A common question I get is “what’s the best” option for home internet. I’m not going to discuss the merits of different providers in this article, however, I will explain the different technologies along with their pros and cons so you can make a more educated decision.
First, some terminology to get started. There are three factors you want to consider when looking at internet providers: bandwidth, latency, and data limits.
Firstly (and arguably the most important) is bandwidth. This is essentially “how fast” you can download files. Let’s consider an example movie at 4GB in size. If your internet connection is 1Mb, then it’ll take you 9.5 hours to download it. Compare that to a 10Mb connection, which would only take one hour to download the same file.
Typical rural broadbandiInternet connections currently vary from 1Mb/s to 10Mb/s.
The Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission (CTRC) is trying to ensure that by 2021, 90 per cent of Canadian homes and businesses should have access to broadband speeds of at least 50Mb/s!
Note that download and upload speeds aren’t necessarily the same. Upload speeds are typically a fraction of download speeds. This is because most of the time you’re receiving files rather than sending them, so a priority is given to download. This is why, for example, sometimes if you’re emailing large photos it can take a long time to send.
So now you need to look at how you use the internet. If you’re just surfing the web, the average web page is around 2MB in size.
Interesting fact: the shareware version of the popular game “Doom” which was released in 1993 was only 2.93MB! Remember floppy disks? They only held 1.44MB!
So to download an average web page on a 1Mb connection, this would take around 16 seconds to download whereas on a 10Mb connection, this would download in one second.
Things work a little differently when you look at services such as Netflix. Netflix works with services from 0.5Mb/s to 25Mb/s, and although a movie will still take the same time to watch, as the bandwidth increases, so does the quality of the picture. To stream in high definition (HD), Netflix recommends a bandwidth of 5Mb or higher.
You can quickly and easily test your bandwidth by visiting www.fast.com. This site is run by Netflix and will test your bandwidth and give you the result, just by visiting the site.
Next on our list is “latency”. This is how long it takes for information to get where it’s going.
For this example, I’m going to use Google’s servers. On most computers is a tool called “ping”. You can think of ping as being like sonar on a submarine. Ping sends a message to a server and times how long it takes to come back. Using Google as an example, if I run “ping www.google.com” from a command prompt, it takes around 40ms for my message to reach Google and be sent back to me.
Latency shows how long it will take for a web page to start downloading. Low latency means it’ll start really quickly. High latency means there will be a delay between you clicking on the web page and it starting to download.
Latency is especially important when playing online games as it can mean the difference between winning and losing if your opponent can react quicker than you.
Finally on our list is “data limits” or “data caps”. This is the total amount of data you’re allowed to download each month. Unlimited data means you can download as much as you want.
Some providers enforce limits though, which can easily be used up if you stream lots of content via services such as Netflix. For example, one hour of HD video delivered via Netflix will take around 3GB. So if you have a data cap of 1GB per month, you’ll use it all up within the first third of the movie! Once your data limit is reached, you’ll either be blocked, your bandwidth will be drastically cut until the end of the month, or worse – you can rack up a large bill by using extra data.
So now you know the terminology behind internet connections, how does this apply to the different options out there?
We’ll start off with the slowest and work up to the fastest:
This was the original way of connecting to the internet and isn’t seen much now. It works by converting your internet connection into a series of sounds, which are sent over your telephone cable. If you think your broadband connection is slow, be thankful you’re not on dial-up which ran at 0.05Mb/s. Going back to our example of downloading a movie, this would take around a week to download!
Putting this one in second place isn’t really fair as wireless technology is becoming increasingly faster every year. (Disclaimer: I used to work for a company who developed and manufactured 3G fixed wireless equipment before it was readily available to the public, so I’m somewhat biased).
There are two types of wireless internet connections available, cellular and fixed. Cellular internet is what supplies internet connectivity to your cellphone. Fixed wireless beams an internet connection to an antennae attached to your home. As it’s wireless, latency is a little higher than wired, although that’s improving and comparable now.
Fixed wireless is typically available from 1Mb to 10Mb and is usually unlimited (unlike cellular which has a monthly limit).
The major disadvantage with fixed wireless is that you really need line-of-site to the transmitter. Wireless signals struggle to get through trees, and can be susceptible to weather conditions if you don’t have good signal strength.
The advantage with wireless in our area is that it’s a lot cheaper to deploy over a large area than it is to run a cable to every house. Because of this, wireless broadband is the driving force behind rural internet.
DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) is the successor to dial-up and still sends the signal over your phone cable, only at much higher speeds. The disadvantage with DSL is that the speed of the connection you can get is dependent on the distance between you and the phone exchange. So in urban areas it works great, but not so much in rural locations. Cable is a similar technology, but uses coaxial cable instead of your phone line. DSL/cable in our area usually ranges between 1Mb/s and 10Mb/s with low latency depending on your location. It also isn’t susceptible to weather conditions, so gives you a stable/reliable connection.
This shouldn’t really be on the list as it isn’t available in our area, however I thought I’d include it, as it is something that may reach us in the future!
With fibre, your internet connection is converted into light patterns and sent over a glass cable at the speed of light. Scientists in the Netherlands have managed to push 255 terabits per second down a single strand of glass. To put this in perspective, it would take you 0.03 milliseconds to download that movie!!
Obviously, this places it top of the list for high bandwidth and low latency.
Now this isn’t coming to your home anytime soon, but 1Gb internet might. At the moment fibre internet is deployed around urban areas such as Halifax, Truro etc.
The reason it isn’t popular in rural areas is the cost of running a glass fibre long distances to every home. Over time, fibre will reach further though, and as it does, the price will come down.
So now you have the information needed to make an informed decision on which Internet technology will best suit your lifestyle needs. As always, any questions, feel free to reach out and I will be happy to help.
Until next time, keep downloading!
Nick Gunn moved to Tatamagouche from England and started up Scotia Systems, a computer support company. He is now the “go-to” guy in the community for computer problems. His columns are intended to spread advice and awareness of computer issues. Contact Nick at email@example.com or call 902-957-2575.