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How to decide what internet speed you need

Learn about the different types of internet options

by Kate Williams, Ph.D. ConsumerAffairs Research Team
mom on a laptop sitting with her daughter on a tablet

Nobody wants to wait forever to get online. Whether you’re surfing the web, streaming your favorite TV show, checking your email or gaming, you need fast, reliable internet service. Here’s what you need to know about the different types of internet service options.

family all on their phones sitting on a couch

What is bandwidth?

Bandwidth measures how long it takes for something to download from the internet onto your computer or internet-enabled device. The more things you download, the more bandwidth you need. If you have multiple users in your home who are streaming, gaming, checking Facebook or doing anything else online, you’re going to need internet service with a lot of bandwidth since it’s shared among all of your devices.

How is bandwidth measured?

Bandwidth is measured in bits per second (bps), and files are measured in bytes. One byte equals eight bits, so one megabyte (MB) is eight megabits (Mbps). That means that a file that is 1 MB will take eight seconds to download if your connection is 1 Mbps. (For reference, an MP3 file is usually around 5 MB, and a movie can be anywhere from 1,000 to over 5,000 MB).

How much bandwidth do I need?

How you use the internet will determine how much bandwidth you need. The more you do online, the higher Mbps you’re going to need so you can download, stream and game without waiting for everything to load.

woman on her laptop and phone

How much internet speed do I need?

The speed of internet you need depends on what you do when you’re online:

  • For general internet use: 5–10 Mbps
    If you’re the type of person who only uses the internet to check email and surf the web, you can get by with 5 or fewer Mbps. If you like to stream videos occasionally, or if you have multiple devices set up that browse the web, you should get service that is 5–10 Mbps.
  • For streaming videos: 5–25 Mbps
    Netflix requires you to have an internet connection of at least .5 Mbps to stream anything and recommends having a connection of at least 3 Mbps for standard definition streaming. If you want to watch shows and movies in high definition, you should have 5–25 Mbps.
  • For gaming: 25–40+ Mbps
    Gaming takes up a lot of bandwidth, so you’re going to need high-speed internet service, especially if someone in your household is a gamer and other people are using the internet for streaming or general use. If you’re into gaming, you’re going to need internet service with at least 25–40+ Mbps.

    In general, faster internet is better for streaming and gaming. Keep in mind, the Mbps you pay for is the maximum Mbps you will receive. You might end up getting slower speeds during busy times of the day and when multiple users in your home are online, so if you’re an avid internet user, you should probably go with the fastest speed available in your area.

internet modem router

Types of internet connections

The type of internet connection option you choose will also affect the speed of your internet:

  • Dial-up
    Once the only way to get online, dial-up is seldom offered anymore. Dial-up service links you to the internet through your landline. It can be a viable option for those who either don’t have access to other forms of the internet because of their location and those who hardly ever go online and want the cheapest option available.
  • Broadband
    Most cable and telephone companies offer broadband (short for broad bandwidth) internet service. This is among the fastest internet options out there, since it relies on several data channels to transmit information. DSL, fiber, wireless, satellite and cable connections can be all be broadband.
  • Wireless
    Wireless connections are made through a modem that may connect to a broadband DSL, cable, satellite or fiber line, usually placed in a central location inside your home. The modem picks up internet signals and sends them to internet-enabled devices in or near your home. Your connection is always on, and it can be accessed by anyone within range of your modem. Keep your wireless network secure from intruders by securing it with a password.
  • DSL
    Digital subscriber line (DSL) is wired internet that transmits data over traditional copper telephone lines that are already installed in homes or offices. Unlike dial-up, DSL users can still use their landline while they’re connected to the internet. Common in both businesses and homes, broadband DSL transmission speeds can go as high as millions of Mbps. (Note: Not all DSL connections are broadband.)
  • Cable
    Cable internet transmits service through cable TV lines (usually given to you by your service provider). You’ll need a cable modem to pick up the internet signal, which you can buy on your own or rent from your service provider.
  • Satellite
    Satellite internet also uses a modem to transmit the internet signal through your satellite dish. This can be a better option than dial-up for rural customers who don’t have access to broadband connections. Satellite connections are typically faster than dial-up but slower than the other options. You can usually bundle a satellite internet and TV package to save some money every month.
  • Fiber
    Fiber internet service wins for having the fastest speeds available. The internet is transmitted over fiber-optic lines, with download speeds as fast as 1 gigabyte per second. It’s expensive to install fiber-optic cables, which is why most cities aren’t equipped for it yet.
satellite dish on a metal roof

Internet options for rural areas

A lot of remote, rural areas don’t have access to high-speed internet. If you live in a rural area and need to get online, you have a few options:

  • Dial-up
    If you live in a remote area that doesn’t have access to broadband internet, you might have to settle for dial-up connection. In fact, three percent of Americans (roughly 2.1 million people) rely on dial-up service through AOL, which was acquired by Verizon in 2015.

    If you have to use dial-up, take comfort in knowing you’re spending less on the internet than people who use broadband, satellite or wireless. AOL costs around $20 a month, compared with the average price tag of $78 that people pay each month for a wireless or broadband connection. And if you’re the type of person who only uses the internet for web browsing and checking your email, you won’t really notice a difference in speed between dial-up and broadband.

  • Satellite
    Satellite internet is an alternative to cable if you’re in a rural area and are sick of listening to the sound of your dial-up connection slowly booting up. Because they don’t require underground cables or access to a nearby provider, satellite dishes can be put anywhere. You won’t necessarily get great internet streaming, but it should surpass what you’re getting with a dial-up connection.

    If you want smoother video streaming and online gaming, spring for the better (i.e. more expensive) package with higher Mbps. You might be able to save some money by bundling an internet and TV package together from your satellite provider, with prices ranging from around $95 to over $200 per month.

Bottom line

Whether you’re moving into a new place or just need to switch your internet service provider, know what type of service you need. Doing a little research to make sure you're getting enough internet speed for your new home will cut out a lot of potential frustration. Consider your household’s internet activity. Do you stream shows and movies? How many devices do you have? Do you do any gaming? Once you’ve got that info, find a provider who can get you the best price for the speed you require.

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by Kate Williams, Ph.D. ConsumerAffairs Research Team

As a member of the ConsumerAffairs Research Team, Kate Williams, Ph.D. believes everyone deserves easy access to accurate and comprehensive information on products and businesses before they make a purchase. She spends countless hours researching companies and industries before writing buyers guides to make sure consumers have all the information they need to make smart, informed buying decisions.