You’ll probably run into abbreviations like Mbps, Gbps, MB, and GB when researching internet plans. Since these terms are used to measure internet speed and amounts of data, understanding them is important for picking an internet plan that meets your needs.
Mbps and Gbps: internet speed
Mbps and Gbps stand for megabits per second and gigabits per second, respectively. Mbps is the standard way to measure internet speed. The higher the number of megabits per second, the faster the data transfer rate, which determines how fast your internet will feel. One Gbps is equal to 1,000 Mbps and is commonly referred to as gigabit speed.
When you’re shopping for an internet plan, you’ll have to compare plans based on their connection speed. The plan tiers offered by internet service providers are primarily differentiated based on their download speeds, but upload speeds are also an important factor to consider.
Download speed is what affects how fast websites and videos load. That’s why having a high enough download speed to accommodate the needs of everyone in your home is key for avoiding a frustrating experience with your home internet. The more devices and people in your home, the more internet speed you will need. You’ll also need more speed if you do a lot of high-bandwidth activities like video calls or streaming movies or shows in high definition.
Upload speed will typically be lower than download speed, with the exception of fiber internet, which has symmetrical speeds. Upload speed is often treated as secondary to download speed since people don’t upload nearly as much data as they download. Nevertheless, having a high enough upload speed is important for people who have to do video calls or upload large files.
Different types of internet connections have different maximum speeds. You can find fiber plans that reach up to 10 Gbps (10,000 Mbps) download speed, while standard cable internet typically reaches gigabit speed (1,000 Mbps), though 1,200 Mbps (1.2 Gbps) speeds are becoming more common. Meanwhile, DSL plans usually top out at a relatively slower 100 Mbps.
How many Mbps or Gbps do you need?
For an internet connection to be considered broadband speed, it must have at least 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed. This is considered the minimum for home internet, and it isn’t fast enough for most users.
Here’s a quick overview of what you can do with different internet speeds:
- With 50 Mbps download speed, a small household will be able to surf and stream.
- A plan with 100 Mbps or more download speed is best for larger households, especially if multiple devices are being used by people working, gaming, or streaming at the same time.
- Internet plans with gigabit speed (1 Gbps/1,000 Mbps) or higher will please the heaviest internet users and are ideal for families with multiple hardcore gamers and several people working from home.
Check out our full guide to figuring out how much speed your household needs for more.
MB and GB
MB and GB are short for megabyte and gigabyte. Both are used to measure amounts of data. You’ll commonly see things like file size, storage capacity, and data limits expressed as MB or GB. Gigabytes are the larger of the two, and there are 1,024 megabytes in a gigabyte. Similarly, there are 1,024 gigabytes in a terabyte (TB).
Some internet plans have unlimited data, while others have limits on the amount of data you can use per month. If you’re considering a plan with a data limit, it’s important to know how much data your family is likely to use per month. If you exceed your data limit, your internet provider may lower your speed significantly or charge overage fees.
Data limits vary widely. Some cable providers have a data cap of over 1 TB, which is high enough that most families won’t have to worry about it. Satellite internet providers, on the other hand, tend to have very low data caps (under 300 GB), which would be a real issue for most.
It may surprise you how much data common activities use. For reference, streaming Netflix with standard definition quality for an hour uses up to 1 GB of data, and group video calls can use even more than that. Online gaming and music streaming use around 100 MB per hour. Downloading some newer games can use over 100 GB, and software updates can be hefty as well.
Now that you know all about how speed and data are measured, you can shop for internet plans with confidence. See what internet plans are available in your area with the amount of speed you need.
Bytes vs. bits: what's the difference?
File size is measured in bytes (as in MB, GB, or TB), and internet speed is measured in bits (as in Mbps or Gbps). A single byte is made up of eight bits. A bit is a binary digit, either 1 or 0, which is the tiniest unit of data. One megabyte per second (MBps or MB/s) is equal to eight megabits per second (Mbps). You’re unlikely to encounter megabytes per second (MBps or MB/s) when shopping for an internet plan, since download and upload speed are measured in bits, like megabits per second (Mbps) or gigabits per second (Gbps).
Brittany is a Contributing Writer for Switchful with over five years of experience writing about technology in the US and Europe. Her primary focus is on mobile and internet topics. She is passionate about helping people choose the right tech for their needs at the right price.
Bri Field has a background in academia, research writing, and brand marketing. She has edited scientific publications, conference papers, digital content, and technical communications. As Assigning Editor, she enjoys ensuring all content is accurate, clear, and helpful. In her free time, you can find her in the kitchen trying a new recipe, out on a hike, or working through her massive TBR list.