Internet connectivity is a moving target. Sometimes, you enjoy blazing speeds on your laptop, phone or tablet, and other times, you wonder why your connection is so slow. Or maybe your Roku keeps buffering just as you're getting to the best part of that movie on Netflix.
And all the while, you question just how much speed you need to get the job done.
Credit: ShutterstockTom's Guide contacted broadband experts and some folks who work at internet service providers (ISPs) to see if you really need to pay extra for faster connectivity. Here's what we found.
The Speed You Need
|Number of devices||Use Cases||Recommended Download Speed|
|1-2||Web surfing, email, social networking, moderate video||Up to 25 Mbps|
|3-5||Online multiplayer gaming, 4K streaming||50 - 100 Mbps|
|More than 5||All of the above plus sharing large files and live streaming video.||150 to 200 Mbps|
- One expert told us that most families can get away with a cheap 20 x 5 package (20 Mbps download speed and 5 Mbps upload speed). This allows you to surf the web and stream video with 20-Mbps download speeds or back up your content to the cloud with 5-Mbps upload speeds, for example.
- Netflix says you need 5 Mbps to stream HD content and 25 Mbps for 4K Ultra HD content, but you'll want faster speeds if you plan to connect several devices at once.
- If you're planning to stream 4K video content and have multiple devices connecting to your network simultaneously, seriously consider investing in faster download speeds, like 200 Mbps, which should work for most users.
- Use tools like Fast.com or Speedtest to check your internet connection speed and determine whether you're really getting the bandwidth you're paying for.
There is such a thing as too much speed
I know, I know — all the ISPs are telling you to get faster connectivity. But you may be paying more than you need to.
"To select the best services or package for your usage, you must understand your bandwidth needs," said Lincoln Lavoie, a senior engineer of broadband technologies at the University of New Hampshire InterOperability Laboratory.
"This [bandwidth] depends more on the applications being used (streaming is largely a downstream application), but as users start doing more things like video calls and movie sharing, upload also becomes very important," Lavoie told Tom's Guide. "Similarly, upload speeds are critical for people working remotely from home, as upload speeds would impact things like screen sharing and online conference calls."
Another senior engineer, who works at a well-known ISP and spoke to Tom's Guide on condition of anonymity, echoed that point, saying internet speeds ultimately depend on what the customer is doing with his or her internet connection.
The person added that the "average family" shouldn't pay for "anything beyond 20 x 5."
But another broadband expert told Tom's Guide that the more bandwidth you have, the better, up to a point. Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, said this will ensure you have enough bandwidth when you really need it — for example, if you have a big file to upload or you're doing sophisticated work on your network. .
However, "anything over 10 Gbps to a home user is pretty likely overkill," Mitchell said. "Only a few networks in the U.S. do 10 Gbps. A gig everywhere should be a goal — not because people will max it out, but because it will ensure everyone can do what they want without worrying about the network being the bottleneck.”
The cost of connectivity
Though there's debate over how much internet speed you need, it's clear that ISPs benefit from your desire for faster internet speeds. But they can also provide some insight into how much speed you really need by listing how many devices can connect to the network at any given time.
Comcast Xfinity, a prominent ISP in the U.S., has varying prices based on speed. If you listen to the above engineer, you can probably get away with the company's cheapest package, offering you download speeds of up to 25 Mbps. The plan is available for new customers at $30 per month and, according to Xfinity, should be able to accommodate up to five devices simultaneously connecting to the internet.
Xfinity also delivers a connection with up to 100 Mbps download speeds for $90 per month. According to the company, that should be enough to accommodate up to eight devices simultaneously connecting to the internet.
Xfinity offers a 2-Gbps connection for $225 per month with a two-year agreement. "Unlimited devices" should be able to connect to the web at that speed, the company says.
Beware of these pitfalls
In many cases, choosing your internet connection speed means weighing how much you're hoping to get versus how much you're willing to pay. But you need to be ready for the possibility that you won't get what you want.
Most ISPs offer internet packages with an important caveat: "up to." In other words, for the average residential internet customer, ISPs aren't guaranteeing a certain download or upload speed. So, if you're paying for a 25-Mbps package, you may get that speed (if not more) at times. But it's also possible that you'll get less.
But even if your ISP is delivering the speeds you want, the number of devices simultaneously connecting to your network could give you some trouble that could ultimately slow down your connection.
"Internet connections serve households or businesses that have multiple users that each have multiple devices (sometimes more than 10 per person, ultimately)," Mitchell said. "They create congestion in unexpected ways — you may not need a 100-Mbps connection most of the day, but when you need it, you want it there. Much like a car can go 100 mph, but we rarely drive it that way."
So, how can you tell if your network needs a boost? Lavoie said to look for "quality of experience" metrics, including load times, the number of connectivity glitches and connection drop-outs. It's also important to use online speed-check tools, like the aforementioned Fast.com or others, to see at what speed you start to experience problems.
Are speeds changing?
So are internet speeds getting any better? A recent study from internet speed-test company Ookla found that the average download speed around the globe increased by 30 percent for both wireline and mobile connections between 2016 and 2017. That translates to average download speeds of 40 Mbps for broadband and 20 Mbps for mobile, according to the report.
According to Ookla, the average U.S. broadband download speed is 76 Mbps. That put the country in the top 20 fastest speeds around the world, but it was far behind Singapore and Iceland, which deliver average download speeds of 154 Mbps and 148 Mbps, respectively.
What's going on with 5G?
While most people today rely on broadband and fiber connections to get the fastest download speeds, that could change dramatically in the future.
Wireless carriers — including Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — are working on 5G connectivity across their networks. And although the technology is still years from widespread deployment, both AT&T and Verizon plan to beta test 5G in several cities in 2018.
How fast could 5G be? Samsung has demoed 5G home routers that deliver speeds up to 5 gigabits per second, according to PCMag. That would let you download a 50GB game in under two minutes or a 100GB 4K movie in less than four minutes, says Business Insider. The real-world speeds would likely be much less, but they could still beat many home broadband connections.
But so far, neither company has promised specfic speeds for those 5G connections, and neither has said which cities will get it. But look for speeds to match, if not exceed, those you're getting with wired broadband. And by the time 5G is rolled out universally, it could offer speeds that hit 1Gbps.
That could give your current ISP a run for its money.
Ultimately, deciding on the internet speeds you need isn't as simple as it looks — or as simple as ISPs want you to believe. According to the experts, you need to think about the number of devices that will simultaneously connect to your network and exactly what you want to do with your connection. If it's just streaming and web surfing you're after, you likely won't need much. But if you're looking to stream 4K video, play online games and connect multiple devices,you'll need more bandwidth, for which you'll have to pay more.
Along the way, you should analyze your network speeds to see what's happening during slowdown or connectivity loss.