Connection Speeds & Data Allowance

Connection Speeds and Download Limits, What Do They Mean and How Do I Choose?

Once you've looked into the options and know which types of broadband Internet are available in your area, the next step is to choose the best deal.

The biggest factor to consider when you choose a deal is speed. How fast is the connection? And is it fast enough to do all the things you would like to be able to do?

Broadband Speeds

256K? 1.5Mb? What do the numbers mean? What speed do I need?

When we're talking about Internet connection speeds, things can be really confusing! For a start, Internet transfer speeds are measured in kilobits per second and megabits per second, and those are not the same as the kilobytes and megabytes we use when we're talking about hard disks and files.

Let's not worry about the numbers. What matters is how they apply to the kinds of things you'll do on the Internet. Here's a table to make it simple:

Internet Connection Speed Time to load a typical web page* Time to download a typical 5-minute song** Streaming Video Quality
56K dial-up modem 14 sec 12 min 30 sec -
256K broadband 3 sec 3 min Low Quality
512K broadband 1.6 sec 1 min 30 sec Low Quality
1Mb broadband 0.8 sec 41 sec Low Quality
2Mb broadband 0.4 sec 20 sec Medium Quality
4Mb broadband 0.1 sec 5 sec Medium Quality
6Mb broadband Instantaneous 3.5 sec Medium Quality
8Mb broadband Instantaneous 2.5 sec TV Quality
Note: all figures are approximate and represent best-case download speeds. Actually speeds will generally be lower.
* Assumes a typical web page is 100 kilobytes of data.
** Assuming a typical song is a 5 megabyte MP3 file.

So you can see that an entry level 512K broadband Internet connection is around ten times faster than a 56K dial-up Internet connection, , allowing you to view web pages with barely any noticeable delay, whereas with an 8Mb broadband connection, you could watch TV quality video over the web!

Any of the broadband speeds will be perfectly good for viewing the majority of web pages - having to wait a second or two for a page to load is perfectly acceptable - unless you're going for a world speed-reading record, that is!

But the Internet is so much more than just pages of text and a few images: what about music, video, animations, games and all the other stuff that makes the Internet so much fun?

Consider the download time for a typical 5-minute pop song - around one and a half minutes with a 512K connection. The time it takes to download is less than the time it takes the song to play. What this means in practice is that your computer will be able to play the song while it downloads. We call this streaming - the sound 'streams' to your computer fast enough that it can be played as it arrives, without all that waiting around.

Streaming also applies to video. You'll find that many web sites allow you to watch video, even live video, without having to wait around for more than a few seconds for it to start. In many cases video is offered in two or more different sizes or at different qualities - so that you can choose the one that plays best with your connection speed. Having a faster connection means you can watch the video at a larger size and better quality.

And what about gaming? Well, it depends on the type of game. For those of us who want to play a little backgammon or a card game on a wet afternoon, any kind of broadband connection will work fine.

If however you're one of those people who want to take on the world at Counter-Strike or Doom 3, or connect your XBox to the Internet, you may want to consider going for the fastest connection you can practically afford: playing first-person shooters is one of the most demanding ways to use a broadband internet connection. But don't worry too much - most providers will allow you to upgrade to a faster connection at any time (you'll just pay a higher monthly charge).

Rule of Thumb: Here is a summary of our recommendations:

  • The Best All-Rounder - For the majority of Internet users, a 1Mb deal will offer the best balance between price and performance.
  • Entry-Level - (256K or 512K) doesn't offer the performance you'll need to be able to get the best out of streaming audio and video. Of course, if you only use the Internet to read web pages and send email, a slower connection may be adequate.
  • Heavy or Shared Usage - A faster connection (2Mb or faster) is probably worth considering if you intend to play a lot of games, or if you intend to share the Internet connection between more than two or three computers at home or in the office. A connection at the higher end of the scale (4Mb upward) will allow you to take advantage of newer trends - such as video and music on demand or Digital Broadband Internet TV.

Download Limits

Another important factor in your choice of a broadband Internet deal is whether there is a download limit (sometimes called a usage allowance), and how high this limit is.

Not every broadband provider imposes a limit on how much use you can make of your Internet connection, although most have clauses in their terms and conditions to prevent what they consider to be excessive use.

Where download limits are imposed, they can range from as little as 1Gb (one gigabyte) per month to 15Gb or 30Gb per month. What do these numbers mean?

Well, a gigabyte is a bit less than the amount of data that fits on two CD-ROMs. Doesn't that depend on the size of the CD Rom? If 700 then it's a lot less than on 2 CDs? Whether or not that seems like a little or a lot depends largely on what you intend to do while connected to the Internet... here's another table to show you what download limits could mean for you in practical terms:

Usage Allowance Number of web pages* Number of songs**
1Gb 10,500 205 (about 20 albums)
2Gb 21,000 410 (about 40 albums)
6Gb 63,000 1229 (about 120 albums)
15Gb 157,000 3072 (about 300 albums)
30Gb 314,500 6144 (about 600 albums)
Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited

Note: all figures are approximate. Many 'unlimited' packages actually have a 'fair usage' allowance of 40 or 80GB.
* Assumes a typical web page is 100 kilobytes of data.
** Assuming a typical song is a 5 megabyte MP3 file

At this point we should probably make it clear that we're not advocating the downloading of music, films or other files via file-sharing network. Contrary to what you might think, there are plenty of perfectly legal sources of music on the Internet!

It should be fairly obvious from the numbers that you're hardly likely to exceed your monthly download allowance just by looking at web pages - unless you're still working on that speed-reading record...

The limit will only become a problem if you start to use the Internet to download (or stream) a lot of audio or video files or to download a lot of software. If you spend several hours of hours a day online, perhaps making use of online radio stations, or playing games, then it's surprising just how much of your usage allowance you'll get through.

Rule of Thumb: Generally speaking, we would recommend the following:

  • Avoid any deal with a monthly allowance of 1Gb (one gigabyte) or less, unless you're a very light Internet user or can only afford one of the cheaper deals.
  • Many deals currently available offer a 15Gb monthly allowance; for most people this should be more than adequate, although if you shop around you may be able to find a deal with an unlimited allowance for the same price.
  • If you think you are likely to want to download large numbers of files, or are a serious online gamer, go for a larger download limit - or better still a deal with no limit.