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Understanding Bandwidth

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“Bandwidth” is a term often used incorrectly. It is used by internet service providers to indicate the amount of data per second that has been purchased. Mobile connections use 3G, 4G, LTE, or other to describe how fast a connection is, but then choose to have “bandwidth caps.” The speed is easy to see through use of a speed test website, such as to check how fast their connection currently is.

This value is expressed in Mbps which stands for megabits per second. The term “Megabyte” does not have the same value although these two terms are similar in appearance and pronunciation. Bandwidth is used to calculate how much data has been used in a month. All of these terms and values lead to confusion.


Data used in a month should be determined by the total number of bytes used. A byte identifies the smallest amount of memory a computer can use to record information. Hardware is the limit for how big a byte can be. A byte is made up of bits; the international standard is eight bits to a byte. Both bits and bytes can have prefixes such as kilo, mega, giga, tera, peta, exa, zetta, and yotta to indicate large numbers.

Although not all of these are commonly known or used, these terms are all included in my list because the U.S. government has constructed a yottabyte facility (a yottabyte equals 1 trillion terabytes or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes). This facility would require numerous fiber optic network connections with very high bandwidth. These government connections should not have bandwidth caps.

A bandwidth cap is a term used by mobile and satellite providers and some other providers. Due to the limitations of the equipment they use it is necessary to regulate high bandwidth users. These are the people who take up a majority of network resources a company is intending for shared use by all subscribers.

Networks can only support a maximum speed. These power users maintain large amounts of the available speed. In order to prevent loss of service to other customers a bandwidth cap is used. Specifically it allows a provider to turn down the maximum speed available to heavy users. As the capacity of equipment increases, available bandwidth to the user also increases.

Measuring Bandwidth

Google Fiber customers in Kansas City have 1,000 Mbps up and down for $70/month or free internet with 1 Mbps up and 5 Mbps down. The free package does have an installation cost of $300 one time or $25 per month for 12 months. Mobile providers offer LTE, Long Term Evolution, which does not have consistent speed from providers. These speeds typically range from 20 – 40 Mbps but can go both higher and lower.

DSL and Satellite connections have speeds available from 1Mbps to 10Mbps. An easy way to see what kind of bandwidth is available for an area is with the internet. Go to the website then select internet (top left), put in a zip code and offers for your area will be presented.

As can be seen, the difference in speed is quite extreme. Bandwidth is limited by distance and material. Increasing distance from a location increases time to travel. Traveling through copper, air, or glass the speed decreases according to how fast electricity, radio, or light can travel.

Measuring bandwidth is assigning a number to how fast information can pass through. The speed is then limited by distance, the equipment that resends signals and how many customers share a connection. All of this combined determines the amount of bandwidth per second available for your use.

Patrick Swift
IT Consultant, FamilyFarms Group

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