What is Bandwidth: Understanding in Very Simple Terms

What is bandwidth cover image

There is a lot of jargon when it comes to internet connection and speed. Perhaps the first word that comes to mind regarding an internet connection is the bandwidth. While it correlates with the speed of the connection, the bandwidth does not refer to the speed. This article will look into what is bandwidth, the factors affecting bandwidth, and how it is different from the speed of internet connection. 

Bandwidth can be understood with the literal meaning of the word. Band and width mean the width of the band. So if a band is 50-inches wide and you get 20-inches from it, you’ll have 20-inches of bandwidth. But what about the internet speed? It’s very similar. 

Let’s say your internet service provider has a range of bandwidth, starting from 5 Mbps and going as far as 500 Mbps. So if you get 100 Mbps plan, this means that you get a bandwidth of 100 Mbps. Mbps stands for megabits per second. And this is where confusion begins. 

Understanding bandwidth in simple terms

Let’s say that there are lots of people in a room. The reason why I am using people and rooms as an example instead of hose and water because it has been overused and it can be difficult to explain latency with it. These people represent the data that you download while using the internet (surfing, watching videos, texting, etc). To get out of this room, there is a door. The size of this door is the bandwidth of the internet connection. 

Let’s say that the door size can only allow 100 people to get out of the door at once. Now, if you are surfing the internet, watching videos, texting, browsing social media, etc, you won’t need too many people to go through the door at once. Most of the time, you need 15 or 20 or even 45 people at max to go through the door at once. There is no congestion, there is enough space for easy passage. This is what high bandwidth connection is. It allows the smooth passage of data packets. 

Now let’s say you download a game, Red Dead Redemption 2 perhaps. RDR 2 is almost 150 GB in size. So, in this case, 100 people will be coming out of the door continuously. This is utilizing the full bandwidth of your connection. But yours is not the only device connected to the internet. 

Illustration showing how bandwidth works
The blue dots represent people in the room, which represent data packets

Bandwidth on multiple devices

Most of the time, there are multiple devices connected to the same network. This causes bandwidth division and a single device gets only a fraction of the total bandwidth. So if there are 5 devices connected to a single network, one device gets 1/5th of the total bandwidth or 20% of it. Going back to the example of people and doors, the size of the door remains the same but the people getting out of it go to different devices. 

So instead of 100 people coming to you, only 20 people arrive while other devices get 20 each. This reduced amount of data “slows” things down. While browsing won’t be an issue, downloading games and streaming videos will take longer. This is why it’s recommended to get a higher bandwidth connection if there will be multiple devices used at the same time using the same network.

How different multiple devices reduce the bandwidth for single devices
How the number of devices connected to a single network reduce the bandwidth for individual devices

If you had a bandwidth of 20 Mbps or 20 people-at-one-time door, five devices would restrict your bandwidth to 4 people at one time. This is very slow (compared to 20 people). So if bandwidth the download and upload of the amount of data per unit time, then what’s speed? 

Speed of data exchange

The speed of your data connection is a different matter. Speed refers to how long it takes for your device sends a data request and get a result (upload and download). Do a Google search for anything and you can see the time it took for the results to show up (usually in seconds). This is the speed of your internet connection, depending on multiple factors.

Coming back to the people and door analogy, remember the room full of people representing data? Well, you also have another room full of people and that room also has a door of limited size. This represents your upload bandwidth, usually lower than the download bandwidth. The upload bandwidth is usually lower because very little data goes over that “door”. Unless you are uploading pictures to your cloud storage or posting a video, etc, your upload data always stays under 1 or 2 MB. 

So when you search for something, let’s say “funny cat videos”, the upload room sends 2-3 persons to the download room (upload room door has a capacity of handling 50 people at a time). These 2-3 people then ask the people in the download room to go to your device (the people with funny cat videos). Then 15-20 people with the funny cat videos leave the download room via the wider door. Where does speed come in? 

The time it took for the people to leave the upload room, go to the download room and ask the other guys. Then, the time it took for the download room to find the appropriate people and time taken by these people to reach your device is called the speed of the internet connection. 

Factors bandwidth depends on

Many factors affect the bandwidth of your internet connection. These are;

  • Internet Service Provider (ISP)
  • The internet plan you choose
  • Type of connection (Fiber or Copper)
  • Number of devices connected to the network
  • Wired or wireless connection 
  • Type of router used
  • Throttling by your ISP

Bandwidth is majorly concerned with your internet service provider and the plan you choose. If you pay more for higher bandwidth, you get a congestion-free spectrum of data transmission. This allows you to download more data per unit time. Any error or problems with your ISP can cause fluctuations in your allotted bandwidth. 

The type of internet connection also affects bandwidth. Fiber connections are faster and capable of carrying more data per unit time. Fiber connections can give data as high as 10 Gbps! The traditional copper connection is limited to 450 Mbps or lower, but it is widely available. Dial-up connections are a relic of the past, giving around 500 Kbps at max. 

The number of devices also decides the bandwidth you get. More devices connected to the same network reduces the bandwidth each device gets. Wired connections give better bandwidth and speed (when the router is connected with your computer via cable instead of WiFi). A good router with the capability of using the 5 GHz band also gives more bandwidth than the 2 GHz band. 

Factors speed depends on 

Bandwidth affects the speed of the connection. Higher the bandwidth, the faster the connection feels as more data is downloaded per second. But there are many other factors on which the speed depends. This speed also affects the ping time or latency of the connection, mostly visible in online gaming. 

Notice how some websites load slowly while others are very fast? This is because some websites take more time to complete the request (your request for accessing the site). The time it takes for this request to reach the server and return with a valid response shows the speed of the connection.  

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