As one of the most innovative and rapidly evolving recent inventions, the Internet is seemingly constantly challenging itself to be bigger, better, and (perhaps most importantly for us) faster. The speed of your Internet connection is one of the primary factors determining how much enjoyment you can derive from the world wide web, but for some reason, some of the truths surrounding how it works have been lost along the way.
The way it’s advertised is confusing
One common misconception is that your Internet speed is measured in megabytes per second. In their infinite wisdom, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) decided to advertise their packages in megabits instead. This is actually quite clever, as megabits are far larger than megabytes, and it makes the connection seem a lot faster than it is. In reality however, that 100Mbps line actually needs to be divided by 8 to convert it in to megabytes, leaving you with an actual theoretical maximum of 12.5 megabytes per second.
That speed you see is less than guaranteed
Although you’d imagine that 12.5MBps (note the capitalised MB – megabits are Mb) to be the actual speed you’ll be cruising the web at, there’s a reason I called it the theoretical maximum. When downloading a file, there are multiple factors that determine the speed you’ll really get, which include: the distance you are from the telephone exchange, how fast the upload speed of the file server is, the amount of available bandwidth (you may have noticed that your speeds decline at peak time) and a whole host of other reasons.
[ White Paper - Understanding Internet Speed Test Results - The problem is not in the measurement, it is in understanding the test results as they relate to the application problem being experienced. Access this analysis (PDF) ]
When you see an advertised speed, take it as the highest you’ll get in a perfect world. There may be instances in which you will hit the absolute maximum, but those will be very few and far between.
Not only is the speed variable, so is the quality.
One thing that a lot of people won’t be told is that the quality of your line can make your life very miserable if it’s less than up to par. A poor connection to your ISP can result in lost packets, attenuation (less of a problem in fibre optic cables) and web pages loading sporadically. Packet loss, which I’d liken to sending a letter only for it to get lost in transit, is almost always the result of poor network topology, so there is little to nothing you can do about it if you note it happening.
With all of these misconceptions, the common theme is that the Internet service providers are to blame. In many ways it’s disappointing to know that so many people are being tricked in to thinking that they’re buying something they are not. It’s obvious the benefits that they gain from telling half truths, but slightly confusing that no trading standards organisations have stepped in to force higher levels of regulation.
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