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What is Effective Bandwidth?

Effective bandwidth is the actual data transfer rate in a network, reflecting real-world conditions. It's lower than theoretical maximums due to various factors like network congestion and protocol overhead. Understanding this can optimize your internet experience. How does effective bandwidth impact your daily online activities? Join us as we unravel its significance.
John Lister
John Lister

Effective bandwidth is the actual speed at which data can be transmitted on a connection. This is as opposed to the theoretical maximum that the connection can carry. Originally effective bandwidth was used in reference to dial-up devices, though the term can also be used for permanent connections such as broadband Internet providers.

An example of effective bandwidth being limited is with home broadband services. Each customer connected to a local exchange will be given a maximum possible speed which is available on their connection. However, if every customer connected at this speed at the same time, the amount of bandwidth that passed through the local exchange would be very and extremely expensive to provide. This is highly unlikely to happen, so the connection is not set up for it.

Effective bandwidth is the actual speed at which data can be transmitted on a connection.
Effective bandwidth is the actual speed at which data can be transmitted on a connection.

The broadband provider or local phone operator will instead limit the total bandwidth. The limit chosen will be a balance between the highest demand it expects to receive and the desire to keep costs low. This usually means there will be situations, for example at peak times, when the total bandwidth demanded by customers exceeds that which has been made available. This means that customers will suffer slowdowns and their effective bandwidth will be noticeably slower than their maximum bandwidth.

However, there are many other reasons beyond artificial limits why an effective bandwidth may be lower than the stated maximum. The very simplest is that data will be slower to transfer if it has to travel further. This can mean the effective bandwidth varies between users in different locations.

Another issue is the way data is sent in packets. These are small batches containing part of the data being sent, plus information to identify the sender and recipient, and an error checksum, which is the mathematical equivalent of a checklist to make sure the data has arrived safely. At every junction in the data’s journey around the network, the entire packet must arrive before it can be checked and then routed on the next stage of its journey.

The delay between the first part of the packet arriving and the last part arriving slows down the overall speed. This means the effective bandwidth is inevitable slower than the theoretical maximum. There is also the possibility of delay when two or more packets arrive at the same gateway simultaneously, meaning they effectively have to form a queue, which is also known as a buffer.

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Discussion Comments


What effect does bandwidth have on me uploading my website? I seem to always exceed my bandwidth limit, just by changing my website. What can you advise me? I simply uploaded my frontpage and my index files and boom! I exceed the bandwidth limit (400Mb). I then upgraded to a 1000mb, made some changes, and kablamm! I exceed the bandwidth again. What should I do? What is the best amount of bandwidth to have?


@Mammmood - I would think twice before switching to DSL. I hear that the big telecom companies are thinking about creating tiered Internet services, where they allow you only so many gigabytes of download per month.

If you go over that you will have to pay extra. I couldn’t afford to do that, because I use a paid video streaming service to watch movies off the Internet, and I would gobble up that limit in a hurry. Cable doesn’t have that restriction-at least for now.


@SkyWhisperer - I think its Internet traffic congestion. I’ve experienced the same problem. I use an Internet bandwidth calculator to check my speed and I’m usually coming in at half or even a third of what my optimal speed should be.

I was thinking of switching to DSL, because DSL supposedly gives you a dedicated connection through your phone line.

However, all subscribers get their signal from a Central Office which parcels out the connections to the subscribers, and so I think that would affect speed as well.


Effective bandwidth measurement is a topic that intrigues me indeed, because my cable connection has been running slow for quite some time now. This has not only been during peak times but just about every time I’m on.

It’s frustrating, because the reason I got cable was its vaunted speed. I realize I’m using the basic high speed Internet of 3 Mb per second-I suppose I could upgrade to 6 or even 12 Mb per second.

But the question I have is whether the speed limitations I’m experiencing are due to actions taken by the provider or whether it’s congestion. My understanding is that with cable, if everyone in your neighborhood is on at the same time, it could slow you down.

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    • Effective bandwidth is the actual speed at which data can be transmitted on a connection.
      By: JackF
      Effective bandwidth is the actual speed at which data can be transmitted on a connection.