The FCC’s first-ever test of broadband speeds across the country, Measuring Broadband America, compares providers, technologies and the actual speeds they provide. Here’s a step-by-step guide to using that information, and other resources, to make choices about the kind of broadband service that’s best for you.
1. What is broadband speed?
Every page, image and video on the web comes to your home device as small pieces of data, or packets. How fast these packets move on the network is measured in Megabits per second, abbreviated Mbps. Broadband technology can move those packets to and from your home much more quickly than dial-up access using a modem and telephone line. A broadband connection has two speeds: download and upload. Download speed is the speed of getting information from the web to your computer, and upload speed is the reverse.
2. What speed do you need?
You may go online to monitor a health condition; watch high-definition (HD) movies or watch videos for the latest news; get your children’s homework assignments via email; or log on to a real-time, interactive classroom. Whatever your goals, you’ll need a broadband Internet service that works predictably and dependably. And keep in mind that the next generation of devices and applications may require faster speeds.
If you’re interested in the speed you need for a particular online activity, see the FCC’s Broadband Speed Guide. This guide shows the minimum download speed that’s needed for good performance for each kind of activity.
Higher speeds than the minimums in this chart can give you better performance, up to a point. Measuring Broadband Across America found that the ease of basic web browsing – measured by the time it takes to download a page – improves with higher speeds up to 10 Mbps, but not beyond. However, higher speeds may be beneficial for demanding applications such as HD streaming video.
3. Think about your whole household.
The FCC’s Broadband Speed Guide gives you estimates of the speeds you need for one person to do one thing online at a time. But many people use more than one device at a time to access the web – for example, a laptop and a tablet – and many households have parents, teens, or kids online at the same time. If you multitask or have several devices running off the same home network, the demand on your system will increase, and you may need a higher-speed broadband connection.
Our Household Broadband Guide gives you a simple way to estimate what you need in a home network. We’ve shown how three different tiers of service – basic, middle and high – could meet the needs of households using different applications and different numbers of devices at one time.
4. Consider more than download speed.
While download speed is the most important factor in broadband service, it’s not the only factor. Depending on the activities you do online, you may also want to pay attention to:
- Upload speed. This is the speed at which you can send information from your computer or device to the web. It’s especially important for video conferencing, sharing larger files online, interactive learning, medical applications that use HD imaging, and two-way online gaming – as well as advanced “cloud computing” that involves ongoing communication between your computer and the web. Ideally, all of these applications would work best if upload speed were as high as download speed, but service providers generally don’t offer that option. If these applications are important to you, use our Broadband Speed Guide to find the download speed you need, and look for a service that has upload speeds reasonably close to that level.
- Latency. Sometimes, because of the way networks are built and how much traffic they move, there can be delays in how packets travel. This kind of time lag is called latency. High latency can be a problem with applications that require real-time back-and-forth communication, such as online phone calls, video conferencing, or gaming. Our wireline broadband measurement report has data from national tests on the measure of latency found with different kinds of service.
- Data limits. Some broadband providers limit the total amount of data you can download and/or upload, for example, to 150 or 250 gigabytes (GB). In thinking about whether such data limits may affect you, it may be helpful to know that a standard definition movie is typically between 1 to 2 GB, while an HD movie may be 3 to 5 GB. If you are unsure, you should talk to your provider.
5. Find a broadband provider that provides the speed you need.
If you’re just signing up for broadband service – or thinking of switching providers – visit broadbandmap.gov to check the available providers in your area. Ask your friends and neighbors what broadband provider they use and their level of satisfaction, and look at online resources that compare broadband offerings. You may have a choice in your area between providers that use digital subscriber line (DSL), cable or fiber optics to deliver services to your home.
Our wireline broadband measurement report won’t tell you exactly what speeds providers deliver in your zip code or your neighborhood. But it will give you information about the performance of different providers at different speed tiers nationwide.
6. Find the plan that’s the best value for you.
At the same time that you’re comparing service providers, you’ll need to compare service plans to find the best value. Most providers offer low-cost slower plans as well as high-speed expensive ones. Consider the speed that is best for you and look for a plan that offers you that speed at a good price. Some providers have resources on their websites that will help you determine what service tier is best for you. Ask if your provider will let you start with a slower service tier and upgrade if you need to without paying a fee.
Even people who have broadband service may not know what speed they are paying for. If you think you might want a different plan from your provider – or if you’re considering switching providers – check your bill or call your broadband provider to find out what’s included on your current plan and what your options are.
7. Ask about the contract and additional fees.
Signing up for broadband can be a significant commitment. Be sure you understand your contract, including whether the price is a promotion that will expire, and any early termination fees for switching service before your contract is up. Understand whether you are paying an additional fee for your modem.
8. If your Internet connection is slow, look for simple solutions.
You can test your speed at broadband.gov to find out what you’re getting on your computer. If your speed is slower than what you signed up for — the “up to” speed your provider advertises — your provider may not be at fault. Several factors can slow down your Internet speed: an old or slow router, an old or slow computer, using the Internet at peak times (7 p.m – 11 p.m.), using high-bandwidth applications or sites, or having several household members online at once. Your network configuration, including wireless networks, can also affect speed.
If your broadband speed is slower than you expected, start by seeing whether changing equipment or changing the way you use the Internet improves your broadband experience. However, don’t hesitate to call your service provider if these measures don’t work and your internet connection simply seems too slow.