Bandwidth vs. Latency: What is the Difference?
Two words that you’ll hear a lot when discussing internet service are “bandwidth” and “latency.” But what’s the difference? And how do they affect internet speed?
While these two terms are often used interchangeably, they’re not the same thing. There are some subtle but important differences between bandwidth and latency, and knowing which is your problem can be the key to getting the most out of your internet connection.
Bandwidth vs. latency
What is bandwidth?
Higher bandwidth is better. But what exactly does that mean? Many people think bandwidth is just a fancy word for internet speed. That’s not exactly accurate.
Bandwidth refers to the maximum capacity of an internet connection, not the actual speed. For example, if you order a 100 Mbps package from your Internet Service Provider (ISP), your bandwidth would be 100 Mbps. That means the most data your connection can download at one time is 100 Mbps.
Your actual internet speed, on the other hand, is likely to be less than your bandwidth most of the time because of network congestion and other external factors. If you want to see how fast your internet connection is now, use a speed test.
What is latency?
Lower latency is better. Latency refers to how much time it takes for a signal to travel to its destination and back. When referring to internet connections, the destination is usually your ISP’s servers.
Lower latency is better because latency is essentially a delay between when you take an action and when you see the result—high latency is when it takes longer to see the results. The less delay, the better.
Every time you put in a request to your internet connection (search for something on Google, check social media, etc.), it sends a signal to the server to retrieve the information and then bring it back to you. Since this usually happens pretty quickly, latency is measured in milliseconds.
How bandwidth and latency affect you
Most games don’t require a very fast internet connection, so the impact of bandwidth on your gaming experience is fairly minimal (unless you have a lot of people gaming at once on the same connection). Many games have their assets loaded onto your computer or console already. They need to contact the server only to keep it in sync with where you’re at locally.
But latency is vital to a good online gaming experience—especially in fast-paced games like Call of Duty or Overwatch. High latency manifests as lag in games and can lead to significant delays between your input and your character’s 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.
Since streaming involves downloading content from a server, bandwidth tends to be the major factor in both video and audio streaming. That’s because streaming happens with little input on your end: you just click and wait.
Low bandwidth will usually show itself in two ways. It will either manifest as a painful amount of buffering as your connection tries to keep up with the size of the content. Or it will show up as terrible video quality because your streaming service is attempting to compensate for the slow download speed.
Latency is more important when you’re the one broadcasting the stream. Why? It can cause a delay between when you do something on your stream and when your viewers actually see it. If you’re interacting with your viewers on Twitch, for example, high latency can cause things to get confusingly out of sync.
Video chatting, like FaceTime or Skype, can be negatively impacted by both low bandwidth and high latency. Low bandwidth will affect the quality of your chat, making things hard to see. Latency will cause sync issues and freezing.
Not even basic, everyday web browsing is immune to the effects of a poor internet connection. Low bandwidth will cause pages to load sloooowly and in segments (like in the old dial-up days).
And with high latency, pages may load superfast but there will be a maddening delay at the beginning where it seems like nothing’s happening.
Tips for improving your connection speed
If your internet connection is getting you down, there are a few things you can do about it.
Make sure your router settings are solid. Dig in to your modem and router, and make sure none of your settings are creating bottlenecks. Most routers have a settings page where you can change your password, adjust which channel the router is using, and more.
Usually the login information is printed right on a sticker on the bottom of the device. Check out our guide to improving Wi-Fi speed for more details on what to do.
Upgrade your router. Yeah, we get it: these things last forever. But if you’re still using an old box from 2008, chances are good that it’s not letting your connection live up to its true potential. While a new router can’t increase your bandwidth, it can increase your internet speed (remember the difference?).
Upgrade your internet package. If you’ve upgraded your equipment and tweaked your settings but still aren’t getting the speeds you want, the next step is to upgrade to a faster internet package. Not sure how much speed you need? We’ve got a handy speed recommendation tool to help with that.
Find a new provider. If all else fails and you can’t get a good deal from your current provider, it may be time to move on to someone new. Competition is fierce in the internet service arena, and most places have at least two great provider options. If you’re not sure where to start, we’ve got a roundup of the fastest internet providers. You can also see all your available options by entering your ZIP code in the tool below.
Need for speed
Bandwidth and latency are both crucial to a great online experience, but the difference can be a little confusing. But with your newfound knowledge, you can use what you know to get on the fast track to better internet.
If you want to know more about how internet speed works, check out our comprehensive guide to internet speed.
What’s the difference between bandwidth and internet speed?
Internet speed is how fast your internet connection is. It can vary from moment to moment, depending on network traffic and other factors. Bandwidth is the maximum speed your internet connection is capable of. This doesn’t change unless you change your internet plan.
What’s the difference between latency and ping?
There’s no difference between latency and ping. Both refer to the delay between when you perform an action online and when you see the result.
What type of internet connection has the lowest latency?
In general, cable and fiber are the internet connection types that have the lowest latency, while satellite internet has the highest. Aside from that, other factors—like your router and its location—can also have an impact on the level of latency you experience.
What’s a good latency for internet?
For general browsing and streaming, anything under 100ms is fine. For intense gaming, you’ll want to shoot for 50ms maximum, but under 30ms would be ideal.
How can I check my internet speed?
The easiest and quickest way to check your internet speed is to use an online speed test. This will tell you your current connection speed. You can compare that to what your plan advertises to help nail down any problems.
Author - Dave Schafer
Dave has written professionally for tech companies and consumer technology sites for nearly five years, with a special focus on TV and internet. He uses his industry expertise to help readers at HighSpeedInternet.com get the most out of their services. No matter the project, he prefers his coffee black (the stronger, the better).
Editor - Cara Haynes
Cara Haynes has edited for HighSpeedInternet.com for three years, working with smart writers to revise everything from internet reviews to reports on your state’s favorite Netflix show. She believes no one should feel lost in internet land and that a good internet connection significantly extends your life span (buffering kills). With a degree in English and editing and five years working with online content, it’s safe to say she likes words on the internet. She is most likely to be seen wearing Birkenstocks and hanging out with a bouncy goldendoodle named Dobby, who is a literal fur angel sent to Earth.