Internet speed test: Here’s what it does (and doesn’t) tell you
By on in Broadband
In 2019, there were 293 million internet users in the United States and you’re probably one of them. Depending on your provider and plan, you pay for a certain internet speed each month — one that’s selected based on your usage needs. You may have a faster plan with faster speeds for streaming HD video, video conferencing or online gaming, or you may have a slower plan that’s suitable for simple internet browsing. Either way, it’s important to understand if you’re actually getting the speeds advertised by your provider. One way to determine if you’re getting the right speed is to conduct an internet speed test.
Why test internet speed?
In addition to ensuring you’re getting the speeds you’re paying for in your plan, there are other reasons why testing your internet speed can be useful:
Troubleshooting a slow connection
There may be times when your internet seems to be moving slower than what you normally experience. The connection could be slow because of an issue with your provider, your computer or your router. There are reasons why you could be experiencing a slow connection, and running an internet speed test can help you to troubleshoot the issue.
If you need to use your internet connection for tasks like uploading large files, which can take a lot of time, you can run internet speed tests throughout the week to see if there’s any pattern to when you see faster or slower speeds. You can use this information to help you decide the best times for the fastest results.
If your internet speed is consistently running slower than your provider promised, you may be able to save money by changing your plan to reflect the actual speed you’re experiencing.
Determining what speed you need
If you have several devices using the internet at the same time, or if you enjoy playing video games online, you’ll need much higher speeds than someone who uses their internet connection for checking the weather or social media. If you’re getting a slow response at your selected internet speed, it may be time to upgrade.
How to take an internet speed test online
Checking your internet speed is easy. Here are 10 free internet speed test sites to try:
- AT&T speed test: AT&T’s test will tell you your upload and download speed, along with a latency measurement.
- CenturyLink speed test: This test from CenturyLink gives you upload and download speeds, along with tips for conducting the test.
- Cox speed test: This test from Cox shows upload and download speeds and tips for improving test results.
- Google speed test: You don’t need to log in to Google, just click the blue button labeled “Run Speed Test.” Google will tell you your upload and download speeds.
- Netflix speed test: The test powered by Netflix shows you your download speed as the default. You can get your upload and latency figures by clicking on the “Show more info” button.
- Ookla speed test: This popular test shows upload, download and latency figures. You can also choose a server to use to get a more accurate measurement based on your location. Ookla powers many of the provider-specific speed tests.
- Speakeasy speed test: Speakeasy shows your upload and download numbers. You can also change the city where the server is doing the test and look at your results history.
- Spectrum speed test: This test shows upload and download speeds with data provided by Ookla.
- Xfinity speed test: You’ll see your upload and download speeds, along with an idea of the type of activities you can perform at the speed of the test.
- Verizon speed test: This test gives you upload and download speeds from your device to the Verizon network.
This is what an internet speed test will tell you
The key pieces of information you will get from an internet speed test is your upload and download speeds. Many internet providers quote one speed, which is typically the download speed. You may have to ask about the upload speed, which is usually lower than the download speed.
Download speed refers to when you are downloading any data from the internet such as a photo or video, streaming media or browsing websites. Upload speeds matter for activities such as uploading data to the cloud or uploading content to YouTube. Most people generally spend more time downloading data than uploading.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) publishes a broadband internet standard. Since 2015, it has called for a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. However, you may need to work with local providers who fall below those definitions. Based on your internet usage, you may not need to have even the minimum standard speeds.
When you test internet speed, it shows just a snapshot in time. When you use the internet, you’re sharing the provider’s bandwidth with all of their customers, so several things will have an effect on your test. Here are some examples:
- If you use an older computer, router or modem with technology that can’t handle modern speeds, your tests will come out lower.
- The location of your modem can affect speeds throughout your home.
- A provider’s advertised speeds refer to wired connections only, so WiFi speeds may be slower overall than advertised speeds.
- If you conduct the test while there are several devices all using your local internet connection, your tests will be lower than if you were the only one using the connection.
- If you conduct tests during prime time for internet use, your speed will be low. The busiest times on the internet are from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.
- If you are running applications that make heavy use of the internet, your tests will be lower. For example, if someone is streaming a show from the internet, you’re already using a big portion of your download speed.
What internet speed do you need?
You may be surprised at how little speed you need to perform some common internet tasks. Here are the minimum download speeds you need for the following activities based on FCC standards:
- Browsing, email, social media, standard video call: 1 Mbps
- Streaming high definition video: 5 to 8 Mbps
- Using a game console connected to the internet: 3 Mbps
- File downloading: 10 Mbps
- Telecommuting: 5 to 25 Mbps
Those speed requirements are only minimums and you may not be pleased with the experience. Besides that, those speeds are assuming that you are only doing one activity at a time. If you have a busy internet connection, you’ll need much more speed to handle your activities. In practice, different ranges of speed allow you to do different things:
- 5 Mbps or less: This is a very slow speed, but you could do basic surfing on the internet and email.
- 5 to 10 Mbps: With a bit more speed, you can surf the internet, send and receive emails and if you have just a few devices sharing the connection, you could play online games.
- 10 to 25 Mbps: This speed would allow you to stream HD video in moderation, play online games and download data with a moderate number of devices connected.
- 25 to 40 Mbps: At this speed, you’d have no problem with HD streaming, online gaming and downloading. You could also support more devices sharing the connection.
- 40 to 100 Mbps: This is your speed if you want to do a lot of streaming, online gaming and downloading. You could also support a larger household with a high number of devices.
- 100+ Mbps: At this point, speed just gives you a faster response from your internet. For example, at 40 Mbps you can download a 1 GB file in 3 minutes 34 seconds, while at 100 Mbps, you can download that file in 1 minute 25 seconds. If you have a 1,000 Mbps connection, you can download the same file in eight seconds.
How do internet speed tests work?
An internet speed test online performs several operations. In general, the test site will:
- identify your location and the server that is closest to you to use for the test
- send a ping to the chosen server and measure how long it takes for the ping to reach the server, or the upload speed
- open connections from the server and measure how fast the server can send data to your device, or the download speed
- measure latency, or the amount of time it takes for the server to reply to the user’s request
The amount of information the test will present to you will vary based on the test site.
Understanding internet speed lingo
Now that you’ve asked yourself, “how can I test my internet speed,” you’re ready to learn speed test internet lingo. To really understand how internet speed tests work, you need to know some of the terms that explain the process.
- Bandwidth: The amount of data you can transmit through a modem, usually measured in megabits per second (Mbps)
- Bit rate: How fast bits are sent from one place to another measured in bits per second
- Bits: A bit is the smallest piece of data that is transmitted
- Bits per second: The number of bits that are transmitted from one location to another in one second; can be shown as bps (bits per second), kbps (thousand bits per second), Mbps (million bits per second) and Gbps (billion bits per second)
- Bytes: A byte is made up of eight bits
- Data rate: Also called data transfer rate (DTR), it measures how fast data is sent from one place to another
- Download speed: The speed at which a server can send data “down” to a device
- Internet speed: A measure of performance, based on the bits per second transmitted
- Latency/lag: The delay experienced while the systems on either end of a transmission respond to the user’s request; latency measures the delay time and is expressed in milliseconds (ms)
- Ping: A signal that a transmitting device sends to an internet host asking for a response
- Ping rate: How long it takes a ping to travel from your computer to an internet server and back
- Throughput: How much information an internet-connected device can send or receive under perfect conditions; the higher the device’s data rate, the higher the throughput
- Transfer rate: See data rate
- Upload speed: The speed at which a device can send data “up” to a server