/ Guide

What Internet Speed Do You Really Need?

Whenever you shop around for internet access, you generally run across a plethora of different plans, speeds, bundles, boosters, and extra features. While this can be confusing, most companies explain what option you will need based on what you want to do. Unfortunately, they tend to lie. Lets take AT&T's U-verse service for example.

AT&T U-verse Comparison Chart

See, according to AT&T, if you get 3 Mbps (Megabits per second), you can do basic things like email, share photos, and socially network with buddies. Want to game online? That requires the 6 Mbps connection. You'll have to shell out for the 12 Mbps connection if you want to watch video clips or email/upload files. And streaming video or downloading movies? That's obviously going to require a whopping 18 Mbps. Video Conferencing? Better whip out that Max Turbo speed. This chart honestly looks like someone put it together in 5 minutes, and labeled it with internet...ish things.

Whats Wrong Here?

Setting aside the speed for a second, the chart makes some strange distinctions. Somehow, AT&T thinks that "Emailing / Uploading Files" takes 4x the bandwidth as "Emailing" and "Sharing Photos". This is a bit odd, being that they're the same thing.  You see similar distinctions between "Watching TV" and "Streaming Video". The one that makes the least sense is that "Video Conferencing" needs 18 more Mbps than "Online Conferencing". You could almost just mix up the labeling here and have it make just as much sense.

What Speed Do You Need?

In order for us to fully understand why the chart is so horribly misleading, lets break down what speed different internet services require.

Video Streaming

Applies to:

  • "Watching TV / Video Clips"
  • "Downloading Movies"
  • "Streaming Video"
  • "Video Conferencing"
  • "Online Conferencing"

Video streaming is a very broad term that can mean watching YouTube videos, Netflix/Hulu, Skyping, etc. The bandwidth that each requires can vary greatly, even within different services themselves. For example, lets take the largest user of US internet bandwidth, Netflix. Now, I'm going to assume that this would be under AT&T's Downloading Movies/Streaming Video category, which they say needs 18 Mbps. Surely Netflix must recommend the same speed, right? Here's what they have to say,

Netflix will work very well on your average broadband connection, if you can watch Youtube you can watch Netflix, but with much better quality. You will get great DVD quality streaming at bandwidth rates around 2 megabits per second, for a full-fledged HD experience with surround sound you'll need about 6 megabits of bandwidth. We do offer specific speed settings for those members that may have bandwidth caps on their broadband subscriptions or for some other reason want to manage the bandwidth used by Netflix. You can find details in the "your account" section under "manage video quality." This is what it comes down to:

Good quality (up to 0.3 GB per hour)
Better quality (up to 0.7 GB per hour)
Best quality (up to 1 GB per hour, or up to 2.3 GB per hour for HD)

Default in the US is "best quality" though using our "adaptive streaming" technology we automatically, constantly and transparently optimize the streaming bitrate to your Internet speed. This minimizes loading and buffering times, delivering the best click and watch experience.

So that means that good quality would be roughly 0.7 Mbps, better quality is 1.6 Mbps, and best quality would be 2.3 Mbps (5.2 Mbps HD). That's not even close to what AT&T says you need. Even if you had two people watching two different HD movies in full surround sound on their two home theater setups in their house, you only hit 12 Mbps. Hulu plus needs even less bandwidth. For your standard show you only need 1.5 Mbps, and for an HD show (Hulu Plus only) you need 3 Mbps.

Looking at the chart, you would think that Video conferencing must use much more than your lowly movies and TV. But, as common sense would dictate, it doesn't. Lets take a look at Skype's recommended speeds. Skype recommends a whopping 1.5 Mbps for your top of the line HD video call. Now, video calls are unique due to the fact that you  are uploading as fast as you're downloading. Unfortunately, AT&T does not list their upload speeds, so you could possibly have to pay for Max Turbo with 24 Mbps to get your 1.5 Mbps upload (which would be shameful), but that's still only if your needing full HD. High quality is only a third of the speed.  If you decide to use Skype's conference feature to chat with 8 people at once, you only need Mbps, and 0.5 Mbps upload.  This is staggeringly less than what AT&T says you need.

