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How Does Bandwidth Work?

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Bandwidth is a term mostly associated with internet plans. But, although it’s a commonly heard term, what exactly does it mean?

What is bandwidth?

There is a common misconception that bandwidth is a measure of network speed in internet plans. However, bandwidth is the volume of information that can be sent over a connection in a given amount of time.

Bandwidth vs speed

Bandwidth is how much information you receive over a connection in a second, while speed is how fast this information is received or downloaded.

We can use the analogy of filling a bathtub to compare bandwidth and speed. The wider the faucet of the bathtub, the higher the volume of the water that will flow into the bathtub and at a faster rate. You can think of the water as the bandwidth and the water flow rate as the speed.

How does bandwidth work?

As we have seen, the amount of data that a data connection can send and receive at any given time depends on the connection’s bandwidth.

Bandwidth works on the same principles of filling the bathtub in our analogy. The amount of data that can flow through a communication link depends on the link’s capacity. More data flows through the communication link per second with a high capacity, while a low capacity allows fewer data.

Now, let us assume that you are using your connection to stream a movie, someone else is playing an online game, and a few others are using their phones to watch online videos over the same network. In such an instance, you will find everyone complaining that their internet is sluggish, if not constantly stopping and starting. This has everything to do with bandwidth. 

Returning to our bathtub analogy, if the size of the water pipe supplying a home with water remains the same. You turn on not only the bathtub faucet but also the showers and other faucets; the water pressure at each point will reduce. The example above is the perceived speed of each device that is using the network. The pressure reduces because the available water has to be shared by the various open outlets. The water is the bandwidth. 

There is another way to put it. Bandwidth is the fixed amount based on the internet package that you pay for. Depending on your network, you may be able to stream a high-definition video without buffering. However, the internet is slower when you add other downloads or connect more devices to the network. The reason behind it is that each device will get a portion of the full capacity. They will share the available bandwidth.

Let us use an illustration to understand this better. Assume that you can download a 7 GB video file in two hours. If another person is also using your network to download the same file, you will need four hours to download the file. The network only permits a certain amount of data to be downloaded at any specific time (bandwidth). When you are sharing a network, the connected devices have to share the available bandwidth.

Bottom line: How much bandwidth do you need?

Now that we know how bandwidth works, how much bandwidth do you need in your internet plans? If you love to download large files, stream HD videos, or maybe are into multiplayer gaming. You need bandwidth with high capacity. You will also need more bandwidth if you have many devices using the network at the same time.  

The bandwidth you are allocated is shared among all the devices using that connection. To determine how much bandwidth you need, take a count of all the devices that use the internet in your home. It would help if you also listed the activities that you use your internet for. Once you have done that, you can call your internet supplier and discuss the best plan for your needs.

Alicia Saville did her degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She is interested in mental health and well-being.

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