Comprehensive guide about internet services

What is an ISP?

Your internet service provider (ISP for short) is what gives you access to the internet, you pay them and they connect you to the internet. The amount of money you pay can vary widely, depending on the various factors they are providing you, some of these factors are printed right on the Ad and some factors they don’t want you to know.

But what are all those factors?

I’m going to list just the main factors here, and I will not take in consideration the difference in pricing of bundles or packs when they charge you, for other goods like TV, support, anti-virus, etc… Just focusing on the technical side of things, your ISP is like a delivery contract, and delivering goods there are many variables in play like, what kind of transport do you use, a car, a bike, a truck, a train, a plane? How much you can carry at once. How fast you can deliver. How many requests you can handle. How long it takes you to start each new delivery? How many parcels get lost in transit? Maximum the amount of deliveries in a month.

Things to take into consideration when talking about your internet:

  • Type of connection (cable, fiber, 3G, LTE…)
  • Speed (5Mbps, 25Mbps, 100Mbps…)
  • Data limit (500MB, 5GB, 20GB, Unlimited…)
  • Latency (ping)

I will try to explain a little bit about how each of these things will affect you in day to day use, and clarify some things they usually don’t tell you.

Speed

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Speed is commonly advertise in Mbps or Megabits per second (e.g. 25Mbps). This will define how long something will take to be loaded from the internet to your computer (Downloading a song from iTunes, a attachment on a file, or even loading images on a website).

Ok, 25 is just half of the story, this number is your downstream speed, AKA download speed. But the internet is not just a one way road, it is in fact two way road, one going out your device, and one coming to your device. For a website to load, when you type example.com address on Google Chrome, you computer first sends a request, and it goes of your computer in the “up lane” and it arrives at the desired server, and then it sends you the webpage back to your computer on the “down lane”.

We refer as the traffic in the direction:

  • You → Internet as UP stream
  • **Internet → You** as DOWN stream.

With that said, they only tell you the speed from the server to you, but they usually don’t tell you what the speed from you to the server is going to be, unless you read the fine print, or ask them.

Almost all home plans have much lower upload speeds than download speeds. Expect your upload speed to be (usually) 10 times slower than your contracted download speed. This means that you can download a 50mb PDF in only 7 seconds on a 60Mbps internet, but it will take more than a minute to attach the same PDF on a email.

Upload speed is specially important for content creators, that will send content more often than they will consume content from the internet, like upload videos to youtube, attaching large files, backuping files to the cloud (Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud), live streaming HD video, etc…

A little aside about bits and bytes

There are lots of confusing things when talking about speed, and all of this is caused by different but similar looking units. In the example 25Mbps (lower case b) means 25 billion (mega) bits in a second will arrive at your computer. But this doesn’t mean you will download a 25MB PDF in one second, because here 25MB (uppercase B) is 25 mega bytes.

  • File sizes you are used to see on your computer or phone is expressed as kilobytes (KB), megabytes (MB), gigabytes (GB), terabytes (TB)…
  • Speed is usually advertives as mega bits per second (Mbps)

But if everything is reported in bytes, it would make sense to talk in bytes per seconds and not bits per seconds, right? yeah it does! But it make sense for then to talk in bits (for a reason I’m not going into), but it also makes the numbers appear bigger, so its good for marketing.

The conversion is: 8 bits = 1 byte

Data limit

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Some ISP impose a limit of the amount of bytes you can receive and send over a period of time (e.g. 100GB of data in a month), this means when you reach that limit your service will be paused until the next cycle, you will be charged for extra or you connection will be slowed down. This will depend on your specific contract, so you should ask if you have any limits, what happen when the limits are reached and you should check if the limits are reasonable for what you expect.

Here are some tasks and the approximated amount of data it will take:

  • Watch a YouTube video of 10 minutes 200MB
  • Watch Netflix movie 2GB

Download Apps:

  • Angry birds 2 500MB
  • Clash of clans 110MB
  • Minecraft Pocket 140MB
  • Candy crush saga 200 MB

Type of connection

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There are many types of connections, and each of them have their own pros and cons, this will also play a role in the cost.

  • ADSL
  • Coaxial Cable
  • Fiber
  • Cellular (3G/4G/LTE)
  • Satellite

ADSL is one of the oldest technologies listed, it uses the phone lines infrastructure so it is available even on the smallest towns. Reliability is not that good with this technology.

Coaxial cable is one of the most common in the United States, it uses the same cables as cable TV. The cost of this connection is usually one of the cheapest, This is one of the best price to quality options.

Fiber is the best you can get in terms of speed and stable connection. But often it comes with a cost that’s usually higher than the other options. fiber is also not readily available everywhere. This is definitely the best option for really demanding tasks like streaming, gaming in any real time application.

Cellular and this is the type of connection you have on your phone. This type of connection you should come comes with limits of usage. So you should avoid this type of connection if you use the Internet for anything else then casually browsing. But this is an option if you need mobility or if you can’t use any of the other options.

