What is bandwidth and how to control it?

Julie Cole
Julie Cole | Contributing Writer
Last updated: April 8, 2021
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A bandwidth definition can change depending on the industry it is being used in. However, you are most likely to hear it talking about the internet connection. Here, bandwidth refers to the volume of information per unit of time that an internet connection can handle. So what is bandwidth in human terms? It’s a rate at which your connection can transfer data.

That said, while bandwidth is a factor in the overall speed of your connection, it is not itself a measure of internet speed. It is usually measured in bps or bits per second. However, with the consistent increase in internet connectivity, you will now commonly see measures of Mbps or millions of bits per second. In this article, we will explain what is bandwidth in more details, and clarify how you can control it.

Behind the meaning of bandwidth

Many people get confused when it comes to the definition of bandwidth. The meaning mentioned at the beginning is known as data bandwidth, but it can also apply to other computing elements such as RAM, motherboard and USB connectivity. Another type is signal bandwidth which is measured in Hertz. A common example in this sense is as an aspect of FM radio signals, but it also relates to Wi-fi signals and 4G connections.

Bandwidth vs speed: is there a difference?

Bandwidth is a measure of the maximum amount of data that can be transferred every second through a network link while internet speed refers to the actual speed of data transfer. These two are often used interchangeably because they can often be the same amount. However, there is a difference between internet speed and your bandwidth.

Even though you have a high bandwidth, you still can have a low internet speed. This can be due to a number of factors that impact real-world internet speed, including an internet provider using substandard DNS servers, the number of people with the ISP, distance, cable material etc.

So, while the two aspects impact each other either negatively or positively, they are not the same thing. In other words, having a good bandwidth capacity is a vital element in creating a fast connection, but increasing your bandwidth doesn’t offer a 100% guarantee of increasing your actual internet speed.

How much bandwidth do I have?

There is a large number of bandwidth-measuring websites that will allow you to get an estimate of how much bandwidth you are currently working with. These function by sending a certain kind of file and repeatedly measuring the length of time it takes to download it from the source to your computer. While there are several factors that may affect the accuracy of this measure, they are a useful and cheap way to get a sense of whether or not a speed issue may be occurring due to a lack of bandwidth in your internet connection.

How much bandwidth do I need?

This is a harder question to answer. If you are living on your own and just want to keep up with your Facebook and watch the occasional video on Youtube, you will probably get away with a relatively low bandwidth. However, if you are expecting to have multiple users on at the same time, each watching their own Netflix series, this is a different matter.

In general, you should aim to get as much as possible. One other factor to bear in mind is whether or not you wish to upload as well as download large amounts of information. For instance, anyone involved in broadcasting video games streams on something like Twitch needs to get a measure of their upload rates as well as their download rates in order to do this effectively and without significant lag.

Managing bandwidth

There are a number of ways in which you can flexibly or temporarily increase or decrease your network bandwidth capacity.

How to increase it

The natural and most effective way to increase your bandwidth is to upgrade the equipment you are using and your internet plan. Bear in mind that the best equipment in the world won’t make much of a difference if you internet provider caps your bandwidth well below the maximum capacity of your gear.

However, if you are looking for some steps you can take today, there are a number of tips and tricks on how to increase bandwidth with a few simple steps. It is important to understand that it is measured at many different stages in your overall connection activity. However, the main measure that is most germane to the average user is known as the bandwidth throughput. This is the measure of the overall effect, or, said another way, the measure of how much bandwidth actually gets through and how quickly. Here are a few methods you can use:

  • Direct connectivity

Much like the links on a chain, your maximum bandwidth is limited by the weakest part of the connection between your computer and the intended destination. If this is a limitation in your Wi-fi signal, you may see a jump in bandwidth by simply plugging your computer directly into the router with an ethernet cable.

  • Disabling SPI

Routers usually come with a lot of built-in features including security features of various kinds. An SPI (Stateful Packet Inspection) function is a security measure that analysis each packet of data in detail to ward against various kinds of hacking info that might be trying to infiltrate your computer. This can be a useful and valuable feature, particularly if your primary concern is security. However, it may also be unnecessary or of a lower priority if you already have security measures such as a Firewall in place. If you do have such measures and wish to increase your overall throughput, you can disable the SPI function on your router to do so.

