A Complete Guide to Internet Speed and ISPs

Rosslyn Elliott

Written by Rosslyn Elliott - Pub. Jan. 24, 2024 / Updated Feb. 6, 2024

Fastest speeds with widest coverage
Fiber provides fastest speeds
Availability still limited
Speed: 100 - 5000
Price: 55 - 225
Most consistent high speed
92% of connections qualify as high speed
Slower upload speeds than fiber
Speed: 300 - 1000
Price: 49.99 - 79.99
Best price for gigabit speed
Lowest price for national fiber provider
Availability lower than AT&T Fiber
Speed: 100 - 5000
Price: 24.99 - 154.99
Lowest latency
Great for gaming and streaming
Limited mostly to East Coast
Speed: 300 - 2000
Price: 49.99 - 109.99
Lowest promo prices
Great deals for first year
Available to fewest households
Speed: 100 - 2000
Price: 25 - 75

Sometimes, it seems like internet speed is all anyone talks about when you’re choosing an internet plan.

But there’s a good reason for that! Your internet speed will determine what you can do online. It’s crucial to have enough speed for the online activities you enjoy.

There’s a little more to internet speed than just a single number. But it’s not rocket science, either. That’s why we put together this complete guide to give you all the information you need about internet speed.

It’s all here in one easy resource so you can find out about bandwidth, download, upload, Wi-Fi, latency, and more. With this information, you can get the best possible deal without overpaying for speed you don’t need.

Test your Internet speed

Run a quick speed test to see how fast your current Internet Service Provider (ISP) is.

First, get the basics on internet speed

Our site has lots of handy pages that give you key info about internet speed. See which of these quick overviews will help you get up to speed!
Understand key terms
Know the difference between Mbps and Gbps
Be an instant expert
Clear up these two confusing words in ads
Pick the speed for you
Explore why one speed doesn’t fit all
Troubleshoot your speed
Solve your slow internet problems
See the fastest ISPs
Discover which providers top the list for max speeds
Sort through local ISPs
Know how to find the fastest local ISP
Get the big picture
Understand internet speeds around the world

What is internet speed, in a nutshell?

Internet speed is simply how fast your device can bring you the data you need.

If your internet speed is perfect for you, you never even notice it. You click away browsing for bargains, watching fun videos on social media, or talking to your friend on Zoom. Everything goes smoothly.

When your internet is too slow, your screens freeze or go blank. Buffering and glitching drive you crazy.

Your internet speed will depend on what providers are available in your area.

Will you pay more for higher speed? Not always! More competition in high-population areas sometimes means low prices for fast internet.

What is a fast internet speed? Who decides?

You decide! That’s the short answer. But we’re here to give you some help.

We’ll start by telling you what the government has said about fast internet. In 2015, the FCC stated that  “high-speed internet,” aka “broadband, meant any connection that had at least 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed [1].

But that was then, and this is now. Almost ten years later in 2024, the FCC says it is time for an upgrade, and we agree. The new FCC proposal is that “high-speed internet” will be defined as 100 Mbps download speed and 20 Mbps upload speed [2].

Why the change? Because HD streaming, gaming, and remote work have changed our internet requirements.

Download speed Upload speed Internet activities Number of users
1-5 Mbps 1 Mbps Send emails

Light browsing

I very light internet user
5-20 Mbps 1-2 Mbps Send emails

Browse social media

Online shopping

1-2 light internet users
20-50 Mbps 3-5 Mbps Run 1-2 smart devices

Stream in HD on 1-2 devices

Play selected online games

1-3 moderate internet users
50-100 Mbps 3-10 Mbps Play most online games

Download large files

Run 3-5 smart devices

Stream in HD on 4 devices

1 heavy internet user or 2-4 moderate internet users
100-400 Mbps 10-25 Mbps Stream in 4K on 6 or more devices

Run 6 or more smart devices

Download multiGB files instantly

Play real-time multiplayer games

3-4 moderate users or heavy users
400-999 Mbps 30 Mbps and up Download and upload multiGB files

Run 10 or more smart devices

Stream in 4K on 10 or more devices

Game and videoconference seamlessly

5 or more heavy internet users
1000 Mbps (1 GB) and up 500 Mbps and up Do anything you want!