General Use

Applies to:

  • "Emailing"
  • "Emailing / Uploading Files"
  • "Downloading Music"
  • "Downloading Movies"
  • Pretty much anything else you do online.

If you're not streaming any type of video, your internet speed  doesn't change anything except the time it takes to download something. The quality of whatever you download or upload won't be affected. As far as general browsing is concerned, your average webpage is around 400 kB (3.12 Mb). This can change depending on how many ads are on the page, how many images, etc. But relatively, it doesn't change very much. Your bottom barrel 3 Mbps would load a webpage in about a second, while Sir Max Turbo will load it in about a tenth of a second. While that's ten times faster, it's still only 0.9 seconds faster (not much). The only item that deals with general browsing on the AT&T chart is "Social Networking". If they put reading articles, reading news, checking the weather, etc. it might make the 3 Mbps option too appealing for your standard user.

You'll notice a difference when you're downloading files, but it all depends on the size of what your downloading. For our example, let's use The White Album by The Beatles, an episode of South Park, and the movie Lady and the Tramp. The White Album about twice the size of your normal album, and a good quality version is about 200 MB. A South Park episode can be about 400 MB, and Lady and the Tramp will be about 1 GB (3 GB HD). Lets break down how long it will take to download them.

 Internet Speed 3 Mbps 6 Mbps 12 Mbps 18 Mbps 24 Mbps
The White Album 200 MB 9 min 4.5 min 2 min 1.5 min 1 min
South Park 400 MB 18 min 9 min 4 min 3 min 2 min
Lady and The Tramp 1 GB 44 min 22 min 11 min 7.5 min 5.5 min
Lady and The Tramp (HD) 3 GB 132 min 66 min 33 min 22.5 min 16.5 min

As you can see, faster speeds equal faster downloads (shocker). But you really can download anything at any speed, and once its downloaded, its downloaded.

Emailing doesn't take up any real bandwidth, and the only time you'll notice a difference in speed is when, once again, you're downloading or uploading something. Since the max attachment size for an email is usually 20 MB, you'll only have a 45 second download difference between the 3 Mbps and the 24 Mbps. So, not too bad.

Other Factors

There are quite a few factors that affect your overall internet experience besides speed. There's latency, which is how quickly your computer gets a message from a website and vice versa. Your latency would be much higher on a cellular data connection than it would on a normal home connection, simply because the message has to make more stops between your phone and the webpage. This is very important for online video games, often more so than the speed of the connection.

There is the amount of downtime the network experiences, which can cause your connection to be spotty or go off all together. If you don't have a steady stream of bandwidth to your computer, it can cause Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu videos to buffer frequently, regardless of your speed.

The actual speed you get can also vary quite a bit. This all depends on who your Internet service provider is, what type of connection you have, and what time of day it is. When the FCC published its findings on promised speed vs actual speed, AT&T generally only delivered about 85% of the bandwidth they promised. That's like a delivery man bringing your pizza with a slice missing.

Very rarely will you ever see these figures on any advertisement, mainly since it can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. This is something you'll have to rely on your coworkers and friends experiences to find out.

In Conclusion

Essentially, AT&T is counting on your average consumer not being informed, and just put out a chart that's not only useless, but flat out lies. All the services they have listed will work on any speed they offer, and it really comes down to preference. If you just browse the web, Facebook a bit, and watch Netflix, you'll get by fine on 3 Mbps. If you're more of a stickler for video and sound quality, you might want to go up to 6 to 12 Mbps. And if you download large files frequently, faster is faster. It all comes down to how long you want to wait.

It still befuddles me that AT&T can put out information so misleading, with no clarification or disclaimer, that is so very wrong. But I guess that's the real lesson here kids. Large ISP's are big, evil, greedy corporations that will lie to your grandmother to get a few more bucks a month. Shameful.

 
Glossary:
Mbps = Megabits per Second
Mb = Megabit
MB = Megabyte
GB = Gigabyte
kB = kilobyte
1 Megabit = 128 kilobytes
ISP = Internet Service Provider (eg. AT&T, Cox, Verizon)
Author: Alex McKenzie
If you use Disqus comments, just uncomment this block. The only thing you need to change is "test-apkdzgmqhj" - which should be replaced with your own Disqus site-id.