Satellite is the type of connection you would have if you live in a really remote area or you don’t have any infrastructure near you. This is the most expensive option, and contrary to what some may think this is the slowest type of all listed types of connection. Satellite connection suffers from really high delays (explained below), due to the distance the signal have to travel between the satellite and the earth. Another con is that you’re going to be off-line when the sky is cloudy.

Latency (ping)

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Latency is the time it takes from a command to be send from your computer through every device on the network, reach its destination and come back to you.

For everything you do online from asking for your browser to load a website, or sending a tweet or clicking play on a video on YouTube, you computer have to send a request through the network. It goes to 

PING is a tool that measures the Round Trip Time (RTT) of data to reach the destination and then return. It is measured as Latency in ms. Latency is a component of Lag, which is the perceived performance degradation. Packet loss is the other common contributor to Lag.

There are two major components to Latency. Data travels over the wire/fiber at roughly 120 miles per millisecond (ms). Thus for every 60 miles between you and the destination, you can expect 1 additional ms in a PING test. Keep in mind this is the distance the data has to travel, not direct distance or way of the crow.

Devices along the way also contribute to the overall Latency. Cable modems have been reported to add 5-40ms and DLS modems around 10-70ms. WiFi routers will contribute as well. Each additional device such as another WiFi repeater, firewall, router or switch (hops) between you and the destination will add to the overall latency as well. Expect older networking gear to add additional latency. So could a miscalibrated or misconfigured cable modem. Reference: https://www.pingman.com/kb/42

All wireless connections will likely incur some degree of Packet Loss due to the nature of the medium and additional Latency due to protocol overhead.

Many of these factors that contribute to Latency are outside of your ability to change. It is true that Fiber connections typically have fewer hops between you and the Internet. It also true that these hops can different than the path of hops from a DSL or cable modem. The different path could have lower Latency per hop. HOWEVER, fiber connectivity is not always guaranteed to lower latency and has an additional added cost of service.

  • Satellite: 750 - 2000 ms
  • 3G Wireless: 100 - 350 ms
  • 4G Wireless: 50-150 ms
  • DSL: 50-125 ms
  • Cable: 25-75 ms
  • Fiber: 5-30 ms

WiFi

As said earlier, a wireless connection between your computer and your mode/router will also add a extra delay contributing to the total latency. This amount will vary depending on various factors, like the number of devices connected, amount of nearby WiFi networks in range, distance between you and your router, interference from other appliances like microwaves, etc… If low latency is important for you, you should avoid wireless entirely and use a wired connection between your computer and router. But if you can’t there are a few things you can do to improve things.

  • Don’t use WiFi repeaters / boosters (unless they have a CAT5 cable coming in);
  • Prefer 5.8GHz band WiFi routers (802.11ac);
  • Don’t place WiFi router near metal surfaces (refrigerator, computer case…)
  • Don’t connect to a WiFi router on a different floor
  • Be near a WiFi router
  • If you use a WiFi USB dongle on a Desktop PC, don’t use it on a rear USB port, plug it on the front of your case.
  • Place your WiFi router around 5 feet (1.6m) above the ground.

How different factors affect internet usage

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Gaming

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Having a consistent and low latency (ping) is the most important factor when it comes to gaming and not having issues with lag. Generally speaking, prefer fiber or cable over other types of connections, and prefer wired connection between your computer and your modem or router, to avoid fluctuations in ping caused by the wireless connection. Higher speed should not make much difference here, just make sure you have enough head room to account for other programs and people sharing the same internet. However a higher speed plan should make downloading the updates and games itself faster.

Live streaming

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Upload speed is the most important factor here, you should have enough bandwidth (upload speed) to be able to send large amounts of data required to stream audio and HD video to (Youtube, Twitch, Ustream…). Latency (ping) will help you have a smaller delay between you and your viewers, but this is not very significant because those services usually will have a buffer of a couple seconds anyway. But it is really important your connection is steady and it is not losing packages, as you video is live, every video frame that fails to be sent will either get lost and cause the video to be choppy or it will be retransmitted making the video to be delayed.

Check out twitch guidelines for streamers https://stream.twitch.tv/encoding/

Watching videos

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If you watch lots of videos online on Netflix, YouTube or even on social medias, Download speed will affect which quality will be able to watch without waiting for the video to load of buffer. Make sure to have a unlimited data plan or have plenty of data available, as videos takes large amounts of data specially HD or 4K content, or you will found yourself with no or a crippled internet or with a large bill on the end of the month.

Netflix have a chart that should give you an idea of the amound of data it will consume: https://help.netflix.com/en/node/87

Listening to music

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Listening to online radios or using streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music… it is not a really demanding on your internet, but if you stream for many hours a day you should be aware of Data limits, specially on mobile. If you have a 1GB limit it will be roughtly about 7 hours of content of high quality music.


Ok thats it, I hope this will help you better understand how each factor is important to you and help you choose which service you're contracting. If you have any questions feel free to ask.

February 5th, 2018 3:18pm