A Small Business Owner’s Guide to Internet Speed

The claims Internet Service Providers (ISPs) make about the speed of their networks can be confusing. Faster, it is probably safe to assume, is better than slower. But what do all those numbers mean? And how much speed does a small business actually need? Here’s a quick, non-technical introduction to the basics.

Most Internet connections have two speeds—downloading and uploading. Downloading is receiving files—documents, songs, images and so on—while uploading is sending files. Both speeds are measured in “bits per second.” A single bit is a very small unit of data, so we’re usually talking about thousands (kilobits/kbps) or millions (megabits/mbps) of them per second. The more bits per second, the faster your connection. You can think of your Internet connection sort of like the water lines to your house—more water can get through a large pipe than a narrow one. On the Internet, the more “bandwidth” your connection has, the greater the amount of data that can move through it at one time. And that means less waiting time for you when you’re downloading or uploading.

An ISP might say it offers speeds “up to 5/1Mbps.” The first number is the download speed, while the second is upload. 5/1 means a top download speed of 5 megabits per second, and a top upload speed of 1 megabit per second. How fast is that? Using a 5/1 connection, you should be able to download a 25-megabyte PowerPoint file in about 40 seconds, or upload the same file in about three minutes.

Some ISPs are now offering fiber-optic cable connections that give you 100x the bandwidth of traditional copper-based cable and the ability to deliver the same speed in both directions—as much as 1 gigabit per second. At 1Gbps, your files travel very quickly; that 25-megabyte PowerPoint would download virtually instantly. Even a very large file—like an entire two-hour movie—would download in seconds with a 1Gbps fiber connection.

Your actual upload and download speeds will vary depending on a number of things, such as your computer, your distance from your ISP and the kind of connection available in your area. Older Internet access methods like those delivered over copper or coaxial cable tend to operate at lower speeds, while fiber-based connections, which are now widely available, are much faster.

Another big factor that affects speed is the number of people using your connection and what they are doing. If you have ten employees uploading or downloading large video files at the same time, you are placing a lot of demand on your Internet connection, compared to having two or three employees just sending e-mails. So, the amount of speed that makes sense for your business depends on how many people work for you and what they use the Internet for. If you have ten employees online, all surfing the Web and answering emails, a download speed of 5Mbps will feel pretty fast. But if you have twenty people simultaneously downloading large graphic files, that same connection may start to feel a little pokey. Commonly offered Internet speeds for businesses are 5/1, 10/1, 30/5, and 50/10.

The fastest available connection is “fiber to the premises” (FTTP). That means every inch of the connection is fiber-optic cable. Fiber to the node (FTTN), by contrast, means the connection to the network box in your neighborhood is fiber, but the last mile to your building may be wire or coaxial cable. Both FTTP and FTTN connections are significantly faster than DSL connections, which get slower the further away you are from your ISP.

The major advantages of having the fastest connection include both the speed and ease of use of services like Hosted VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), which let you collaborate with customers and offsite employees in real time. A fast connection also makes it quick and easy to use cloud apps and services, and to back up your data to the cloud.

No matter what the speed of your connection today, you can be sure that the amount of speed you will need in the future is only going to increase. Even if your business is not growing, the way we work and use the Internet is changing. The proliferation of smart phones and tablets means many of us are online these days with multiple, simultaneous connections. Files are getting bigger. And the growth of cloud computing means that businesses of all kinds are putting more and more of their functions, everything from billing to HR, on the Internet. A high-speed fiber connection can affordably give your business the bandwidth it needs to do all those things as fast—or faster—than your competitors.


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