How much internet speed do I really need? You may find yourself asking this question every time you need to renew your internet service plan or even every time you go to pay your bill.
Knowing which broadband service plan is the right one for you and your household isn’t the simplest question to answer though. The pandemic put more demand on home networks than ever before as home broadband plans had to serve as both a work resource and a school service on top of your usual streaming and gaming.
Here’s how to know if you’re paying too much for your internet access - or if you’re really getting the service you need. At the same time though, having one of the best cable modems or best Wi-Fi routers can help you get the most from your internet connection.
As the number of users and connected devices in your home increases, so too does the bandwidth they use which is why internet connectivity is something of a moving target.
Have you ever enjoyed blazing speeds on your laptop, phone or tablet and then at other times wondered why your connection was so slow? Maybe an online game takes a while to load when someone else in your home starts a video call or perhaps your streaming devices just keep buffering right when you get to the best part of a movie on Netflix.
To see if you really need to pay a lot more for faster connectivity, Tom’s Guide asked broadband experts and staffers at the top internet service providers (ISPs) and this what we found.
What internet speed do I need? Quick tips
- Netflix says you need 5 Mbps to stream full HD content and a data rate of 25 Mbps (megabits per second) for 4K Ultra HD content. However, you’ll want even faster speeds if you plan to connect several devices at once. The same holds true for other streaming services as well as for game-streaming services like Twitch.
- Multiple devices demand more bandwidth. If you plan on streaming 4K video content and have multiple devices connected to your network at the same time, you should seriously consider investing in a plan that can provide faster download speeds, such as 200 Mbps. This speed should work for more data-hungry households.
- Consider gigabit (1,000 Mbps) speeds, if available. Those who use a lot of data will want faster speeds and more bandwidth. If they’re available where you live, gigabit-speed internet plans are the best you can get for home connections right now though some ISPs have begun rolling out multi-gig plans but they are still quite expensive.
- Know your speeds. By using one of the best speed test apps, you can check your internet connection speed to determine whether you’re really getting the bandwidth you’re paying for.
- Check your Wi-Fi connection. Sometimes the problem isn’t with your ISP but with your home network instead. See our guide on how to make Wi-Fi faster for some quick tips or consider upgrading your router.
There is such a thing as too much speed
Although your ISP may be telling you to get a faster and more expensive plan, you may actually 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."
During the pandemic when people had to handle everything from work to school at home, the need to have sufficient bandwidth for an entire household became more important than ever before.
A senior engineer who works at a major ISP that spoke with Tom’s Guide on the condition of anonymity echoed this point, saying internet speeds ultimately depend on what each customer is doing with their internet connection.
The engineer also highlighted the fact that the “average family” shouldn’t pay for “anything beyond 20 x 5” or in other words, 20 Mbps each for up to five data-hungry devices such as desktop computers, laptops, game consoles and streaming TVs.
Companies like Spectrum offer 100 Mbps download seeds as their baseline and this kind of plan should work well enough for most people.
How many Mbps do you really 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|
Another broadband expert explained to Tom’s Guide that the more bandwidth you have, the better - but only up to a point.
Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, said a fast data rate 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.
As the name suggests, gigabit speed offers 1,000 Mbps or 1 Gbps which is an exponential increase over the 20-to-200 Mbps plans that are generally considered high-speed broadband. Check out our article about gig-speed internet for a full explanation on what gigabit internet plans offer, what they cost and what they allow you to do.
Mitchell also explained that “anything over 10 Gbps to a home user is pretty likely overkill” and that “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.”
However, as more people shift to streaming to watch TV and movies online, bandwidth requirements become a bigger issue. If you want to stream 4K content to get the best picture on your smart TV, you’ll need at least 25 Mbps to do so. Lower-resolution content is less demanding but even streaming 1080p HD video requires a 10 Mbps plan for smooth performance.
This assumes you only stream video to a single device at a time. If there is more than one TV in your home, or you want to watch in the living room while someone else watches something in the bedroom, then your bandwidth needs will grow accordingly.
Smart home devices also requ;ire more bandwidth and it only takes a few – like a smart thermostat, a smart speaker and a smart lock – to start having an impact on the speed of your home network. This is why you don’t want to forget to factor these devices in when determining how many connected devices you have in your home.
Most experts recommend adding an extra 5 Mbps to your plan for every 10 smart home devices though some – like cameras – require even more data.
The cost of connectivity
Although there's a debate over how much internet speed the average home customer needs, it's clear that ISPs benefit from your desire for faster internet speed. The ISPs 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.
According to a report by the The Internet & Television Association, the average American household pays $61 per month for internet service, but your costs will vary based on your plan and usage.
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, which offers download speeds of up to 100 Mbps.
