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Have you ever been frustrated by sluggish internet speeds? Maybe a page took too long to load, or your movie night was plagued by lots of buffering delays. A slow connection is definitely a nuisance, but troubleshooting can be complicated for the average user. That’s because there are so many factors that might be to blame for your extra-long load times. There’s the age of your device, the browser you’re using, the site you’re accessing, possible network latency — and bandwidth (among others!)

What is bandwidth, anyway?

When you’re shopping for internet service, you’ll likely see plan tiers listed with their maximum speed available. (“Get speeds up to 50Mbps!”) While the terms “speed” and “bandwidth” are often used interchangeably, bandwidth is actually one factor that affects a network’s speed. Essentially, bandwidth is a measure of the max amount of data an internet connection can transmit in a given amount of time. Bandwidth is usually described in bits (or megabits) per second.

While it’s true that more bandwidth should translate to better network performance, this isn’t always the case. For example, if your network has an issue with latency — a delay at any point when data is traveling from point A to point B — then the connection will seem slow on your end, even if your plan offers plenty of bandwidth.

If you imagine your internet connection as water running through a pipe, bandwidth is the size of the pipe itself. If there’s a blockage or water pressure issue anywhere in the pipe (latency), there will only be a trickle of water (connection speed) at the end — no matter how large the pipe is.

Why does bandwidth matter?

Bandwidth isn’t the only factor that affects internet speed. But it does make a difference, especially for power users or multi-user/multi-device households.

Consider a data-heavy activity like streaming. Streaming HD video smoothly requires significant bandwidth. Netflix recommends speeds of 25Mbps or higher for 4K Ultra HD streaming — and that recommendation is per user, per device. If there are several users in your house streaming at the same time, the network can quickly become congested. That means buffering, skipping, and generally an unhappy streaming experience for everyone. No fun.

Ample bandwidth is most important for large households and households that often do a lot of streaming, downloading, online gaming, and other bandwidth-intensive activities. Other factors can influence network performance too — but bandwidth is still worth considering when you choose your internet plan.