Invent new VR and AR apps

Run a home biz with 10 employees editing and uploading video

All the internet users in all the houses on your street

(Just kidding. But this level of internet speed is no joke!)

Let’s find the speed you need

Tell us what you use Internet for

(Select all that apply)

Online Gaming
Multiple Users
Streaming Video
Browsing & Email
Find the speed for me

Target speed: 150 Mbps

In order for you to have the Internet capability you need, we recommend an Internet option that offers a download speed of

Your current Internet speed:


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What internet type should you choose?

In your area, you will usually be able to choose from at least two types of internet technology. The only exception is in very remote places where your only choice may be satellite internet.  But in more populated areas, you may be able to choose from all five major internet types!   Here’s a quick guide to what each technology type costs and what each offers you for internet speed. Most guides do not include upload speed, but that will be an important part of your decision too. If you are planning to videoconference, upload large files, or play online games, make sure your upload speed is fast enough.

Technology type Download speed Upload speed Average price per month Learn more
Fiber 50 Mbps – 50 Gigs 50 Mbps – 50 Gigs $20 – $200
Cable 50 – 1000 Mbps 10 – 50 Mbps $50 – $120
DSL 5 – 100 Mbps 1 – 3 Mbps $50 – $55
Satellite 12 – 150 Mbps 3 – 20 Mbps $50 – $300
Fixed wireless 10 – 1000 Mbps 1-50 Mbps $35 – $80

 

Fiber Internet

Fiber internet is the newest and fastest internet technology, with speeds up to an eye-popping 50 Gigs. With fiber service, data travels through fiber-optic lines that transmit data at 69% of the speed of light. That light-based signal is much faster than an electricity-based cable internet signal that travels through older copper cables. Fiber is the only connection that will give you equal download speeds and upload speeds, often called “symmetrical speeds.” Fiber’s only drawback is that it is not available everywhere.

Cable Internet

The signals that transmit cable internet pass along the same cables as cable television when they reach your home.. Most cable companies now offer a hybrid fiber coaxial (HFC) network, which means only the last mile or less is copper wiring. The main spine of the cable provider’s network is fiber, which is why cable internet speeds have improved greatly.  Cable internet download speeds can rise as high as 1 Gig (1000 Mbps) or even 2 Gigs (2000 Mbps). Upload speeds will be around 10 – 50 Mbps depending on your plan. These speeds are high enough for most current internet activities, and cable is popular for that reason.

DSL Internet

DSL internet service runs through copper wiring that also hosts landline telephone signals. DSL is an older technology than cable or fiber internet. Still,  DSL is ten times faster than dial-up internet. But with speeds that may frequently top out at 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload, DSL often can’t support many heavy-data activities, such as HD streaming for multiple users.  There are exceptions, of course. DSL varies so widely by location that you may luck out with the faster kind at 100/5 Mbps.

Satellite Internet

Satellite internet service covers over 99% of the USA. The downside of satellite is high latency, which means there will be a lag in your signal. Satellites transmit data from space, which means the signal must travel a very long distance to reach your home. The latency, or delay, means that satellite works best for low-data internet activities such as email and web-browsing. Satellite won’t usually work for multiplayer gaming or HD video streaming. Most satellite plans also have data caps, which makes the service a better choice for those who don’t plan to use large amounts of data. Still, satellite coverage fills a valuable need for those who can’t get online due to their remote locations.

Can I Improve my current internet speed?

Sometimes, you may need to find a faster internet provider. But before you do that, you want to make sure your slow internet isn’t caused by something in your own home.

Here are some common quick fixes for problems that may be slowing down your internet.

Reposition your router: Most routers send out a signal in a 360-degree, three-dimensional sphere. The closer your router is to the “center” of your device locations, the stronger your signal will be. Often, positioning the router higher on the wall rather than on the floor can help. Keeping the router away from appliances and obstructions such as bookshelves can also improve your signal.

