Home Internet Service Basics
Updated: Jan 22, 2021
For Me... the [technology] "initiated", choosing home Internet is easy... with an engineering level understanding of computer networks, especially packet-switched (IP) networks, I get it. So, how does everyone else decide? Well, often not with the absolute best information, but often instead via marketing from service providers. Choosing based on marketing is not necessarily bad, you just might not be getting optimum value.
In this post we'll chat about some basics regarding Internet signal delivery into your home (i.e. to wall jack). Discussion on Wi-Fi and signals to your home's devices will be in the next post. Here's some of what we'll chat about:
Wired Home Internet.
Wireless Home Internet
Typical Speeds (wired & wireless)
Speed (Mbps) vs. Data Allotments (GB)
Upload Speed vs Download Speed
First let's chat about wired Internet. Generally, and often due to regulatory ownership of the "lines", unless you move into a very modern home, the lines to deliver Internet will either come from a "phone" or "cable TV" provider. Both feel like legacy terms today but are still applicable. Some neighborhoods, especially modern ones may be served by just one "broadband" provider. I'll be getting slightly technical here, but it should be good... so stay with me.
Generally, the phone provider's signal in brought in via a "Category" phone cable, likely being Cat 3, which is similar to the cable that connects a landline phone to the wall. The cable TV provider's signal is likely brought in via a "coax" cable, which is similar to the cable that connects your old-school antenna or cable box to the wall. Modern broadband providers typically bring signal in via a fiber optic cable or high-speed Category cable such as Cat 5e / Cat 6. For clarity, Cat 5e and Cat 6 can both handle up to 100x the speed or more of Cat 3.
OK, that's out of the way, but before we chat speeds, lets talk Wireless. Unless you are lucky enough to live in one of the few areas with 5G home Internet (a new thing), you're generally stuck with LOS/RF (line of sight / radio frequency) or satellite for your wireless Internet. Mobile hotspots are rarely an option due to high costs and data throttling after reaching relatively low data allotments (noted later). LOS/RF typically works by placing an antenna on the roof which is then cabled to an interface modem and uses your Cat 3 to get a signal to the house. Satellite works similarly to how you'd get satellite TV and usually runs over coax.
So how's all that translate to download speed? Oh, we'll chat about download vs upload later. Well, the available speed is related to the type of cable / signal coming in. Unless the phone provider has Category cable rated at Cat 5e or better, your highest speeds will likely come from signals provided by Coax or Fiber. Legacy phone providers generally use DSL tech with their Cat 3 yielding speeds around 5 - 25 Mbps. Cable providers generally use DOCSIS tech with typical speeds between 100 - 1,000 Mbps. Finally, broadband providers using Cat 6 or fiber terminals can usually provide a wide variety of speeds from 20 - 2,000 Mbps. What about wireless? Depending on your geo location, you can find satellite service from 10 - 30 Mbps. Lastly, LOS/RF speeds are very dependent on your distance from the sending unit, and while they can be decent, I've mostly seen speeds max out at 10Mbps before becoming cost prohibitive.
What's all this mean? Without taking other things into consideration including price, region, and other factors (noted below), the best speeds will come from providers that have a] Fiber or Cat 6 from the street to your house (i.e. "broadband" provider), followed by b] coax cable to your house (i.e. "cable TV" provider), then c] lower Category cable (i.e. "phone" provider), followed by d] satellite Internet, and then finally e] LOS/RF. Also, critical to getting the best speed is ensuring healthy wiring inside your house (often called "last mile" - even though it's only a few feet). You know, from your outside wall to the wall jack where your router / Wi-Fi device sits. Finally, you'll want reasonably fresh equipment from your provider... you know the modem / gateway / bridge thingee... or whatever they call it (industry term is CPE / customer premises equipment) device. There's a reason you get a new iPhone every year or so, well, you're CPE ages in a similar way. It's all tech.
Last but not least is understanding the basics and differences between speed and data allotment. Speed measured in Mbps (mega bits per second) is the rate of transmission... basically how fast your driving down the highway. You'll have two speed ratings, download and upload... download is like driving forward with upload being in (slower) reverse gear. Download speed is most often much higher than upload (by design), as most home users mostly just stream and consume websites. It's common to see upload speeds rated at just 2 - 10% or less of the download rating. Data allotments, generally measured in GB (giga bytes) are like the gas you use to drive down the highway, and much like your mobile plan, when you run out of allotted gigs, you pay more... sometimes a lot more.
So, what's a good amount of speed and data. Well, it varies greatly by use. Netflix notes it requires about 5.0 Mbps of download speed to stream an HD movie. For me, 5 Mbps feels quite low, and I've found 10 Mbps minimum per stream works best for me. I never have more than two streams going, so I just need about 20 Mbps for streaming and probably another 10 Mbps for surfing (while streaming). However, the the more speed you have, the less time waiting as it can drastically decrease wait time through reduced latency and other factors I won't bore you with. What about data? Well I just happened to watch Tenet from iTunes which Apple lists at 6.36 GB in size. So, if you watch Tenet twice a day every day for a month, you'll use about 400 GB. Me I have 100 Mbps download speed with 5 Mbps upload speed over cable / coax and use about 500 GB per month in data allotment. I could get away with 30 - 50 Mbps download, but the 100 Mbps is quite a bit more snappy and I find that my movie streaming starts instantly and websites load without delay.
What does all this mean? Well, maybe nothing, but I hope you found this post interesting. If not, sorry you can't get your time back... that's on you! 😁 Always feel free to e-mail me comments. You can find my info on the "Team" Page.
DISCLAIMER: I'm just a guy who's been around tech and knows some stuff. I always remind others that what I say is purely FWIW, IMO, FFT, FYI, and many other acronyms... so while I strive to convey quality deets... you get no promises on accuracy or validity. I'm sure a lawyer would say; information not guaranteed, actual results may vary, and use at your own risk.