Bandwidth vs. Latency: What is the Difference?
The terms “bandwidth” and “latency” are always front and center when reading about or discussing an internet service. But what do they mean? How are they different? And do they affect your internet speed?
While these two terms are often confused, 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?
Bandwidth is a measure of how much data can be transferred from one point in a network to another within a specific amount of time. It’s typically used to measure how much data you can download to your device from a server on the internet.
Think of your connection’s bandwidth as a freeway and your data as six cars traveling at the same speed. A freeway with high bandwidth would have six lanes allowing all cars to arrive simultaneously in 1 second. A freeway with low bandwidth would have a single lane allowing all cars to eventually arrive in 6 seconds.
Your actual bandwidth will often be less than your maximum bandwidth due to network congestion, network overhead, and other external factors. For instance, your internet connection may support a wide bandwidth (freeway) of 1,000 Mbps, but your internet plan may close a few lanes and limit your bandwidth to 400 Mbps. Add on network congestion, local cabling issues, and so on and your top bandwidth may only be 300 Mbps.
Bottom line: A higher bandwidth is better.
What is latency?
Latency refers to how much time a signal takes to travel to its destination and back.
For instance, latency plays a huge part when gaming online. With low latency, your input is immediately seen on the screen—like jumping over a barrier—because very little time has passed between your button press, the server’s acknowledgment of your action, and the returned acknowledgment rendered on your screen.
With high latency, you’ll see a delay between your controller input and the resulting jump on your screen because the trip to the server and back takes longer. This delay is known as input lag.
Latency isn’t just a gaming issue. 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.
Bottom line: A lower latency is better.
To test latency, your computer can send a small bit of data to a remote server to measure the round-trip time. For instance, you can use the Ping utility to see how long data takes to reach its destination and back. Gamers use it to determine which server has a faster connection or to find out why their actions feel sluggish when gaming online. This round-trip time is also known as a “ping rate.”
How bandwidth and latency affect you
Most games with online connectivity 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).
Everything you need to play is already installed on your computer or console. An internet connection comes into play when your game and the server exchange information like controller input, the world’s state, player coordinates, player communication, and so on. If you’re playing offline or there’s no multiplayer component (like Mass Effect and Fallout 4), bandwidth isn’t even an issue.
But, as we mentioned earlier, latency is vital to a good experience when gaming online—especially in fast-paced games like Fortnite and Overwatch. High latency manifests as lag 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.
Buffering is when the downloading of streaming media stops. When you begin a stream, the video or audio is downloaded and temporarily stored on your playback device. Once the video or audio starts, the service continues to download the remaining portion in the background. If the download stops for any reason, the video or audio pauses, and a “buffering” message appears on your screen. The message goes away when there’s enough of the video or audio file to continue playback.
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 super fast 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
Log in to your modem and router, and make sure your settings are not creating bottlenecks. Most routers and wireless gateways 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 model from 2008, chances are good that it’s not letting your wireless connection live up to its true potential. While a new router can’t increase your plan’s bandwidth, it can increase your wireless speed.
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 provide a roundup of the fastest internet providers. You can also see all your available options by entering your zip code in the tool below.
The verdict: Bandwidth and latency are both crucial
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 a better internet experience.
If you want to know more about how internet speed works, check out our comprehensive guide to internet speed.
FAQ about bandwidth vs. latency
What’s the difference between latency and ping rate?
There’s no difference between latency and ping rate. 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 internet has 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 when using Wi-Fi.
What’s a good latency?
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 been editing and writing in the digital space for seven years, and she's edited all things internet for HighSpeedInternet.com for five years. She graduated with a BA in English and a minor in editing from Brigham Young University. When she's not editing, she makes tech accessible through her freelance writing for brands like Pluralsight. She believes no one should feel lost in internet land and that a good internet connection significantly extends your life span.