Cable modems output a wide range of speeds, depending on your subscription.
When signing up for high-speed Internet access with your cable company, you’ll have to select a speed tier. Varying by location and company, each tier lists the maximum download speed in megabits per second. Higher-speed tiers cost more per month, so it pays to figure out how much speed you really need. The difference in speed between 3 and 10 Mbps can be substantial, but for some uses will go unnoticed.
Everyday Web-browsing activities such as reading the news or updating your social networks use very little bandwidth — the measure of total data transferred — and pages with substantial amounts of text fit into a small amount of data. As such, a 3 Mbps connection proves sufficient for these activities. Even if you include slightly higher data-use activities such as viewing photographs, upgrading from 3 to 10 Mbps will make an only minimal difference.
Streaming video from the Internet, whether through sites like YouTube or paid services such as Netflix, uses a substantial amount of bandwidth. Most video-streaming sites offer a range of video resolutions and bitrates, meaning that even users with slow connections can watch videos, but at a lower quality. Upgrading to 10 Mbps allows streaming video at high-definition resolutions without slowdown, while users on a 3 Mbps connection should avoid HD video.
While it may seem logical that a faster connection would benefit video game players with better response times, this isn’t necessarily the case. While games do require a certain level of speed, 3 Mbps easily covers this, making an upgrade to 10 Mbps unnecessary. In fact, latency — the time it takes a single piece of data to travel across the Internet — plays a much larger role in smooth game play. Improving latency problems requires dealing with signal errors, such as those due to old wiring.
Whether a boost to 10 Mbps will make a noticeable difference in download times depends entirely on the download’s size. For files such as pictures, music and e-books, the change would be negligible. Large downloads, such as games or movies purchased through digital distribution, will show significant improvement with a faster connection, saving up to several hours of download time.
Advertised speeds reflect only the download speeds. Cable upload speeds often fall in the 1.5 to 3 Mbps range and change very little with higher speed tiers. If you’re tempted to upgrade your plan to speed up video or other large uploads, the fine print should reveal if your upload speed will change at all.
If you share your Internet connection across multiple computers and game systems in your house, the maximum speed is the combined speed of all these devices. Using multiple machines at once will split the speed between them, but a higher speed tier will help offset this loss.