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Do You Really Need A Faster Internet Connection?

Tired of waiting on web sites to load while you browse the internet and thinking about upgrading your service to a faster speed so you can surf the web at the lightning speeds that all the ads show? Well, all those ads are a sham (yeah, i know, dog bites man news). The reality is that browsing the internet is very analogous to your local highway system. When it's late at night and there's no traffic, then you can go very fast -- 65 mph or whatever the speed limit is. But during the day when there's lots of traffic you are likely to be limited to average speeds of 50 mph or so. And of course, at rush hour you may be all the way down to 25 mph. Well, the "internet highway" is much the same way. The speed at which your web pages load is going to be far more dependent on the amount of traffic on the "highway" than on the speed that your connection is capable of. A 6 Mbps connection is not going to do you a bit of good if the "highway" between you and the site you are trying to load is experiencing rush hour traffic.

Here's a real world example of this -- I recently upgraded my paltry 1 Mbps DSL service to 3 Mbps U-verse. Now I knew I wasn't going to see much in the way of faster browsing, but there were other advantages that made the "upgrade" a good deal (more on that later). I had a good history of browsing speeds with the 1 meg service (provided by the InetBench program ( http://www.thirdring.net/software_inetbench.htm ), and so after switching to the 3 meg service I could easily compare the two. And here are the results:

Average Page Load Time (secs)
Day Part 1 Mbps 3 Mbps Diff
Weekday Morning 3.2 2.9 -0.3
Weekday Afternoon 3.2 2.7 -0.5
Weekday Evening 3.0 2.9 -0.1
Weekday Late Night 2.7 2.5 -0.2
Weekend 3.1 2.9 -0.2
Total 3.1 2.8 -0.3

As you can see, pretty much a push. At best, weekday afternoons when I'm guessing total traffic is the lightest what with the kids in school and the parents working or running errands, I see about a half a second difference in the time it takes to completely load an average web page. At other times, the difference is negligible. And indeed, this is pretty much what "my lying eyes" tell me as well. Occasionally things appear a bit snappier, but I'm sure that's just a case of cognitive dissonance. I still see all the pauses and halts that I saw with the slower connection. Videos seem to be a bit better, but there's still a lot of buffering issues. Which as I noted is to be expected. If the YouTube server on which the video actually resides is a bit overloaded, then I'm going to be waiting on it at times regardless of what my connect speed is.

So for all practical purposes, the "upgrade" was a wash as far as browsing goes. But -- and it might be a very big "but" for some people -- file downloading speeds increased dramatically. With the 1 meg DSL connection I averaged about 0.8 Mbps on file downloads, but with the 3 meg connection those speeds went all the way up to 2.1 Mbps. So if you do spend a significant amount of time doing file downloads like music, software updates, and the 50 high-res pictures that your Aunt Myrtle is always sending as attachments, then a faster connection does reap nice rewards. But I suspect for most people, that's not a significant part of their internet usage.

Bottom line here is that a faster internet connection is NOT going to benefit most users in any significant way. If the marginal cost of the upgrade is minimal, then sure, why not do it? But if you like the idea of spending that extra $10 or so a month on something else, then you really should stick with your basic 1 meg service. As the old saw goes, your mileage will definitely vary depending on your situation.

February, 2012