Test with an Ethernet cable: To see if your router is the problem, try plugging directly into your modem with an Ethernet cable instead of using the Wi-Fi.

Optimize for multiple users: See if your speed slows down when you have multiple devices doing heavy-data activities. If so, you may need to either plan to stagger your usage, or upgrade to a higher speed.

Upgrade your modem/router: If your modem/router is more than a few years old, you may need to get one with higher capacity. Your home Wi-Fi network will only work at the fastest speed your router can handle, even if your plan is faster. Make sure you are at least on Wi-Fi 5 if not Wi-Fi 6 standards.

Update your router firmware: Sometimes, your ISP will handle firmware updates automatically if you are using their modem/router. But at other times, you may need to manually update by checking with your router settings.

Check whether your ISP is throttling your connection: Sometimes, ISPs may slow down your connection if you exceed your data caps. Your internet speed may also drop during periods of network congestion.

Choose a new plan or provider: If none of these quick fixes work, it may be time to get a faster plan! Enter your zip code to find which internet providers might give you more

Do I need equal download and upload speeds?

You may hear a lot about how fiber internet is the only connection that will offer you symmetrical speeds. That’s true at least for the moment, though some cable companies are working on advancing their technology [3].

That means that your upload speeds will be the same as your download speeds with a fiber connection.

Whether or not this matters to you personally may depend on what you most like to do on the internet.

If your favorite thing is 4K or HD streaming, your chief need is download speed. And you will want more of it for every person in your house.

If you’re planning to upload a lot of video or other large files, then you want more upload speed. You also need more upload speed for videoconferencing or gaming.

A fast cable internet plan can easily support most ordinary upload tasks, even for large files. So it almost goes without saying that the much higher upload speeds of fiber are ideal for almost any user.

DSL, fixed wireless, and satellite usually will have very low upload speeds compared to either fiber or cable, so consider your options carefully if you need fast uploads.

What’s the best way to get fast upload speeds?

Fiber internet is the only technology that will get you super-fast upload speeds. Even the slowest fiber plan has faster upload speeds than any other internet connection type. Your second-best bet would be a very fast cable internet plan. If you get 500 - 1000 Mbps through a cable plan, you may get upload speeds as high as 50 Mbps.

What about latency? The hidden speed factor

Internet type Latency Effect on performance
Satellite 595 – 630 ms Real-time gaming and videoconferencing will glitch and may not work at all
Fixed wireless 30 – 100 ms Most real-time functions will work well except perhaps at highest end (100 ms)
DSL 20-38 ms Gaming and video calls should work well
Cable 10 – 25 ms Ideal performance
Fiber 7 – 12 ms Ideal performance

 

One more big influence on internet performance is the latency of your connection.

So what is latency? Think of it as “lag.” Latency is like friction in your internet connection. Latency can happen because of signal interference, but the highest latency happens when internet signals travel a long distance.

That’s why satellite internet has higher latency than any other kind of internet connection.

High latency is not good. It means a longer delay between the time you press a button and the time you get a response. As you can see in the above table, satellite internet tends to have 20 to 100 times more latency than other internet connections.

For most internet activities, you won’t even notice a difference. But anything that needs to take place real-time, like split-second gaming or video calls, may become difficult to impossible.

Most experts agree that latency under 40 ms is ideal for real-time activities. Even latency under 100 ms will often work. So as you can see, the lower latency of anything but satellite internet may work just fine for your real-time needs. Just make sure your general internet speed is high enough.

Why is internet speed important?

You need high-speed internet because without it, you won’t be able to do everything you want online. For most users, 200 Mbps download speed would be easily enough to do most normal activities. (You would also want low latency and probably at least 20 Mbps upload speed.)

If you really just want the internet for email and browsing, though, you may be fine with a 10 Mbps/2 Mbps DSL connection. But most people now at least want to be able to watch HD video or upload videos easily.

