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Home Internet Service 101

by Mary Leigh Howell

Internet service options can sound like a foreign language. Mbps. DSL. If it’s all Greek to you, read on. CableMover® found Blake Sanders, an editor with Broadband Expert, to give us an education in Home Internet Service 101. Broadband Expert is an online comparison service that helps consumers evaluate home Internet, television and phone services in the U.S.

Digital Vocabulary

Before getting us into speeds and service options, we asked Sanders to decipher some of the acronyms and key words.

Mbps
Megabits per second. It’s a measurement of download speed—the time it takes to load images, documents, videos and music before you can use them. Broadband speeds range from 1.5 mbps to more than 100 mbps.

Broadband
The term broadband is synonymous with high-speed Internet access, according to Sanders. It’s an advancement beyond dial-up modems, with a download speed of at least 1.5 mbps. Broadband Internet service is available through Cable, DSL, Satellite or Fiber Optic networks.

DSL
This stands for Digital Subscriber Line. It’s the original introduction to high-speed Internet service, with data being transferred through a phone line. Typical download speeds are around 1.5 mbps. Some providers offer service with speeds up to 15 mbps, though actual realized speeds may be much slower.

Cable Internet
Receiving Internet service through your home’s cable television line can be 10 times faster than traditional DSL, with download speeds up to 50 mbps or more.

Satellite Internet
Although not as popular as cable or DSL, satellite connections can also provide Internet access. Most people who choose satellite live in rural areas, where DSL or Cable Internet service is not available. Download speeds are similar to DSL (1 to 1.5 mbps). Satellite has also seen some recent improvements in technology, with some providers offering speeds of 12 mbps.

Fiber Optics
Fiber optics (information transported by light signals over glass) is a high capacity way to bring Internet, Television and Phone services to customers. Cable and some other communications providers use fiber to bring service from their offices to where their customers are. Then, at either a junction in the neighborhood, at the curb, or on the outside of your home, the service is converted to traditional electronic signals over copper wires so your computers, modems, televisions and phones can use them. The advantage of fiber is capacity and reliability.

Users and Usage

According to Sanders, your choice of service should be based on the number of users and devices in your household, and the range of online activities. How many simultaneous Internet users are in your household? Do the kids have game consoles? Does each user have a personal computer and a tablet? Having three kids at home could mean supporting six devices or more.

Once you establish the number of users and their devices, online activities make a big difference. Email, chatting, general web browsing and using social media sites don’t take up much bandwidth, according to Sanders. They're fairly low data-use activities.

For activities like streaming music and videos, however, you’ll need more speed. “Streaming video takes up large amounts of bandwidth because it’s done in real time,” says Sanders. “If you download files, you can compress. But not with streaming – it’s the whole file all laid out for your viewing pleasure.”

Get the Speed You Need

Consider your options carefully. You don't want to overspend for capacity you don't need, but you don't want to spend a lot of time waiting for pictures to load or videos to buffer.

Low Use – 1.5 to 3 mbps
If there is just one user at home and all you do is surf the web and send email (sans large attachments), then a lower speed service is fine.

Browsing and Light Use – 3 to 6 mbps
“If you are a light user with minimal video and music streaming, with 3 mbps, you'll browse comfortably,” says Sanders. “No lagging or waiting for websites to download. Three to 6 mbps is very good for a single person or a couple who might do occasional streaming.”

Gaming and Higher Use Activities – 6 to 10 mbps
For gaming, it's important to consider that you might be playing with someone across the city or on the other side of the world. “For real-time interactions, you need 6 to 10 mbps to have a comfortable experience,” says Sanders. “For this level of service you might have three to four users in your home – if one of them is online gaming, others may be just steadily browsing.”

Multi-device, Multi-user Households – 15 mbps and above
High usage, multi-user households with numerous devices need plans that can handle lots of data. Multiple users might be simultaneously streaming and downloading data. “At speeds of 15 mbps and above, you can stream without ever experiencing a delay,” says Sanders.

Still not sure what’s right for you? Talk to your cable, phone or satellite company to figure out the best service. Or go to the providers’ websites. Most have online guides that will compare packages, prices and speeds, so you can find the plan that best suits your needs.

Mary Leigh Howell specializes in communications for the home, furnishings and garden industries.