  • Reduce overheads

When your connection sends data it does so in packets. Overheads refer to any ‘invisible’ bits of information that relate to the functioning of the connection rather than the data packet itself. A large percentage of this is a made up information about what the packet is, where it is from and what its destination is. Think of it as if you were running a delivery service. Which would be more efficient and easier to organize? Sending 100 packages, all with their own separate shipping documents and info, or sending 10 big packets with just 10 different shipping documents included.

In order to increase the size of your data packets and reduce the amount of overhead information, you need to adjust your MTU settings. The MTU, or Maximum Transmission Unit, setting dictates how large a packet can be before it is broken down into something smaller. However, increasing the MTU will only have an impact on your ability to send large data files quickly. Smaller transactions will remain at the same speed.

Expanding bandwidth with your provider

Bandwidth on demand, also known as Burstable bandwidth is a fairly recent option that is increasingly being offered by internet service providers. Essentially, this allows customers to exceed their standard bandwidth limitations for certain periods. This can be useful if you regularly need to download or upload large amounts of data. Service providers are usually able to offer this service without installing additional dedicated lines or links using WAN, or Wide Area Network. However, keep in mind that this won’t make much difference if you don’t have the equipment that can take advantage of the extra bandwidth.

Limiting bandwidth

You may wish to set a limit on your bandwidth for a number of reasons. For instance, you may have an overly aggressive OS or programs that update too regularly or with too much data involved. You may also wish to limit the amount of bandwidth available to other users, such as young children. This will also have the added benefit of increasing your own bandwidth speed, as long as you set things up correctly without accidentally limiting yourself.

    • One option is to download a bandwidth manager software and take advantage of an easy to use interface that should be able to walk you through the steps with minimum fuss.
    • If you are confident of your technical acumen, you should be able to do the same on many routers by going to the IP, logging in and adjusting the settings there. Most operating systems, including the likes of Windows, have their own inbuilt systems for setting caps on bandwidth usage as well.

What is bandwidth throttling

Bandwidth throttling refers to restrictive practices that originate from your internet service provider or system administrator. There are a number of reasons when ISP might wish to limit your bandwidth at certain points.

  • To avoid congestion at peak times

This offers no real benefit to you as the user but it often enables them to maintain their service without upgrading equipment to something that could handle the greater bandwidth demands.

  • When heavy amounts of data are being downloaded

In cases where large amounts of information are being downloaded from a legitimate streaming website, a service provider may limit access to what could potentially be an illegal torrenting operation. However, more controversially, ISPs may throttle bandwidth for heavy users of websites such as Netflix simply because their infrastructure cannot handle the requirements.

  • When you reach the upper limit or download threshold

This is probably the most common reason an ISP will throttle your bandwidth. These thresholds may be part of an official agreement or may be an unspoken rule that the company adheres to internally. To check if this is the cause of a reduction of bandwidth in your connection, you can check your terms and conditions or run multiple internet speed tests at the times of the month you feel most affected by these lags as well as an initial speed measure at the start of the month.

  • Sometimes an end-service itself can throttle your it

Cloud back up services might enforce bandwidth throttling during your initial data upload as this tends to be made up of a very large data load.

While many network administrators consider the monitoring of bandwidth to be one of the most crucial functions of their role, it probably doesn’t represent the be-all and end-all for personal users. However, there is still a great deal to be gained from investing a little time into assessing and potentially upgrading your bandwidth. Keep in mind that as computers and networks have evolved so has the number of factors that impact it. If you wish to go beyond a simple internet speed test and wish for a more comprehensive assessment of your bandwidth throughput, there are a number of different software options available that can help you analyze and optimize it.

So, what is bandwidth? We hope it is all clear now.

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  1. Jack H

    I am glad I have a better understanding of the true difference between bandwidths and internet speed. Before now, I have struggled with drawing a line between the two. So, guys, you can possibly have high bandwidth but low internet speed.

  2. Neil K

    Well I guess I only kinda knew what bandwidth was but it was only the basic stuff ! I’m amazed how much I’m learning on this website ! Thank you guys for the great content !

  3. uphighinthesky

    Wow! I didn’t know that having high bandwidth can still slow down your browsing. Thank you for highlighting the fact about using bandwidth manager!I will surely try this out for my videocall with clients

  4. Melek

    So if I connect the router directly to my laptop, the Internet should be faster? Do you know how I can do this? It’s currently connected to my son’s PC. I’ll keep looking online, but the help would be appreciated!.

    1. Irma Browns

      Hi! Yes, it should be a lot faster. Connecting a router to a laptop it’s quite simple, there a really good guide on dummies.com, you should look for it. Good luck!

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