If you have the option of a fiber or cable connection, you will almost certainly be able to get the fastest speed you want. That will make it easy to stream without ever buffering or game without long load times. You won’t have to worry about dropped connections for video calls on Teams or Zoom. Remote work will be seamless and smooth.

“Internet speed” means something more than just how quickly data transfers. It also determines how much data you can transfer at once, which is something we usually call “bandwidth.”

So, when you have high speeds over 200 Mbps (and even up to multigigabit speeds), you will be able to use multiple devices at once. That’s when you might hear someone say, “I have a lot of bandwidth,” which means, high speeds for multiple users.

Having great bandwidth is even better if you have smart home devices from the Internet of Things. If you’re trying to run your home security system, your thermostat, all your lights, and a stereo speaker system on Wi-Fi, you will love having high bandwidth.

How do we measure internet speed?

Usually, you’re going to see two speed measurements for internet speed.

The most common until just a few years ago was Mbps.

Mbps = Megabits per second

A bit is a very tiny unit of digital data. So, a megabit is one million bits.

Back in the 1990s, the dinosaur times of the internet, we even measured speeds in “kilobits per second.” A kilobit was a thousand times smaller than a megabit [4]. So kilobit speeds were very, very slow. Kilobits only applied to the first internet technology, dial-up internet.

Flash forward thirty years, and we have advanced to GIGABITS. A gigabit is a thousand times bigger than a megabit.

So speeds measured in gigabits (Gbps) are super-fast. And the fastest of all are what we call multigigabit speeds, which means anything over 1 Gigabit.

People are also starting to call Gigabits “Gigs.” So now you know why the ads put “Gigs” in big, splashy letters. Gigs are the fastest internet speed you can get.

Gigabit internet speed will allow a big house full of people and devices to operate totally smoothly. Having multi-gig internet speed means enjoying the ultimate bandwidth.

Is Wi-Fi speed the same as internet speed?

In a word, no. Sometimes people use the two terms interchangeably though.

Wi-Fi speed refers to the speed of a wireless connection through a wireless router or a portable hotspot.

Your internet speed is the speed of your original internet connection as it comes in through the wall of your house.

If you plug in a device to your modem with an Ethernet cable, you will see your full internet speed. (As long as the Ethernet cable is fast enough!)

But Wi-Fi speed may be slower, either because the router is slower than the original connection, or because there’s too much congestion on your home Wi-Fi network.

That’s why it’s always smart to test your Wi-Fi speed by bypassing the router and plugging in directly. If your wired internet speed is much faster than your Wi-Fi speed, it’s time to make some changes.

Extra! Extra!

Curious about the very fastest internet you can get? Learn more about the fastest ISPs in the nation or even the fastest internet speeds globally.

FAQ's

Is my modem or router too slow?

Your internet equipment may be too slow if it is old. You also may have the wrong standards for your modem/router, so it’s not compatible with your connection. Look for words like DOCSIS 3.1 or Wi-Fi 5 and Wi-Fi 6.

Your ISP can tell you which of these standards you need to optimize your internet speed for their connection.

What if my internet speed is fast in one room and slow in another?

You may need an extender, a repeater, or a mesh Wi-Fi system. Having a strong signal in one room but a weak signal in a more distant or obstructed room means your incoming signal is strong. You just need a solution to even out the signal around your household.

What’s the difference between broadband internet and high-speed internet?

There is no difference between these terms. “Broadband” is a term that was coined originally to mean using a broader range of frequencies to transmit internet signals.

If someone says “only 20% of people in my rural area have broadband” that means only 20% of the people have internet speeds above 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload. That’s the current federal definition of “broadband” or “high-speed.”

If the FCC raises the speeds for the definition of “high-speed internet,” the discussion about digital opportunity and the digital divide will change dramatically.

Do I need both a modem and a router to get the fastest speeds?

Your modem brings in your original signal from your internet service provider. Your router uses that signal to create a home Wi-Fi network for all your wireless devices.

Whether or not you have a router will not make your internet faster. But most people want routers because so many devices–including mobile phones–need WI-Fi networks. So, technically, you don’t need both a modem and a router –but you’ll probably want both.