The speed of your Internet connection makes a huge difference in the nature of your online experience. In the old days, downloading a single picture could take several minutes. Today, the fastest Internet connections can download an entire HD movie in the same amount of time. However, most Americans do not have access to the highest speeds at home. Internet service providers have been slow to upgrade their residential infrastructure -- In 2010, the United States ranked 25th in the world in average Internet connection speeds, according to speedmatters.org. Two of the most common connection speeds they offer are 1 Mbps and 3 Mbps, which are on the slow end of modern broadband connections.
As you might imagine, a 3 Mbps Internet connection will perform about three times faster than a 1 Mbps connection. Both connection speeds handle text and basic Web pages very quickly. For larger downloads, you will find yourself spending more time waiting around for things to load on a 1 Mbps connection than on a 3 Mbps one. A 7MB music file should take about 1 minute to download on a 1 Mbps connection, but only about 20 seconds at 3 Mbps. If you watch videos on a website that automatically detects your connection speed and adjusts the video quality, you will see a better picture with a 3 Mbps connection than on a 1 Mbps connection. As of the date of publication, most websites that stream video or audio will serve users with either connection speed, but 1 Mbps is on the low end for streaming video and will cause more skipping and buffering. When it comes to data-heavy HD video, neither connection speed is fast enough to stream it.
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The term "Mbps" stands for "megabits per second," a unit of data transfer speed. Internet service providers frequently use the Mbps rating to specify the speed of the Internet access they sell. Confusingly, the capitalization matters. The capital "M" denotes "mega," meaning million, as opposed to the lowercase "m" denoting "one-thousandth." The lowercase "b" denotes the "bit," the fundamental unit of information in computing, as opposed to the capital "B" which denotes the "byte," equivalent to 8 bits. So, "Mb" literally means "million bits," which is equivalent to 128 kilobytes -- about the size of a typical low-quality JPEG image, like a photograph accompanying a news article. A 1 Mbps Internet connection could download one of these images every second.
Internet service providers mainly advertise the downstream speed of their Internet access. Downstream speed concerns only those things you download. The "1 Mbps" and "3 Mbps" figures pertain to downstream speeds only. The other side of this coin is upstream speed. Internet service providers tend to offer much lower upstream speeds, meaning that it would take you that much longer to upload a photo or movie to the Internet than to download one of the same file size. As of the date of publication, Internet service providers do not typically offer customers a faster upstream speed with a 3 Mbps plan than with a 1 Mbps plan. If fast uploading is important to your needs, check out these details before making a decision.
When an Internet service provider advertises something like a 3 Mbps connection, that's not the guaranteed minimum speed you can expect to get. That's not even the average speed you can expect. It's the maximum speed. You will never get more than that, and usually you will get less -- especially during periods of heavy network usage. Internet service providers impose these speed limits due to a mixture of technological limitations, cost-saving policies, and an effort to prevent individual customers from abusing the system.