Bandwidth and Broadband

Posted By BrokenClaw on January 3, 2008

Bandwidth is the term used to describe the amount of information that can cross any particular point in either direction on the Internet. Higher bandwidth means more data can be transferred. It also costs more money. Related to bandwidth is the term traffic. If you think of bandwidth as a highway, ranging from a gravel road to six-lane freeway, then Internet traffic is exactly what you’d imagine — the number of vehicles using the highway.

Technically, bandwidth is a measure of the speed of Internet traffic, but it is also commonly used to describe the total amount of traffic that a website serves out over a period of time, or the amount of traffic that a user downloads over a period of time. High traffic sites like Google, Yahoo, and Facebook require the most bandwidth of any sites on the Internet. Sites that stream large video files, like YouTube.com and hulu.com, are also huge consumers of bandwidth. It has been estimated that YouTube uses more bandwidth in one day than the entire Internet did during the calendar year 2000!

If the traffic on a particular website exceeds the bandwidth, it creates the equivalent of a traffic jam on the highway, and users are unable to access the site, or links on the site stop working. The site is said to have crashed.

The word crash is used to describe any situation where a computer stops working. It can refer to a program that locks up, or to a hardware failure when the hard disk is physically damaged.

Another related term is transfer speed. Again, using the highway analogy, transfer speed is equivalent to the speed limit. It is the top speed possible, but it is no guarantee that the data will always, or usually, move at that speed. Just as high vehicle traffic slows highway speed, high Internet traffic slows transfer speeds. Bandwidth and transfer speeds are controlled by your Internet service provider (ISP) and by the websites themselves.

In the home, transfer speeds for dial-up modems are considerably slower than cable, DSL (digital subscriber line), or FiOS (fiber optic service). Therefore, the last three are described as broadband. That is to say, they provide broader bandwidth — a wider highway for your Internet traffic.

In general, an internet connection from the cable TV service is faster than DSL service through the telephone line. However there are many factors which effect the actual speed that you get from either one. Cable internet speed is affected by the total use in the neighborhood, and DSL speed is affected by distance from the local telephone switching station. FiOS is even faster than either cable or DSL. Instead of using copper wire, FiOS uses fiber optic cable, which can provide enough bandwidth to allow the delivery of television service over the same lines.

Most ISPs provide, or at least advertise, unlimited usage. For normal users, who visit webpages, use email, and view photos and video clips, their monthly amount of bandwidth usage is well within the limits of their ISP. Historically, the problem has been with a small percentage of users who constantly download large audio and video files, including whole movies, which can be thousands of times larger than a photo file.

As the Internet evolves into a video service for the masses, the ISPs are realizing that they can’t, or deciding that they won’t, provide unlimited usage as they originally promised.

Read more about issues with residential bandwidth usage in Net Neutrality.

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