Definition of Low Bandwidth Internet

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Imagine it's 1996. Bill Clinton was just re-elected President of the United States, Pokémon mania was born in Japan, Independence Day was the highest-grossing movie of the year and people were tripping over each other to buy Tickle Me Elmos.

If you wanted to read up on this stuff, there's a good chance you connected to dial-up internet (which you may have purchased with an America Online CD), suffering through that screeching, grinding connecting sound and tying up your home's phone line all to surf the Web at a snail's pace of 56 kilobytes per second.

That sounds pretty low, but what does "low bandwidth" mean exactly? The term is somewhat open for interpretation, so let's interpret it with a journey back to the kind of internet connection that you'll hopefully never have to deal with again.

What Is Bandwidth, Anyway?

In the world of online connections, terms like "bandwidth" and "connection speed" refer to the same thing: The total maximum data transfer rate between an internet network and a connected device. Naturally, bandwidth is measured by how much data can potentially be downloaded (or uploaded) per second, either in kilobytes (KB), megabytes (MB) or – in the case of some modern, high-bandwidth connections – gigabytes (GB).

To put those digital data measurements in context, a typical Microsoft Word doc is usually a few hundred KB, an MP3 of your average song is about 3 to 5 MB and a high-definition movie is about 3 to 5 GB. So when it comes to the speed of your internet connection, high bandwidth is good and low bandwidth is not so good.

Low-Bandwidth Internet

There's no hard-and-fast definition of "low-bandwidth internet," but to arrive at your own definition of what "low" anything is, it helps to know what the average is first. And according to the Global Index from Speedtest, the average worldwide download speed is 22.99 megabytes per second. In the United States, the average speed is 28.63 Mbps (placing it a lowly 45th in worldwide rankings, if you're curious), as of August 2018. So it's fair to say that anything significantly under that range could fairly be considered low-bandwidth internet.

Certainly, then, we can define dial-up internet as really "low-bandwidth." This analog type of internet connection uses a modem hooked up to a land-based phone line to transfer data. It's also sometimes called "56K" internet, as its speed typically ranges from 28 Kbps to 56 Kbps. Surprisingly, dial-up isn't quite dead yet – according to a 2015 quarterly earnings report, AOL was still holding onto 2.1 million 56K users.

Digital Subscriber Line, or DSL, internet may also be described as low-bandwidth. This type of internet still uses a phone line, but the internet is "always on" and doesn't tie up your phone line. Plus, with the addition of a router, it can be transmitted wirelessly. Despite these benefits, compared to 56K, DSL speeds still range from about 128 Kbps to 8 Mbps.

High-Bandwidth Internet (and Between)

Cable internet works much the same as DSL, but uses a coaxial cable line – the same as cable TV connections – to transmit data. With speeds ranging from about 512 Kbps to 20 Mbps, cable is right on the cusp of both high-bandwidth (also known as broadband) and low-bandwidth internet. To add a little practical perspective, Netflix recommends a bare minimum connection speed of 0.5 Mbps to 3 Mbps to stream movies in standard-definition quality, at least 5 Mbps to stream in high-def quality and at least 25 Mbps to stream 4K movies.

Wi-Fi breaks free of cables, using always-on radio frequencies to provide wireless connection to various devices at once. Typically, Wi-Fi connects at speeds of about 5 Mbps to 20 Mbps, making it another middle ground.

Your smart phone uses cell towers to access the internet, and on your 4G device, your downloads are typically about 20 to 70 Mbps in real-world conditions – but 5G connections can increase this speed to over one GB per second. Speaking of gig speeds, gigabit-speed internet – still in the process of rolling out around the U.S., as of late 2018 – offers 1 Gbps download speeds via fiber-optic or coaxial cables. And there's no debate – that's high bandwidth, indeed.