Even if you’re paying for speeds of 1 Gbps or faster for home internet, you probably won’t see those speeds on your devices. Just like that old TV game show from 20 years ago, it’s all about the weakest link.
On its most simple level, there’s almost always something with less capacity than 1 Gbps between your glowing screen and what you’re trying to access.
There are quite a few misconceptions about fast internet speeds out there, and marketing from internet service providers (ISPs) can make things even more confusing. We’ll go into reasons you probably aren’t getting multi-gig speeds right now, and a few situations where you might still want to pay for a home internet plan of 1 Gbps or faster.
We’ll finish up by dispelling some of the most common myths so you can find an internet plan that’s the right speed (and the right price) for your household.
Reasons you’re probably not reaching hyper-gig speeds
Reason #1: You’re connecting over Wi-Fi
The best and fastest way to connect any device is to plug it directly into your router (sometimes called a gateway) with an ethernet cable. That’s why we recommend using ethernet for gaming computers, consoles, and most smart TVs. Your speeds will start to slow down if you connect any other way. That’s because just trying to connect wirelessly introduces a bottleneck.
In our tests, we saw top speeds of about 500 Mbps right next to our Google Fiber gateway on a 2 Gbps plan when connected via Wi-Fi. When we moved 20 feet away, we topped out at about 300 Mbps. Another 20 feet, and we were lucky to break 100 Mbps.
Ben Wachman, a longtime tech enthusiast and Utah-based software professional, recently did some of his own tests to see if he could maximize his 1 Gbps fiber connection in his home office in the basement. He discovered he would need something like $600 in new Wi-Fi equipment, and that’s in addition to the high-tech gear he’d already purchased.
Reason #2: You’re connecting through a mesh node or extender
Things get even slower if your device connects by way of a mesh node or extender, especially if that extender is not hardwired to the original router.
You can speed things back up by connecting your mesh system via ethernet cables. Just be sure your cables are CAT5 or higher (the label is printed on the casing) and even higher quality if they stretch more than about 40 feet.
“If your house is 10 years old or more, you’re not going to have fast enough cabling in your walls to do faster than 1 or 2 gigabits probably,” Wachman explained.
He added that even if your access points are wired, you’d still have to hardwire every computer or console to get even 1 Gbps of speed, let alone multi-gig.
Reason #3: Your network equipment can’t handle it
Even if your internet provider is piping in multi-gig speeds and your devices are hardwired with advanced ethernet cables, your networking equipment may be the weakest link.
It all gets pretty technical, so we won’t take a deep dive here. If you’re interested, though, renowned tech reviewer Dong Ngo has a solid rundown about ultragig equipment required to get these speeds at home.
Reason #4: Your devices aren’t fast enough
So you’ve spent thousands to upgrade your home networking equipment to the latest standards, you’re spending $100 or more on internet services, and all your favorite devices are hardwired in. Multi-gig or bust, right?
Not so fast, Wachman explained.
“Even if you’re hardwiring your laptop and you bought it even this year, that laptop isn’t going to have a network card that can do faster than 1 Gbps,” he said. “Same with a desktop. Unless you’re a big gamer or home hobbyist and you bought a computer in the last two years, you’re not going to have a faster connection than a gigabit.”
Wachman also pointed out (and he’s right—we checked) that no gaming consoles on the market today can handle faster than 1 Gbps of speed. Sad trombone.
Reason #5: The rest of the internet isn’t fast enough
Internet speed is limited by the slowest device or connection in the chain—the weakest link. That means it’s not only your devices and network at stake, but also the servers and networks of every website you’re visiting or every platform you’re using for streaming, uploads, and downloads.
Almost none of the internet runs at speeds faster than 1 Gbps, and it would be outrageously expensive for companies like Dropbox to build out a system that could push content that fast. That’s one of the biggest reasons you’ll never see actual speeds that fast on your home devices, at least for now. It’s the same reason some pages load slowly while others pop up in moments, and why some streaming services just work better than others.
Ngo may have put it best.
“In daily usage, though, any Internet connection faster than 1 Gbps makes no difference in all cases—the remote party or those in between them and your home will be the bottleneck anyway.” (1)
Why you might need multi-gig speeds
No one wants to pay for something they can’t use, and it’s disappointing to realize that home internet speeds faster than a gigabit aren’t really possible in 2023. That said, there may be some households that still want to pay for the fastest possible speeds. We put together a few scenarios below.
Reason #1: You absolutely must stay connected for remote work and school
We know that even the biggest households streaming in 4K probably wouldn’t saturate a 1 Gbps connection, let alone a multi-gig one. But if you have multiple people who absolutely must connect at the same time, it’s nice to have a sizable bandwidth buffer.
Imagine a cardiologist who works remotely, for example. They have to download and analyze big files all day long, and they have to do it fast. Imagine the doctor has a partner who’s also working remotely and hosting video conference calls all day long, plus a few kids doing school online, and a complex home security system. If they add in automated cloud backups and need to download new video games really, really quickly, this home might want the buffer of a 1–2 Gbps connection.
