everything connected to it requires Internet access, but it does have to manage those devices one way or another.
Similarly, your internet connection will also be affected if your router’s signal is weak in certain areas of the house. So if you have a bit of extra budget and you’re still using the router your ISP gave you when you signed up, it might be worth spending a few hundred bucks on a modern mesh network before looking into new internet plans.
So what speeds do you really need?
If you live alone and only use the Internet for light browsing, you can happily get by on the cheapest broadband package available. Even if you like to stream UHD movies and online games, 25 MB/s is more than enough for a single user as it is. Most internet packages in much of the US seem to be around 100MB/s, which should be more than adequate for the average family.
There are a few reasons why you might consider a package that offers 100+ MB/s, but this is unlikely to apply to the majority of the population. If you have a large home where more than six people are doing demanding tasks like streaming 4K video, then it’s worth upgrading. If you download a lot of large files for whatever reason, you may appreciate the higher speeds individual devices can achieve with a faster connection.
You might as well be rubbing your hands at the prospect of 8K streaming. Ultra HD video is currently a thing, but streams are hard to come by. The equipment you need to enjoy it is ridiculously expensive. The recommended connection speed to enjoy 8K video on YouTube is 100 MB/s. Still, that’s not something that’s guaranteed if you’re paying for a package with speeds “up to” 100MB/s. Likewise, if someone else is using the Internet for anything at the time, their speeds may drop below what your extremely high-quality video needs. So if you want to be an early adopter and your family has high demands, it’s probably time to start looking at gigabit packages. Though you’re probably better off saving your money and sticking to 4K.