Download speeds and upload speeds sound similar on the surface, so what exactly is the difference between the two?
Before we explain, it’s important to note that many internet service providers (ISPs) offer a range of download and upload speeds at different prices. To help you sift through the noise, we’ll break down the definitions of each type of speed and help you figure out what you should be paying for.
Bandwidth vs. Speed
It’s best to understand what you’re buying before starting your search. All internet plans focus on the amount of bandwidth you’ll receive from your provider. Bandwidth is measured by megabits per second (Mbps). So, when looking at a plan that says you’ll receive 25 Mbps, that is the maximum amount of data your internet connection can handle at one time. While a higher bandwidth increases your amount of data, it does not necessarily mean you’re getting better performance. More on that later.
Internet speed, on the other hand, is the rate at which data can be downloaded or uploaded on a given device. This is also measured in Mbps. Keep in mind that, when comparing internet plans, the speeds listed are only the maximum speeds you could possibly receive.
Think about a highway when comparing bandwidth and speed. Bandwidth represents the number of lanes on a highway. The more lanes on a highway, the more cars that can be on the highway at a given time. When there are fewer cars on the road, the cars move quickly. The more cars you add to the highway, the slower the cars move because the route becomes congested.
With bandwidth, the more users and devices you have on one connection, the slower your ability is to upload and download data. Basically, internet traffic is similar to real-life traffic.
What is Download Speed?
Download speed is how fast data flows from the internet to your computer. Most home internet usage relies on fast download speeds — loading webpages, images, listening to music, downloading files, streaming, etc. Streaming in 4K requires especially fast download speeds, so you’re not waiting for your favorite show to buffer.
Fiber-optic, cable internet, and select 5G internet providers offer the fastest download speeds among ISPs.
What is Upload Speed?
Upload speed is how fast data goes from your computer to the internet. Activities like sending emails, uploading media files, and viewing live video calls are all activities that use upload speed. Upload speeds are extremely important to consider if you’re working from home and spend your days on Zoom (or something of the like).
Symmetrical speeds refer to an internet plan with the same upload and download speeds. You’ll want to keep an eye out for this feature when shopping for a new provider.
Many providers prioritize download speeds over upload speeds because they’re typically used for more online activities like web browsing and gaming. When your download and upload speeds are different, they are called asymmetrical speeds.
If you are a remote worker or content creator that frequently uploads files to the internet, you will want to pay attention to this feature. Upload speeds can significantly slow down your workflow if they’re not fast enough.
How Much Speed Do I Need?
In general, internet plans can include speeds ranging anywhere from 1 Mbps to over 3000 Mbps. Anything above 25 Mbps is considered fast enough for modern applications, but speeds below 200 Mbps can be challenging for a large household. Check out the FCC’s recommendations on the right amount of bandwidth for your needs.
Take note of the speed your plan offers. Most plans offer asymmetric speeds, since more users consume content rather than upload it. So, download speeds are faster than upload speeds. Plans advertised as “5/1” mean that you’ll get 5 Mbps of download per 1 Mbps of upload.