Megabits per second (Mbps) refers to data transfer speeds as measured in megabits (Mb). This term is commonly used in communications and data technology to demonstrate the speed at which a transfer takes place. A megabit is just over one million bits, so "Mbps" indicates the transfer of one million bits of data each second. Data can be moved even faster than this, measured by terms like gigabits per second (Gbps).
Understanding the Megabit
A bit is a single unit of data, expressed as either a "0" or a "1" in binary code. A string of eight bits equals one byte. Any character formed, such as a letter of the alphabet, a number, or a punctuation mark, requires eight binary bits to describe it. For example:
- A = 01000001
- B = 01000010
- a = 01100001
- b = 01100010
- 6 = 00110110
- 7 = 00110111
- ! = 00100001
- @ = 01000000
A megabit actually has two different values, depending on the context of the term. When used to describe data storage, a megabit (Mb) is the equivalent of 220 or 1,048,576 bits. However, when used to describe data transfer rates, one Mb equals 1,000,000 bits. Therefore, 1 Mbps is equal to 1,000,000 bits per second, not 1,048,576.
Distinction Between Megabits and Megabytes
In addition to the confusion over the value of a megabit, some people can also confuse the megabit (Mb) and the megabyte (MB). As noted earlier, one byte (B) is comprised of 8 bits (b). The distinction between megabytes in data storage and transfer contexts is the same as megabits and can lead to additional confusion. However, 1 megabyte per second (MBps) is equal to 8 Mbps (megabits per second). It is important to notice that the capital "B" is what distinguishes between megabits per second (Mbps) and megabytes per second (MBps).
Usage in Networks
Networking technologies are commonly rated in terms of megabits per second. This includes phone-line networks, wireless communications, and commercial or public networks like the Internet. Companies that sell high-speed service often advertise data transfer speeds in terms of Mbps, though some also use 1,000 bits or kilobits per second (kbps). Wireless routers and network interface cards (NICs) are among the hardware devices generally evaluated and advertised in terms of data transfer rates.
When purchasing equipment, customers should compare speeds properly between components to ensure they get the best possible rates. It is important to buy components that support equal speeds, as the slowest component will often determine the speed of the connection. For example, if a wireless router supports speeds up to 54 Mbps, upgrading to an NIC that supports up to 108 Mbps will make little difference without upgrading the router as well. The higher speed of the card may get data more quickly from the router to the computer, but the router itself can only transfer data at half that speed.
As communications technology continues to advance, the speed of data transfers also increases. In much the same way that memory has moved from megabytes to gigabytes, data rates are also changing from megabits to gigabits. A gigabit is one billion bits or 1,000 megabits.
What Does Mbps Stand For?
Simply put, Mbps stands for megabits per second. It’s how data transfer rates are commonly measured — namely the amount of data that can move from its origin point to its destination within one second. A higher Mbps rate means that more data can move through the proverbial pipeline, whether that’s physical cabling or wireless connections. And that translates into faster data transfer.
Why does Mbps matter? Well, let’s put this into perspective for a moment. Remember that a megabyte is a unit of data storage, and it takes 8 bits to comprise one byte. To truly assess data transfer speeds, you need to think of file sizes in terms of megabits instead of megabytes. Fortunately, all you have to do is multiple your file’s size in MB by eight. For instance, a 170 MB video works out to 1,360 megabits. If your data transfer speed is 1,000 Mbps, your 170 MB video would move from Point A to Point B in just over one second.
Is Kbps Faster Than Mbps?
Now that you understand Mbps, let’s take a look at Kbps — kilobits per second. As the “kilo-” prefix implies, it takes 1,000 bits to make a kilobit. Multiply one kilobit by 1,000 and you have 1,000 kilobits, which equals one megabit.
Data Transmission With Dialup Modems
When modems were first invented, data transfer rates were expressed in bits per second. Debuting in 1962, the Bell 103 modem was groundbreaking for its time. As the first commercially available modem, it boasted data transmission rates of 300 bits per second. That equals 37.5 bytes, which is hardly anything in today’s file sizes.
Later dial-up modems offered faster speeds. When the first 56 Kbps modems came out in the mid-1990s, they were faster than almost anything else on the market. But compared to 2021 speeds, that’s still incredibly slow. When your transfer rates are in kilobits per second, you’re moving a smaller amount of data through your connection. Your 1,000 Kbps speed works out to only 1 Mbps.
File Sizes and Data Transmission
Let’s see how data transmission on old-school dial-up modems works. Consider that a Microsoft Word document containing around 600 words can take up about 20 kilobytes of data. Multiply that 20 KB figure by eight to get a size of 80 kilobits, or 80,000 bits.
Assuming that the Bell 103 modem maintains a consistent speed of 300 bits per second, it would take 267 seconds, or about four and a half minutes, to send that 20 KB Word file. With a 56 Kbps modem, such a transfer takes just over one second.
But what about your 170 MB video? It contains 1,360 megabits of data, which in turn works out to 1.36 million kilobits and a whopping 1.36 billion bits. Don’t even think about sending that video through the Bell 103 — it would take you just over 52 days, assuming your dialup connection didn’t terminate. On the 56 Kbps modem, that same video takes almost seven hours to transfer.
What Is a Good Mbps?
The huge difference between bits, kilobits, and megabits illustrates how far data transfer technologies have come. Having a 56 Kbps modem was an awesome thing 25 years ago when it first debuted on the market. Need to send an email to your boss with a two-page MS Word 95 document? No problem.
We take our media-rich internet for granted. But remember that video and audio take up more data. Watching or uploading videos online back in the mid-1990s required smaller file sizes, and in turn, lower video quality. Think about that “dancing baby” vid and you get the picture.
Yet with modern broadband internet, most files can be sent in seconds. Japanese engineers recently achieved 319 terabits per second using advanced fiber optic cables. But speeds like that aren’t within reach for home users. Still, you can find fast internet that meets your needs.
Gigabit Internet Speeds Available
Internet speeds must meet or exceed 25 Mbps to be considered adequate. Service providers in some markets offer up to 1 Gbps or 2 Gbps download speeds, which translate to 1,000 Mbps and 2,000 Mbps respectively. Ultimately, it boils down to what best meets your needs. If your household uses multiple devices for streaming, you may get mileage out of a plan offering 200 Mbps or faster. Gamers often choose faster plans above 500 Mbps.
When you’re looking at broadband internet service, you may need to evaluate both download and upload speeds. Telecommuters, digital content creators, and competitive gamers should consider services with upload speeds of 6 Mbps or greater.