The plan is available for new customers at $40 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 200-Mbps download speeds for $55 per month. According to the company, that should be enough to accommodate up to eight devices simultaneously connecting to the internet.
There's even a 2-Gbps Xfinity plan for $300 per month with a two-year agreement. "Unlimited devices" should be able to connect to the web at that speed, the company says. But if you want more speed and a little less cost, consider Xfinity's 1-Gbps option that starts at $80 per month.
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.
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. With everything from laptops and smartphones to TVs and connected appliances relying on a steady stream of data, it's easy to underestimate your needs.
"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."
How can you tell if your network needs a boost? Lavoie said to look for "quality of experience" metrics, including load times and the frequency 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.
What about online gaming?
If you're an avid gamer, playing online with friends might be one of the things you enjoy most. Having fast internet is really important for that.
Over on its support forums, Microsoft (opens in new tab) offers a handy reference document to help you know how fast your internet speeds should be to accommodate online play. According to the document, you'll want a download speed of 3 Mbps or better and an upload speed of 0.5 Mbps or better. Your ping rate (a measure of the lag your internet connection causes in online gaming) should also be less than 150 milliseconds.
Sony and Nintendo recommend the same speeds.
Twitch and game streaming
When it's time to stream games between friends on Twitch, you'll need even faster connectivity, according to Microsoft and other game companies. According to Twitch's broadcasting guidelines, you'll need a bitrate of at least 2.5 to 4 Mbps to play at 720p and 30 frames per second. It then goes up to 3.5 to 5 Mbps for 720p at 60 fps.
If you want to stream at 1080p and 30 fps, you need 3.5 to 5 Mbps as well, and 1080p at 60 fps demands 4.5 to 6 Mbps.
Are speeds changing?
The good news is that internet speeds are improving. A 2020 study (opens in new tab) from internet speed-test company Ookla found that the average download speed increased by 19.6% for fixed home broadband connections between 2019 and 2020.
Gigabit speed connections, once limited to specific neighborhoods in only the largest cities, is now more widely available than ever. According to the The Internet & Television Association (opens in new tab), gigabit service is available to more than 80% of households in the United States, with gigabit speed connections offered in more than 40 states. (See our guide to learn what is gigabit Internet.)
How much speed do I have?
Before you can make an informed decision regarding your internet speed, it’s important that you find out what kind of download and upload speeds you’re actually getting right now. Fortunately, there are plenty of places to find that out.
Popular internet speed testing tools include Ookla Speedtest (opens in new tab) and Netflix’s Fast.com (opens in new tab) which you can pull up on your laptop or smartphone in any web browser for free. Even better, you can also get dedicated smartphone apps for these same tools, with free apps for both Ookla Speedtest (Android (opens in new tab) / iOS (opens in new tab)) and Fast.com (Android (opens in new tab) / iOS (opens in new tab)). Looking for other options? Check out our guide on the best speed test apps.
There are also a number of similar tools offered by various broadband companies if you want to use a tool that’s specific to your internet service provider:
- AT&T (opens in new tab)
- Cox (opens in new tab)
- Spectrum (opens in new tab)
- Verizon (opens in new tab)
- Xfinity (opens in new tab)
Regularly checking your connection speeds will not only give you a good idea of whether you're getting the services you pay for, but also how well-suited your connection is for uses like streaming in 4K or online gaming.
What's going on with 5G?
Wireless carriers — including Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile — have already introduced 5G connectivity across their networks, and coverage has spread to major cities and markets.
Once 5G speeds come to your area, the mobile technology could give your current ISP a run for its money. As 5G wireless technology starts to roll out across the country, there is a push to use the faster speeds of 5G for in-home broadband, as well as mobile connectivity.
The potential speeds promised by 5G are an incredible jump forward, with download speeds ranging from from 150 Mbps to more than 1 Gbps in some tests. That's an enormous improvement over 4G, which ranges from 30-60 Mbps. That's also fast enough that you could conceivably use a 5G connection to meet all of your home internet needs instead of traditional wired broadband.
However, there's still a way to go before 5G in the home becomes a viable option. First, 5G service needs to roll out to more of the country. It's offered in some cities, but rural coverage isn't wide spread, and networks are still being built out and refined.
The hardware for in-home use is a little different, with exterior 5G antennas to pull in the signal, and 5G-friendly routers then divvying up the connection throughout the home. These products are still in the early days, so don't count on ditching your cable just yet.
There's also the question of price, as most data plans from carriers are still mobile-oriented, and come with data caps and restrictions that aren't as flexible as current fixed broadband. For now, we recommend waiting on switching your whole home to 5G.
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.
What you pay for may not be what you get. You should periodically analyze your network speeds to see what's happening during slowdown or connectivity loss, as well as regular usage. If you aren't seeing the speeds you're paying for, it may be time to call your internet service provider.