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Latency vs. Bandwidth vs. Throughput: What’s the Difference?

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results of an internet speed test

Key Takeaways

  • Latency is the time it takes for data to travel between devices in a network and affects the responsiveness of online activities.
  • Bandwidth determines the amount of data that can be transferred over a network at a given time and affects internet speed.
  • Throughput is the amount of data successfully transferred over an internet connection and can be affected by network congestion or a shaky connection.



We always crave fast and reliable internet connection when surfing the web, streaming videos, and playing online games. However, what exactly makes an internet connection fast?


Latency: Every Millisecond Matters

Latency is the time it takes for a signal or a packet of data to travel from one point to another in a network. A network is a system of devices connected to each other and exchanging information. For example, your computer, phone, tablet, router, modem, and the internet are all part of a network.


Imagine you’re playing a cloud streaming video game. You press a button to make your character jump. Now, latency is like the time it takes for your character to jump after you’ve pressed the button. If the latency is low (say, 20 milliseconds), your character will jump almost instantly after you press the button. It’ll feel like you’re playing the game right on your computer. But if the latency is high (like 500 milliseconds), there will be a noticeable delay between your button press and the character’s jump. It can feel like you’re playing in slow motion, which can be frustrating in a fast-paced game!


Let’s think about video calls, like on Zoom or Skype. When you’re on a call with someone, latency is the time it takes for your voice to reach the other person after you’ve spoken. If the latency is low, your conversation will flow smoothly, almost like you’re chatting in person. However, if the latency is high, you might talk over each other because of the delay. It can make the conversation feel awkward and disjointed.


According to MySpeed, the table below provides general guidelines on target latencies for smooth usage across common online activities.


Ping Rate (ms)

Quality

Suitable Activities

< 50

Really good

Most online activities, including competitive online gaming

< 100

Acceptable

Many common online activities, such as web browsing

> 150

Poor

Problems with games and probably some other online activities

> 500

Very poor

Noticeable delay to almost every request, high latency


Latency can be affected by several factors, some of which are:


  • How far you are from a server: The farther you are from a server, the longer the data travels back and forth. This journey is called the “round-trip time” (RTT) or ping rate. This is why choosing a server closest to your physical location is often recommended when given a choice, like on a VPN service or online gaming.
  • The type of internet connection you have: Fiber optic cables are known for their high-speed data transmission. Wi-Fi and mobile data speeds vary greatly depending on various factors, but they generally don’t match the speeds of a wired connection like fiber optics.
  • The quality of your Wi-Fi: If your Wi-Fi signal is weak or unstable, it can lead to delays or interruptions in your online activities. This is because the data packets have to be retransmitted, which can increase the time it takes for data to travel between your device and the server.
  • Hardware performance: If your router or modem that connects you to the internet is old, damaged, or overloaded, it can slow down your internet speed and increase latency.


Luckily, there are a few ways to lower your latency, such as:



You can use online tools like Cloudflare’s speed test to test your latency. These tools measure how long it takes for your device to send and receive data from a server.


Bandwidth: The Size of the Pipe Matters

Bandwidth is the amount of data that can be transferred over a network in a given time. You can think of it as the size of the pipe that carries the data. The bigger the pipe, the more data can flow through it. The smaller the pipe, the less data can flow through it. Bandwidth is measured in bits per second (bps), megabits per second (Mbps), or gigabits per second (Gbps). A higher bandwidth translates into faster internet speed.


The Federal Communications Commission says that different online activities need different amounts of bandwidth for a great experience. Here’s a table that summarizes that information:


Online Activity

Excellent

Good

Fair

Poor

Gaming

>4 Mbps

3–4 Mbps

1–2 Mbps

<1 Mbps

Video Conferencing

>6 Mbps

3–6 Mbps

1–2 Mbps

<1 Mbps

Video Streaming

>25 Mbps

9–25 Mbps

5–8 Mbps

<5 Mbps

Web Browsing

>2 Mbps

2 Mbps

0.5-1 Mbps

<0.5 Mbps


So, if you’re into HD videos on Netflix, you’ll need at least 5 Mbps. But if you’re a fan of 4K videos, you’re looking at 25 Mbps. Keep in mind that these are just the basics. If you’ve got a bunch of devices or users on the same network, you might need even more bandwidth.


If you are wondering how much bandwidth you’ve got, you can use online tools like fast.com or Cloudflare’s speed test to determine your bandwidth. These tools measure your real-time download and upload speeds, which are the rates at which you receive and send data from the internet.


Screenshot of an internet connection's download and upload speeds


However, the numbers you see likely won’t perfectly match the bandwidth your provider is giving you at that moment. Speeds fluctuate constantly, so run a few tests over time to better understand your average.


If your internet is too slow or unreliable, you can take some steps to increase your bandwidth:


  • Upgrade your internet plan: Most Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offer a range of plans with varying bandwidths. If you’re on a lower-tier plan, upgrading to a higher-tier plan will give you more bandwidth.
  • Invest in a better router: Sometimes, the bottleneck isn’t your internet plan but your hardware. If you have a lot of devices connected to your network or are trying to send data over a large distance, a better router might help. Look for one that supports the latest Wi-Fi standards, like Wi-Fi 6E or Wi-Fi 7.
  • Add a Wi-Fi Extender or Mesh Network: If your issue is more about coverage than speed (for example, if you have ‘dead zones’ in your house where the Wi-Fi signal is weak or nonexistent), adding a Wi-Fi extender or investing in a mesh Wi-Fi system can help. These devices extend the reach of your Wi-Fi signal, ensuring you have a strong and stable connection no matter where you are in your house.
  • Limit bandwidth-hungry applications: Some applications use a lot of bandwidth. For example, streaming services, online games, and video conferencing apps can consume a large chunk of your available bandwidth. If you’re not using these applications, make sure they’re closed. If you are using them, check the settings to see if you can limit their bandwidth usage, if you are willing to compromise.


While increasing your bandwidth can help improve your internet speed, it’s not the only factor. The quality of your connection and the speed of your devices also play a big role.

Throughput: The Flow of Data Matters

Throughput is the amount of data successfully transferred over your internet connection at a given time. It is also measured in bits per second (bps), megabits per second (Mbps), or gigabits per second (Gbps).


Think of your internet connection as a pipe for water. The throughput is how much data actually makes it through the pipe in a set amount of time, like how much water ends up in your bucket when you fill it. The bandwidth is the full capacity of the pipe—how much water could flow through if there were no leaks or clogs.


So if your bandwidth is a 10-gallon per minute pipe, but you’re only getting 5 gallons in your bucket each minute, your throughput is 5 gallons per minute. The throughput is lower than the bandwidth because network congestion or a shaky connection slows the flow, like kinks or holes in a pipe. If you want to know what can cause these network problems, check out our guide on the possible things that could be slowing down your internet.


Aside from trying the fixes I mentioned for low bandwidth, you can also check out our guides on how to speed up your internet speed.




The ideal for an internet connection is to have low latency, high bandwidth, and high throughput, all working together. That way, your network connection will transfer data quickly, with a big pipe for it to go through and achieve fast speeds.

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