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Think of it like this. Imagine two pipes with water coming out of them. One is 1 inch in diameter and one is 8 inches in diameter. The water comes out of both pipes at the same speed, but the larger pipe delivers more water. This is a crucial distinction. The amount of water is the capacity of the pipe. The rate at which it comes out is speed. (Yes, we know every ISP in the country calls bandwidth ‘speed’ - that’s marketing, folks. They want to sell you an upgrade.)

The speed of an Internet connection is measured by it’s latency. That’s the amount of time it takes from the time you hit your ‘enter’ key (or click your mouse, or whatever) and you getting a response at your computer. Think of it as the time it takes for your action to get to the other end, and for you to get a response. Latency is usually measured in milliseconds (1/1000 of a second).


The latency is affected by a lot of things such as physical distance to the part of the Internet you’re talking to, errors on parts of the path between you and your target destination, and delays introduced by electronics on that path.

How does affect things? Well, most communications between you and some part of the Internet rely on sending some a small amount of data, checking it was received, re-sending it if it wasn’t, then sending more. All this is invisible to you, and goes on in the background. but each of these checks and responses is delayed by latency, because the messages have to pass back and forth before more data can be sent, delaying the sending of those small ‘packets’ of data.

Let’s say you’re streaming a Netflix HD video on 10 megabit connection. A 1080p HD video takes 4–5 Megabits a second, so no problem, right? But because the video is streamed in small chunks, or packets, and all those packets take time to do their round trips and their checks and re-transmits, the latency doesn’t have to get very long before you start seeing ‘buffering…’

Many things can affect latency - at your end, WiFi is a common culprit, particularly if you’re sharing WiFi with other people and devices, or you have a lot of interference. For best performance (streaming, gaming etc) always connect with a wire.

OK, so that’s latency. Now about downloading. The maximum download rate you can get is governed by the lowest bandwidth connection between you and the destination. If you’re downloading a file on your 250 mbps connection from server in Oakland California, and that server is on a 100 Mbps connection, the best you’re going to get is close to 100 Mbps. Chances are, you won’t be the only one using it, either, so you’ll have to share with other users, reducing it still further.

In most (but not all) cases if you’re a home user, paying for any bandwidth over 100 Mbps is a waste of money. Most people never use anywhere close to this. But do check the latency. That really does make a huge difference and should be a factor in deciding between ISP’s.