What is a Bandwidth Meter?

R. Kayne

Between content-laden surfing, streaming multimedia and uploading/downloading of larger and larger files, speedy online Internet service is the call of the day. As most netizens know, high-speed Internet access through digital subscriber line (DSL), cable or fiber optic services (FiOS), offer varying packages based on speed. In general, if you want a faster online experience, you have to pay more money. But how fast is your computer’s true connection speed? A bandwidth meter will give you the answer, allowing you to compare your speed and your Internet Service Provider’s (ISP’s) performance against others.

Supporters of net neutrality think government legislation is needed to prevent internet service providers from throttling bandwidth for paying customers.
Supporters of net neutrality think government legislation is needed to prevent internet service providers from throttling bandwidth for paying customers.

Bandwidth can be likened to a highway, with data being the traffic traveling down that highway. A narrow two-lane highway allows less traffic to flow, while a wider highway with multiple lanes in each direction can accommodate more traffic. If you are driving down a narrow highway and there is too much traffic, you might end up slowing to a crawl until you get through the bottleneck. In the same way, a computer trying to download high amounts of data will be very slow if the bandwidth allowance is low.

ISPs charge clients for the bandwidth allotment allocated to their account or connection. In simple terms, a less expensive package buys fewer lanes (less bandwidth) than a more expensive package. People naturally want to know if they are getting every last drop of bandwidth for their money, and they can head to an online bandwidth meter to see.

Checking online speed is a fairly simple process. Websites hosting bandwidth meters upload a quantified amount of data to your computer, measuring the time it takes to complete the download. A graphic table illustrates the translated result into units of data per second. Many factors can affect speed, however, including the number of “hops” between the Web server and your computer, and the amount of traffic using the website. Consequently it’s best to conduct repeated tests and use more than one website or bandwidth meter to establish an average.

Depending on the type of Internet service you have, you could find that your bandwidth meter results are less than the advertised speed of your subscribed package. This might be explained in the ISP’s terms of service agreement.

For example, DSL customers get service from a local DSL access multiplexer (DSLAM). The further away your physical address is from your local DSLAM, the higher the potential for lagging speed due to weakened signal strength. A customer at the outer reaches of the serviceable area will have slower service than a closer customer, even when both clients subscribe to the same package. Cable customers, on the other hand, might experience degraded service when high numbers of local cable subscribers are sucking up large amounts of bandwidth. During off-hours, speeds are more likely to be closer to advertised rates.

Another factor that can negatively impact a bandwidth meter test is running unnecessary background processes during the test. Firewall, anti-virus and anti-spyware services should always be running, but avoid running a speed test while an active disk scan is in progress. Automatic updates and maintenance services such as background indexing, registry or disk defraggers will also interrupt the test by hogging system resources, resulting in an inaccurate score.

There are several free bandwidth meters online. Some websites that host speed tests ask for your zip code, the type of Internet access you have, and the name of your ISP selectable from a drop-down list. Others simply upload a large graphic or text file to your computer, calculating the results.

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