Bandwidth vs. Latency: What is the Difference?
May 22, 2023 | Share
FAQ, Internet Speed Guides
The terms “bandwidth” and “latency” describe an amount. Think of bandwidth as a road and latency as a duration.
Picture this. You speed along the widest road on the planet at 300 MPH to take a cross-country family trip to Las Vegas. There are plenty of open lanes to maneuver around the wheeled tortoises crawling in every lane but the far right one where they belong. This wide road is your bandwidth.
Now, imagine the ten million potty breaks your family takes along the way to Las Vegas and then again during your trip back home to the East Coast. The trip feels like it takes for-ev-er and a day. This eternal duration is your dreaded latency.
That’s the simplified version of their differences, but we’ll dive deeper into the two terms so you can better troubleshoot connection issues and get the most out of your internet service.
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Bandwidth vs. latency: A deeper explanation
What is bandwidth?
Here’s the quick answer: Bandwidth is the maximum amount of data you can transfer between two points on a network.
For example, picture a faucet and a sink. Your bandwidth is the amount of water pouring down into your sink. Crank down on the faucet, and you get a trickle of bandwidth—you grow a head full of gray hair waiting for the sink to fill. Open the faucet all the way, and the sink fills so fast that the water spills onto the floor.
As you can see, we perceive bandwidth as “speed.” The more megabits we can push through a connection in a second, the faster a file downloads or a page loads. The sink fills more quickly with the faucet wide open than when it is barely open.
Theoretically, a single cable or fiber internet connection to a home—your data faucet—supports a 10,000Mbps (10Gbps) bandwidth. But your internet provider controls that bandwidth, as does the modem and fiber optical network terminal (ONT). To get more bandwidth, you’ll want to upgrade to a “faster” plan.
Bottom line: Higher bandwidth is better.
What is latency?
Here’s the quick answer: Latency is the amount of time data takes to reach a remote server and return to you.
For example, let’s forget the potty break analogy and use toll booths instead. There are 10 of these stops along the road between Google and us one way, half of which are within our internet provider’s internal network. The trip is another 10 hops (toll booths) back to our device when Google replies. The completed trip to Google and back takes at least 24 milliseconds.
Now, let’s look at satellite internet. On a good day, your data takes around 120 milliseconds to reach a satellite in space and then another 120 milliseconds to reach Google’s server here on Earth. Add another 240 milliseconds to receive Google’s response.
With those two examples in mind, you’ll see a delayed action on your screen if you press a game controller button and your latency is 480 milliseconds. That’s just unplayable. But your gameplay is near flawless if the latency is only 28 milliseconds.
Latency isn’t just a gaming issue. It applies to everything you do online. Web browsers send requests to website servers every time you load a page, and the server uploads the page to your browser cache. The higher the latency, the less responsive the webpage feels.
Bottom line: Lower latency is better.
How bandwidth and latency affect you
Here are a few scenarios to show how bandwidth and latency affect you daily.
- Bandwidth: Low impact
- Latency: High impact
You don’t need a lot of bandwidth to play games online. We recommend 5Mbps or more per device for downloads and 3Mbps for uploads. If you have five people playing online simultaneously, your combined download bandwidth is around 25Mbps. However, depending on the service, you need more bandwidth to stream cloud-based games to each device—up to 25Mbps each.
Latency is vital to a good experience when you play games online—especially in fast-paced games like Fortnite and Overwatch 2. High latency manifests as lag and can cause significant delays between your input and your character’s on-screen action. In other words, you could already be dead while you’re still trying to get off a shot, but you won’t know it until your connection catches up.
- Bandwidth: Medium impact
- Latency: Medium impact
The bandwidth you need depends on the content’s resolution and the number of devices streaming the content simultaneously. A single 4K stream averages around 25Mbps, so four devices streaming a 4K movie need at least 100Mbps of bandwidth. Plus, you’ll need extra bandwidth for all your other devices that are not streaming video.
Low bandwidth causes buffering—when the video or audio player pauses playback and waits to receive more pieces of the file before it can resume. You may also experience pixelation, as the service adjusts the stream to compensate for the narrow bandwidth (aka slow download speed).
Latency rears its head during livestreams. Your actions captured on camera appear delayed to your viewers. Latency can result from an incorrect bitrate, a longer-than-usual route to the host server, and so on.
- Bandwidth: High impact
- Latency: High impact
Video chatting, like FaceTime or Skype, can be negatively impacted by low bandwidth and high latency. Low bandwidth affects the quality of your chat, making things hard to see. Latency causes sync issues and freezing.
- Bandwidth: High impact
- Latency: High impact
You don’t need a lot of bandwidth to browse the internet. Web pages are mostly lightweight, so you may download around 3MB per site. However, website servers need a lot of bandwidth to upload page files to every connected device. Pages feel dial-up slow if the server is overloaded or your connection has issues.
Latency causes long page load times and makes websites feel unresponsive.
Tips for improving your connection speed
Got the internet speed blues? Here are a few things to brighten up your sad connection.
