In the early days of the internet, there wasn’t a great deal of choice about how you connected, it was dial-up or nothing. But the introduction of broadband opened up a whole new array of reliable connection options and over the years they have also become much faster as the technology used to deliver them has matured.

There is still, however, a good deal of confusion about how the performance of internet connections is measured. When we’re shopping around looking at the merits of various internet connections, the headline figure is usually the megabits, or gigabits, per second that’s available. Whilst we think of this as being the connection’s speed, it’s more accurate to describe it as the bandwidth.

What is Bandwidth?

Before we go any further, let’s look at what is meant by “internet bandwidth.” Bandwidth is the measure of how much information can be transferred through the connection at any given time. Think of it as a pipeline; a narrow pipe permits less liquid to pass through it than a wide one.

The same thing happens with the internet, so a 20 Mbps connection allows four times as much data to pass through in one second than a 5 Mbps one does. This doesn’t mean the connection is faster, just that it has more capacity – allowing a greater flow of information in the same time period.

Why does this matter? In simple terms, it means the connection is much more reliable because it mitigates any delay in downloading web pages. This also makes the performance of applications such as streaming video much smoother as there’s no waiting around for the buffer to catch up with the incoming data.

Where does bandwidth come from?

So, what determines how much bandwidth you have available on a connection? There are several things that affect this. First is the physical technology used for the circuit. A fibre optic circuit will allow greater bandwidth than a copper cable because more data is allowed to pass through it each second.

In terms of the amount of bandwidth you can actually use, what matters is the technology used for delivering the circuit. Broadband, for example, uses a shared connection to the network backbone, so the total bandwidth available is shared between all of the people using it. This is why you’ll often find that your home broadband slows down at peak times.

Additionally, bandwidth is a two-way street. Data is being sent to the internet as well as coming back from it. Therefore, bandwidth is consumed in both directions. With broadband connections, the bandwidth available for incoming data is much greater than that for outbound transmissions.

What consumes bandwidth?

Let’s take a look at what bandwidth means in terms of practicality. If you’re just sending and receiving emails or surfing the web, then you won’t necessarily be affected by a lack of bandwidth. Some uses, however, require greater bandwidth.

A video, for examples, requires a great deal of it, therefore, streaming from Netflix or catching up Coronation Street on iPlayer is going to use a whole lot more than checking your bank balance or doing your grocery shopping.

In business terms, if you’re using applications such as video conferencing, your data consumption is going to be high. And this brings us back to the two-way street. Activities like video conferencing and as-a-service business applications have a much greater need for data to flow back to the internet. Therefore, you need to ensure you have enough bandwidth supply for both directions.

Bandwidth and services

As you might expect, the amount of bandwidth you have available is going to vary according to the type of internet connection you have. A normal fibre broadband connection will give you around 20 or 30 Mbps, but this is only for incoming data. Upload or outgoing bandwidth will be much less, usually only around 5 Mbps.

In domestic use you may not notice this difference but, as we’ve already noted, some business applications consume more bandwidth in the outgoing direction. Broadband, with its asynchronous speeds, has the potential to create a problem. That’s why many businesses are turning to leased line connections instead.

A leased line is fully synchronous, which means there’s the same amount of data available in both directions, so cloud applications will run more smoothly. As real-time cloud applications become increasingly commonplace for business use, the bandwidth requirements of organisations also increase, making leased lines options a more attractive option.

While many leased lines use fibre technology, it’s still possible to benefit from a synchronous connection in areas where fibre is unavailable. This is thanks to the use of Ethernet first mile (EFM) technology that uses copper circuits in conjunction with signal processing technology to deliver synchronous bandwidth without the need for fibre.

Bandwidth and applications

So what does bandwidth mean for business applications? From the traditional model of having servers on site, businesses are increasingly moving to the cloud. This has obvious benefits in terms of saving on infrastructure and software licenses. It is also more easily scalable, allowing greater flexibility as the business grows.

For businesses to make the most of these advantages offered by the cloud, they need an internet connection that they can rely on to deliver the bandwidth they need. Systems including ERP and CRM are at the very heart of businesses and reliable access is essential.

By opting for a leased line connection, businesses not only benefit from extra capacity, they are also assured of reliability. Leased line connections are generally monitored by the service provider to ensure the service is both consistent and reliable.

What’s more, commercial users benefit from having this service enshrined within SLAs (service level agreement). Not only does this ensure that the connection provides reliable connection speeds, but also that any problems that may arise are fixed within an acceptable timescale.