Many of the activities we mentioned in these scenarios require fast upload speeds, not just fast download speeds. Right now, many fiber internet providers offer plans with very fast upload speeds. If these are equal to download speeds being offered, they’re called synchronous speeds. Cable internet offers much slower upload speeds, but that could change with the rollout of 10G networks. DSL, fixed wireless, and satellite internet offer even slower upload speeds (and we don’t often recommend them if you have a fiber or cable internet option).
Reason #2: You live with 10 or more connected adults
Another example might be a residence with several working professionals or folks who stream a lot of video. If you live in a dorm, boarding house, or residential care center, for example, paying for 1 Gbps or more of internet speed would be a good way to ensure everyone’s devices can stay connected at any given time.
Reason #3: You run a business out of your home
In reality, ultra-gig or multi-gig speeds are most useful for businesses. If you have several employees who might be on Zoom at any given time or if you’re editing massive video files in the cloud and want zero lag, ultragig speeds might make sense.
That’s why Xfinity’s fastest plan, which offers speeds up to 6 Gbps, is marketed as a “pro” plan. Frontier’s fastest plan, at 5 Gbps, is marketed for home use, (2) but the PR team did not respond to our inquiries about what speeds that fast were being used for when it comes to home internet.
Wachman takes a slightly cynical view of ISPs that market multi-gig speeds to non-technical folks. Many customers don't know enough about internet speeds to understand they may be overpaying.
“More bigger is more better, people think," he said. "Therefore you want to keep up with the Joneses, you want the biggest and the best. It doesn’t matter that it’s not relevant.”
For the techiest folks on the Switchful team, paying for the fastest possible internet speeds is mostly about bragging rights.
“The most compelling reason I can think of for >1 Gbps at home is to flex on the other nerds,” said Switchful Software Engineer Aaron Hill.
Clearing up a few misconceptions about internet speed
Figuring out how much speed you need can get pretty technical. When you combine that with marketing mumbo jumbo, opportunities for misunderstanding are sure to arise. Lucky for you, we’re here to clear the air.
Myth #1: IoT devices use a lot of bandwidth
It’s common these days to have a home full of smart devices, including everything from smart speakers, smart lighting with motion sensors, and even smart locks and appliances. The vast majority of these IoT (“internet of things”) devices don’t require bandwidth unless you’re actively using them.
Instead, they’re all managed locally by your router or gateway and smart hubs. The one exception is smart home security systems that constantly upload video to the cloud. Even then, though, we’re just talking about 2 Mbps or so of upload speed. If you had a 1 Gbps fiber connection with synchronous speeds, you’d need 5,000 cameras to saturate the bandwidth.
Myth #2: Online gaming requires the fastest possible speeds
Low latency, fast ping, and great reliability are essential for online gaming, but the actual bandwidth you need is pretty low. Xbox Support says you need download speeds of just 3 Mbps, but a ping of less than 150 milliseconds (but ideally between 20 and 60 milliseconds). (3) Playstations are generally fine with just 50 Mbps (or a lot less). For PC gaming, experts recommend speeds of just 25 Mbps or higher. (4)
Myth #3: Mining cryptocurrency requires a lot of bandwidth
Cryptocurrency is about as high-tech as it gets, but mining crypto doesn’t require a lot of bandwidth. Instead, it requires a lot of electricity and a high-end GPU (graphic processing unit). The only time crypto requires bandwidth is when you update the ledger. Almost everything else can be done offline (just make sure you don’t leave wallets open in the background).
What it all means for your internet bill
Several people told us it makes no sense to pay for more internet than you can use, especially if your network and devices aren’t set up to handle it. The most colorful analogy, though, was offered by our favorite neighborhood tech enthusiast—Wachman.
“Think of someone who just graduated high school. They know down the line they want a bunch of kids. Should they buy a $70K suburban now?” he asked. “No! They should buy a Honda Civic now, and the Suburban down the road.”
Similarly a person paying an internet bill month to month should only pay for what they need now, not what they may need in the future.
Wachman’s best advice is to upgrade only if you have a need you can’t meet, and if the upgrade would fix the problem. The average home internet user isn’t going to run into that situation, or have the necessary equipment on hand, for at least five years.
Rebecca Palmer has been writing about tech and consumer finance since 2010. Her work has been featured in the Deseret News, Idaho Business Review, TopTenReviews.com, and more. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, and lives in Salt Lake City with her exceptionally delightful pup, Nymeria.
Michal directs the Switchful content strategy and leads the editorial team. With a bachelor’s degree in Communications, she has more than a decade of experience in the world of marketing communications. Her diverse career has included public relations, brand development, digital strategies, and more; her key skillset has always been centered around strategic efforts for consumer-focused initiatives. In her free time, you can find her camping with friends, chasing waterfalls on her kayak, or searching for the best restaurants in Salt Lake City.
Endnotes and sources
- “The Quest for 10Gbps Internet: Unlocking the Secrets of Super Broadband,” Dong Knows Tech. Accessed 2 March 2023.
- “Fiber 5 gig is here,” Frontier Communications. Accessed 2 March 2023.
- "Troubleshoot your network connection speed," Xbox. Accessed 2 March 2023.
- "Internet Requirements for Gaming," StreamScheme. Accessed 2 March 2023.