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Thursday , Feb 25, 2021
By Jonathan Sharp, Software Engineer, Nvidia-A Fortune 500 Company; Professional Volunteer VCEDC Board of Directors
Broadband. This is the most crucial aspect of remote working.
For many jobs, productivity and progress are directly tied to the availability and reliability of broadband.
The ability to access broadband is the most important part of a remote workers “commute.”
Factors in Picking Broadband
Before we go into the summary of evaluating a broadband connection, let us define the attributes of an internet connection. Using these attributes, we can measure the quality of a connection, how it will perform, and finally use it to compare various connectivity options.
Bandwidth – This is the general term used to describe the overall speed of a connection. To use a plumbing analogy, you can think of this as “the size of a pipe in which water is flowing through”. There are two directions of “water” flow when discussing an internet connection; “download” and “upload.”
Download – This is the measured speed at which data is sent “down” from the internet to you, the end user. In the majority of connections, this is the fastest side of the connection. Connections are usually rated in “Mega-bits” (Mbps). Connections in the 6-50 Mbps range are common. Some of the fastest connections are rated in “Giga-bits” (Gbps) which is 1,000 Mbps.
Upload – This is the measured speed at which data is sent from you “up” to the internet. This speed is measured in “Kilo-bits” or Mbps (1,000 Kbps = 1 Mbps). Speeds in the range of 768 Kbps to 5 Mbps are common. In the majority of internet connections, the upload speed is much slower than the download speed. For example, an 18Mbps [down] - 1.8Mbps [up] is common.
Latency – The latency of a connection is the amount of time that it takes for a packet of data to travel from point A to point B over a connection. (It can be the measurement of one-way or of round trip.) Latency is generally measured in “milli-seconds” (ms) which is 1/1,000th of a second. Performant connections have round trip latency of 30 ms or less. Average connections have a latency in the range of 40 – 100 ms. Traditional satellite connections (Hughesnet, Viasat, Exceed, etc.) have a latency of roughly 600+ ms. The latest generation of Starlink satellite has latency of around 40ms.
Transfer Quotas – The transfer quota is the total amount of data you can send/receive (upload and/or download) over a given period of time. This aspect of an internet connection has increasingly become an issue with streaming services such Hulu, Netflix, YouTube, etc.
Quotas are in most cases measured in “Giga-bytes” (GB). (It is worth noting that “Giga-bytes” and “Giga-bits” (measurement of speed) are different. There are 8 “bits” in 1 “byte”. So to get the “bytes” from a “bits” measurement, simply divide by 8.) Transferring data at full speed over a 1 Gbps (giga-bit) connection for 8 seconds will equate to 1 GB (giga-byte) worth of data (in theory in a perfect world). (Storage on hard drives, USB drives, etc. is measured in “bytes.”)
The amount of data transferred over the course of a month can vary widely for a remote worker. E-mail is usually of little consequence towards the quota. Video and screen sharing as well as syncing large files can quickly add up. Average monthly transfer amounts (ignoring Netflix or non-work-related use) can range from 20 GB to upwards of 100+ GB depending upon applications used and your job role.
Symmetric vs. Asymmetric – The relationship of upload and download speeds can be described as “Symmetric” or “Asymmetric”. A symmetric connection is one in which both upload and download speeds are equal. Gigabit fiber, for example, is a symmetric connection of 1 Gbps / 1 Gbps (download / upload).
An asymmetric connection is one in which upload and download differ. Most cable internet connections are asymmetric connections.
Broadband Technology Options
Connections are described as download / upload. So a 12 Mbps / 1.5 Mbps connection has a download speed of 12 and an upload of 1.5. Below are the most common broadband technologies.
DSL connections are generally the most common connections available in household markets. DSL connections are usually limited in the bandwidth available as well as limited availability of speeds in relation to how far a customer is from the phone company’s central office. Connections are usually asymmetric.
Cable connections are a step up from DSL connections in terms of available speeds and general reliability (for most people). They average the same or better latency as DSL connections. The defining characteristics for cable connections are the available upload speeds and any possible data caps (which are generally very high). Connections are usually asymmetric.
Fixed Wireless connections are internet connections via land based towers. Cell phone providers have entered the data connectivity markets. Examples of these connections are often described as “4G”, “LTE”, or “5G” connections. These connections have a higher latency than DSL or Cable connections and much stricter data quotas. Connections are asymmetric.
Traditional Satellite connections are a last resort for many people in rural areas. Latency is greatest for these connections in the range of close to 600+ ms (it is a LONG way to the satellite, back to earth, and then back again). Transfer speeds can reach 50+Mbps if you are willing to subscribe to premium packages. These connections usually have strict data quotas and are more expensive overall with multi-year commitments being part of most contracts. Connections are asymmetric.
Next Generation Satellite
Starlink is a new generation of satellite internet that overcomes limitations of previous generations in both latency, speeds and data caps. Starlink has latency of around 40ms (close to DSL or Cable connections) and speeds up to 150Mbps initially with plans to reach 300Mpbs by the end of 2021. Connections are asymmetric.
Connections are usually symmetric. This is the holy grail of internet connectivity. If you have a fiber connection at 1 Gbps you have basically achieved broadband “singularity” with the internet.
256 Kbps to 5 Mbps
Your local telephone company
Charter, Cox, Comcast, TimeWarner
30-400 GB to Unlimited
5 Mbps to 35 Mbps
4G, LTE, WiMax
Next Gen Satellite
20 Mbps to 1 Gbps
20 Mbps to 1 Gbps
Testing Your Connection
You may not be aware of how fast your connection is, but there is a simple way to find out. You can use speed test tools such as speedtest.net by ookla. Be aware though that your test results may vary greatly based upon the time of day. You may receive slower results in the evenings when video streaming is popular than in the middle of the day.