We all want a great online experience, but there’s a little more to internet speed than meets the eye. Internet providers typically focus on the download speeds you can get from them, but you must also consider upload speed in the equation. In this guide, we look at download vs. upload speed and which of these should factor most when choosing an internet service provider.
1. How is internet connection speed measured?
Before going further, let’s define some terms used often when discussing internet speed.
The smallest unit of data in computing is a bit, which can only be a 0 or a 1. A kilobit (Kb) is 1,000 of these bits, at least when we’re talking about internet connection speed. We can measure how many kilobits are transferred per second, which is represented by kilobits per second (Kbps or Kb/s).
As internet speeds have increased, even bigger metrics are now used. 1,000 Kb is known as a megabit (Mb). Nowadays, the speed of most internet connections is measured in megabits per second (Mbps or Mb/s).
With the advent of fiber internet, we’ve even begun to see internet speeds measured per 1,000Mbs, also known as a gigabit (Gb). The speed of an internet connection can therefore be measured in gigabits per second (Gbps or Gb/s).
You might also see speeds being discussed in terms of bytes instead of bits, particularly on network hardware like modems and routers. There are 8 bits in a byte, so kilobytes per second (KBps or KB/s) is 8 times faster than Kbps, megabytes per second (MBps or MB/s) is 8 times faster than Mbps, and gigabytes per second (GBps or GB/s) is 8 times faster than Gbps.
2. What is download speed?
Download speed is how quickly you’re able to transfer data from remote computers to your home network over the internet.
Everything on the internet, from web pages, images, and text, to music, videos, and files, is stored on computers somewhere in the world, often on computers we call servers that are dedicated to the task. For you to make use of any of this hosted content, your computer’s software needs to first download it from the remote server.
Even if you’re just viewing a web page, your web browser needs to transfer the website data from the remote server to you before it can be displayed on your screen.
This makes download speed very important to your online experience. A fast download speed means web pages and videos load more quickly, and any files you want to use will transfer swiftly to your device.
3. What is upload speed?
Upload speed refers to the speed at which you’re able to transmit data from your computer to others over the internet.
Upload speed matters when you do things like post photos on social media or publish a video on YouTube. The information needs to be uploaded from your computer to the remote server, and the faster your upload speed is, the faster the transfer will complete.
4. Do I need a fast download speed?
How fast you need your download speed to be depends on how you want to use it. General web browsing and email requires very little speed. A speed of less than 5Mbps will suffice. For streaming standard-definition video to 1 device, video conferencing, or online gaming, a speed between 5-40Mbps will be better.
When you have more devices using your internet connection at once, you’ll want a faster connection. A download speed of 40-100Mbps will work for streaming HD videos to a few devices and it will make downloading large files more bearable.
The main reason to choose an even faster connection of 100-500Mbps is for streaming video in 4k definition to multiple screens in your home. Of course, downloading big files will be faster, too, but you will see diminishing returns on faster internet connection speeds. This is because your home connection could have more bandwidth than the top speed the remote computer can serve you content.
5. Do I need a fast upload speed?
Upload speed is a less discussed metric, and many trustworthy internet providers focus more on download speed in their marketing.
Upload speed is important in video conferencing. A poor upload speed can cause your video to look pixelated because the software is required to compress the image. And poor upload speed can result in frozen screens and broken audio when using such apps, which makes for a bad impression.
Content creators can clearly benefit from faster upload speeds. YouTubers can upload their videos more quickly, and Twitch streamers can stream their gaming in high quality to their followers. Photographers, videographers, and graphic designers are other examples of people who can benefit from a faster upload speed, because they are always uploading content for customers to view.
6. How does your type of connection affect upload and download speed?
There are many types of internet connection, each with their own limitations on upload and download speed.
Looking at the most common options available today, fiber internet is typically the fastest, with upload and download speeds of up to 5,000Mbps. Importantly for our discussion, fiber internet is usually synchronous, meaning that your upload speed will be the same as your download speed. Plans from Verizon, for instance, have virtually identical upload and download speeds.
Cable internet is another option, with speeds of up to 1,000Mbps. Cable internet is often asynchronous, meaning your download speed will be much faster than your upload speed. An example is cable from Xfinity, where the Extreme Pro plan has a 600Mbps download speed with a 15Mbps upload speed.
5G home internet uses a fixed wireless connection, and can offer download speeds of around 100-1,000Mbps. Your upload speeds on a 5G home internet connection will typically be slower than your download speeds.
DSL is an older connection type that’s still in use in more rural locations. Expect download speeds of between 10-100Mbps. Again, upload speeds will usually be significantly slower, but on modern DSL you will usually get at least a 3Mbps upload speed.
7. What factors affect my internet speed?
Besides the internet service provider you choose and the plan you opt for, there are many other factors that can affect your internet speed. The equipment you use, the number of people you share your home network with, and the software you run can affect your internet browsing experience, for example. Your internet speed can also be negatively affected when your internet service provider is performing maintenance and upgrades on their systems.
If you use a wireless network at home, you also need to factor in how far your devices are from the router and how many devices are sharing the same wireless radio frequencies in your area. A congested wireless internet could affect your online experience if you and your neighbors are all sharing the limited bandwidth available.
8. What is a good download speed?
A good download speed is subjective, as everyone demands different things from their internet connection. J
For reference, we can look at Speedtest’s global broadband internet speed rankings. The average download speed globally in January 2023 was 60.76Mbps. Looking specifically at the United States, it was 146Mbps. If your download speed is faster than this, you have an above-average internet speed.
9. What is a good upload speed?
The average upload speed globally in January 2023 was 25.95Mbps, with the United States coming in at 20.60Mbps.
Most users’ demands on upload speed are more modest than their download needs. A 5Mbps upload speed will be fast enough for most people, especially if the internet connection won’t be shared over too many devices.
A 10Mbps or higher upload speed is a better idea if you might have multiple devices uploading data at the same time, such as 2 people video conferencing concurrently on your network. Content creators and those who upload lots of photos and videos to sites will find use for even faster upload rates, as they’ll be able to distribute their files to others more quickly.
10. How do I check my internet speed?
To test your internet speed, you can use online speed test tools. Sites like speedtest.net and fast.net upload and download a file to your computer and record how quickly these transfers are performed. From the results of these tests, you’ll be shown averages of your download and upload speeds.
Note that internet speed always fluctuates a little. So, it’s worth testing your internet speed multiple times over the course of a day or a week to get a better average of your actual internet speed.
In short, download speed is how quickly you can get data from other computers to your home network, whereas upload speed is how quickly you post data from your network to other computers online.
You can sometimes save money when choosing an internet provider by choosing one that has a fast download speed but a relatively slow upload speed. Most users can get by with an upload speed of around 5 Mbps, but content creators and heavy internet users may want to choose an internet service plan that offers both fast download and upload speeds.