How do I Conduct a Broadband Speed Test?

R. Kayne

With speed being the name of the game in online access, many people would like to know if they’re getting their money’s worth from their Internet Service Provider (ISP). A broadband speed test is just the ticket to see how fast you’re zipping along the Information Superhighway.

An ADSL modem, which is used for a broadband connection.
An ADSL modem, which is used for a broadband connection.

High-speed access is generally purchased in a plan that guarantees speed defined by a high and low boundary. Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) speed is affected by how far your physical address is from the nearest Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexer (DSLAM), so buying a plan with a top cap of 1500 kilobits per second (Kbps) doesn’t guarantee that your connection will be that fast. You might get an average of 1250 Kbps, 1000 kbps, or even less.

Data is downloaded to a computer as part of a broadband speed test.
Data is downloaded to a computer as part of a broadband speed test.

Cable customers aren’t affected by location, but can be affected by local load, or how many residents in the area are surfing simultaneously. If the allotted bandwidth for the area is inadequate, normally fast speeds deteriorate when too many neighbors hop online at the same time.

Broadband speed tests are simple in nature. The website hosting the test has your computer download a set amount of data, or several set amounts, recording the length of time the transfers takes. Typically the site also tests uploads speeds. The website then reports the amount of data transferred per second to give you an idea of the speed of the connection, both upstream and downstream.

There are a couple of factors to take into consideration when taking a broadband speed test. When you click to begin the test, your browser sends a request to the host’s address for the test data. This request travels through routers on the Internet, each forwarding the request towards the host's address, eventually reaching the test site. The site then sends the data to your computer’s address in several separate packets that are routed once again through the Internet back to your computer where the packets are recombined upon arrival.

How does this affect a broadband speed test? The further away the host is located from the computer requesting the test, the more likely it is that the number of routers between the two points increases, potentially adding to delayed or lost packets and latency. To take an extreme example, let’s assume “Jack” is in the same city as the host computer, while “Sandy” is in a different country. Even if both surfers enjoy identical speeds, Sandy’s broadband speed test will come back looking slower than Jack’s, simply because the data had to travel through more routers to reach Sandy’s computer.

To minimize this latency variable, some sites ask for your physical location before conducting the broadband speed test, or they might allow you to click on a map for a nearby host. Data is then sent from the closest host available. The site might also ask for the type of Internet connection you have in order to categorize your results in relation to others who have the same type of connection.

Unavoidable delays can occur between your computer and the host computer, so it’s a good idea to take several tests and average the results.

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