Restart your network
Sometimes you need to restart (power cycle) your network devices to refresh connections. Start by unplugging the power on your modem, gateway, or ONT. Wait 30 seconds and plug it back in.
Do the same with a standalone router or mesh system when the modem, gateway, or ONT comes back online.
Check your wired connections
A loose coax or Ethernet cable lowers your bandwidth and increases latency. Make sure coax cables are tight, and Ethernet cables have secure connections in their ports. Also, swap out damaged cables if you can—they cause speed bottlenecks and high latency too.
Check your router settings
Wi-Fi adds latency and bandwidth bottlenecks because it’s an extra translation step between you and the destination. However, a crowded channel, an incorrect channel width, and incorrect quality of service (QoS) settings are a few factors that cause unwanted slowdowns.
Check out our guide on how to improve your Wi-Fi speed for more details on what to do.
Purge unused devices
Remember that laptop you no longer use, but it’s still plugged in and connected to Wi-Fi? Chances are it’s quietly eating your precious bandwidth with a smirk as it downloads Godzilla-sized updates. Kick it off your network along with all the other data leeches you never intend to use again.
Upgrade your router
Your internet connection has a set bandwidth, but a Wi-Fi router sets the wireless bandwidth on your home network. For example, an AX1800 Wi-Fi router has less bandwidth than an AX11000 one—1,800Mbps vs. 11,000Mbps combined, respectively. Plus, you should upgrade periodically to take advantage of new technologies and higher bandwidths, especially if you upgrade smartphones every few years.
Reset your devices
The speeds you get partially depend on server-client communication. Your speed woes may have nothing to do with the internet, your modem, or your router but with the devices (clients) you use. For example, corrupted network settings will cause Wi-Fi slowdowns. The fix ranges from something simple like restarting your device to extreme measures: resetting your device back to its factory defaults.
Upgrade your internet plan
Your internet provider controls your connection’s bandwidth even if you swapped out the modem and Wi-Fi router for newer, faster models. You can’t force 1,000Mbps speeds out of a 500Mbps internet plan. To get more bandwidth, you must upgrade to a faster plan.
Not sure how much speed you need? Check out our handy speed recommendation tool to help with that.
Find a new provider
Find a new internet provider if you’ve tried everything to improve your connection, and bandwidth and latency are still an issue. Competition is fierce, and most areas have at least two great provider options.
We provide a roundup of the fastest internet providers if you’re unsure where to start. Are you a gamer? We list the best internet for gaming too, based on latency.
Our verdict: Bandwidth and latency are crucial
Bandwidth and latency have an impact on everything you do online. High bandwidth and low latency translate to the best speeds and the fastest response times—that’s what you want for your internet connection. Low bandwidth and high latency mean slow downloads, choppy streams, and delayed responses. Nobody wants that.
If you need more bandwidth than you have right now, go with a faster internet plan and a high-capacity router like an AX11000 model. Both should help keep high latencies at bay, but your total bandwidth and latency depend on the connections between the remote servers and all your devices.
If you want to know more about how internet speed works, check out our comprehensive guide to internet speed.
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FAQ about bandwidth vs. latency
What’s the difference between latency and ping rate?
What type of internet connection has the lowest latency?
What’s a good latency?
How can I check my internet speed?
Use our internet speed test to check your connection and compare the results with your plan’s advertised speed. You can use our general speed test or choose one of our brand-specific tests listed below. We also provide mobile apps to test your connection but use it next to your router to get the most accurate results.
Choose your speed test:
What is channel width?
Channel width is similar to a road’s width. You can simultaneously fit more cars on a broad six-lane highway than on a single-lane road. Technically, each Wi-Fi band divides into smaller bands called channels that have a set width of 20 megahertz (MHz) each. Bonding combines these channels into larger ones—up to eight adjacent channels—so you can send and receive more data in a second. The channel widths you can set manually are 20 MHz, 40 MHz, 80 MHz, and 160 MHz.
What is Quality of Service?
Quality of Service (QoS) technology manages network traffic to improve performance. It prioritizes data based on the application, service, or device(s) you set. For example, the router handles gaming data first if you make gaming your priority.
Author - Kevin Parrish
Kevin Parrish has more than a decade of experience working as a writer, editor, and product tester. He began writing about computer hardware and soon branched out to other devices and services such as networking equipment, phones and tablets, game consoles, and other internet-connected devices. His work has appeared in Tom’s Hardware, Tom's Guide, Maximum PC, Digital Trends, Android Authority, How-To Geek, Lifewire, and others. At HighSpeedInternet.com, he focuses on network equipment testing and review.
Editor - Rebecca Lee Armstrong
Rebecca Lee Armstrong has more than six years of experience writing about tech and the internet, with a specialty in hands-on testing. She started writing tech product and service reviews while finishing her BFA in creative writing at the University of Evansville and has found her niche writing about home networking, routers, and internet access at HighSpeedInternet.com. Her work has also been featured on Top Ten Reviews, MacSources, Windows Central, Android Central, Best Company, TechnoFAQ, and iMore.