How Much Internet Speed is Enough?
The quick answer is, “It Depends.” In this article, we’ll help you make that decision for yourself. We’ll tell you:
- The factors that affect Internet Application Performance
- How you can measure your up and down speed
- How to determine the quality of your Internet connection
- What you need for VOIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) phones
- What to look for in wiring, switches & routers
Internet applications include business applications that use the Internet, such as Advisors Assistant, Skype, GoToMeeting, browsers, VOIP phone systems, streaming applications, such as webinars, music, and instructional videos, and any other application that connects to a site on the Internet.
As more apps are used by your office, quality may decline. If you are using VOIP phones, you’ll first notice that your calls are breaking up. Where do you go from here?
First, understand that it’s not all about speed. The factors that affect how your Internet connection services you are:
- Other applications using your connection
- Other users on your connection when you are using cable Internet
Speed is like the diameter of a water pipe. You don’t need a wide pipe if you’re not using much water. But as you start using applications that are constantly sending and receiving data between your office and the Internet, the diameter of the pipe begins to matter.
Five people on the phone use 5 times as much speed as one person. If you have 10 Mbs (mega-bits per second) down and 1 Mbs up speed, 5 calls are using half of your speed or 500 kbs (kilo-bits per second or 500,000 bits per second.)
But you might even have 500 Kbs per person and still have phone calls breaking up. This brings us to the second component….
To understand quality, you have to know that data is sent over the Internet in discrete little bundles called “packets.” These packets leave your office and get relayed from server to server until they reach their destination. It’s important that these packets arrive at their destination in a reasonable time, stay in order, and that none of them get lost.
But, as they bounce from server to server, there are no guarantees! A great site to measure quality is http://pingtest.net Pingtest will even assign a grade to your connection. The first test will look for a best server near you, but after that, you can choose (and should choose) a new server farther away.
- Packet Loss
Ping is the amount of time it takes for a packet to get to its destination and back to your computer. Under 300 ms (milli-seconds) is decent but most values will be in the range of 100 ms or less, depending on the distance to the server. Try picking a server in the USA and then one in Europe.
Jitter is a measure of consistency. It measures the variance of successive ping tests. Lower values are better. Jitter should be a fraction of your Ping times. Look for jitter not to exceed 50 ms with good connections under 10 ms.
Packet Loss should be zero. If you’re dropping packets, there is trouble on the line, and your VOIP quality is probably poor.
With cable internet, as opposed to fiber or DSL, you are sharing bandwidth with all other businesses or connections that are on your cable trunk. If one of these users has bad equipment, they can also add noise to the line, giving those downstream bad quality.
Cable speeds are not guaranteed. If you purchased 70 Mbs down speed and 5 Mbs up speed, it will be expressed as “Up to 70 Mbs down speed” and “Up to 5 Mbs up speed.” They also do not guarantee line quality.
We learned this the hard way because after 2 years of trouble free Internet with VOIP phones, many afternoons our phone quality would become very poor, and even drop calls. Our jitter would go up to 800 milliseconds and sometimes over 1,000 milliseconds (1 second). Up speed would reduce from 5 Mbs to 400 Kbs, less than 10% of our billed, but not guaranteed speed. We were at the very end of the cable line, so everyone else upstream of us could affect our quality.
We had cable people climbing poles and measuring speed and quality on poles and at the modem. Supervisors were visiting. There was usually no problem when they were here, but the problem always came back. It was probably someone using the bandwidth at certain times of the day and also adding noise to the line because of bad equipment.
We finally changed to a fiber connection, and all the issues went away. We now have A+ line quality and all of the speed we pay for. Fiber does guarantee line quality and speed.
Wiring and Small Switches
When Internet quality is good at the entry to your office, but phone quality is bad, another factor affecting VOIP quality is wiring. Many offices have one data connection for each desk. Or they may have a small 5 or 8 port switch near the desk serving a few computers and those users’ phones.
These small switches often don’t have the “backplane” to handle all of the computer traffic and still provide quality VOIP data connections. It may not be noticeable with computer data, but it can be noticed with voice quality on the phones.
Some phones have built in switches that will operate up to 1 Gbs speed, so you can plug the computer into the phone. Others only have a 100 Mbs switch. We would not recommend the slower switched phones.
Old wiring can cause trouble. If your network is operating at a Gigabit, then be sure you have either Cat 6 or Cat 5e wiring. It’s usually stamped right on the wire. If you have old wiring (CAT 5), it could be your weak link.
The last piece of equipment between your office and your Internet provider (other than a cable or fiber modem which are usually provided by the vendor) is your router / firewall. If you’ve had it for several years, but increased your internet speed, it may not be up to the job. If you’re using VOIP phones, you may be able to set your router to give VOIP packets priority so your phones won’t degrade while transferring large files. We suggest making sure you have a router designed for small business and not one designed for consumers.
Good business sense and the simple tools mentioned above are all you need to know to determine if your Internet provider is delivering what you are paying for. You don’t need an IT degree to know that, if it doesn’t seem right, and some of the test numbers are bad, you should call an expert.
It there’s trouble, start by running tests where the Internet enters your office, at the router or modem. By running tests at different points in your network, you can often isolate a bad equipment or a bad wire run.
Tracking down Internet problems is mostly trial and error, and a process of elimination.
The answer to the question about speed is, “Whatever provides you with the level of service you need.”