Bandwidth vs. Latency: What’s the Difference?

Understanding the difference between bandwidth and latency is crucial for knowing how well your internet service works.

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Last Updated: Feb 7, 2024
Two internet cables, one with a fast runner depicting a quick connection and another with a slow turtle
Bandwidth and latency are different concepts, but people often confuse the two.
  • Bandwidth is about the volume of data transferred, while latency relates to the time it takes for data to transfer between two points.
  • When it comes to real-time communication (RTC), latency is much more important than bandwidth.
  • Your internet activity will determine whether bandwidth or latency is more crucial.

No two words in the world of internet lingo are more confused than bandwidth and latency. However, you can master these terms to better define your internet connection with the right information at your fingertips. Short and simple: bandwidth is the amount of data that can be transferred at once, while latency is the time it takes for a single piece of data to travel from one point to another.

All digital products using the internet are influenced by bandwidth and latency constraints, from web conferencing to gaming and beyond. To better understand these two measurements and how they could affect you, let’s take a deep dive into the conceptual and technical differences between bandwidth and latency together.

What Is Bandwidth?

Graphic depicting higher and lower bandwidth as traffic with different lanes
How much bandwidth you have dictates the amount of data you can send and receive.

Bandwidth denotes the maximum data “volume” that can travel from one point to another, typically measured in megabits per second (Mbps).

One common misconception people have about bandwidth is that it’s equal to internet speed. For a moment, imagine a network connection as a highway, where the cars (data packets) on a five-lane highway (higher bandwidth) are less likely to face traffic jams than those on a two-lane road (lower bandwidth). In this scenario, the width of the highway (bandwidth) doesn’t dictate the speed of the cars (data transfer rate).

Bandwidth needs vary based on application usage and the number of concurrent users. For instance, RTC heavily relies on bandwidth. It’s worth noting that stated bandwidth often represents the theoretical maximum. In reality, the data transfer rate might be less due to overheads introduced by applications and protocols.

What Is Latency?

Graphic depicting a slower bandwidth bus and a quick latency race car
The speed your internet connection can achieve depends on bandwidth and latency.

Latency measures the time it takes for data to travel between two points, usually in milliseconds (ms). While bandwidth focuses on data volume, latency emphasizes data speed. Let’s go back to the highway example. Consider a bus (higher bandwidth) and a sports car (lower latency) traveling the same distance. The sports car, being faster, has lower latency, but the bus can carry more passengers, representing higher bandwidth. Some technologies, like fiber, break this analogy, as it is essentially a bus-sized sports car.

Various factors, including hardware specifications, the quality of physical connections, and network errors, influence latency. Wired connections, such as cable or fiber optics, generally offer lower latency, often below 20 ms, while wireless connections may experience higher latency, with the amount depending on specific technologies and conditions.

The physical distance between hosts also impacts latency; however, the increase in latency due to distance is lower than one might expect. For example, an additional 100 miles might contribute less than 1 ms of latency, and a 2,000-mile journey might add approximately 10 – 20 ms, assuming optimal routing and no other network issues. Network errors can also introduce latency, but they are more likely to cause variability and unpredictability in network performance.

For real-time applications, low latency is vital. High latency can desynchronize audio and video, making conversations challenging. Ideally, latency should be between 1 – 5 ms for the best RTC experience.

Comparing Bandwidth and Latency

While bandwidth and latency are two different measurements, they are related — having less bandwidth can often mean having more latency.

A network with high bandwidth can still experience high latency if there are delays in the data being processed at any point in the journey, such as busy servers or inefficient routing. Conversely, a network with low bandwidth can have low latency if it’s well-managed and there’s minimal congestion. Thus, while related, bandwidth and latency are independent metrics that contribute to the overall performance of a network together.

Bandwidth vs. Latency in Causing RTC Issues

While both bandwidth and latency influence RTC quality, they impact it differently. High bandwidth with high latency might result in high-quality video that freezes intermittently. Conversely, low bandwidth with low latency could produce a consistent yet lower-quality video stream. In RTC, latency often plays a more critical role than bandwidth. For instance, high latency can disrupt RTC, while bandwidth primarily affects video quality.

How Bandwidth and Latency Affect You

If your internet experience were a movie, bandwidth and latency would be the lead actors, playing crucial roles in determining the quality of your online experience. But how do these technical terms translate into real-world impacts for everyday internet users like you and me?

Streaming and Browsing

If you enjoy streaming movies, listening to music online, or browsing your favorite websites, bandwidth is the factor that determines how fast and smoothly your content is delivered. Higher bandwidth means webpages load quickly, videos play without buffering, and images display crisply.

Latency, on the other hand, is the reaction time of your internet. Lower latency means that when you click a link or play a video, the action executes more swiftly, enhancing your browsing experience.

Online Gaming

For gamers, latency is the unseen enemy. Lower latency, or “ping,” can make the difference between victory and defeat in online games, where every millisecond counts. Bandwidth also weighs in, ensuring that game graphics, sounds, and real-time interactions are rich and seamless.

Video Calls and Virtual Meetings

In the era of remote work and virtual interactions, bandwidth and latency have become more pivotal. Adequate bandwidth ensures that your video calls are clear and stable, while low latency helps keep the conversation natural and real-time, without awkward pauses or delays.

Smart Homes and IoT Devices

As our homes become smarter and more connected, bandwidth and latency determine how efficiently various devices communicate. From smart thermostats to security cameras, reliable bandwidth and low latency ensure that your devices respond promptly and work seamlessly together.

How Internet Type Affects Bandwidth and Latency

Different types of internet connections — fiber, cable, DSL, fixed wireless, 5G home internet, low-orbit satellite, and traditional satellite — each have inherent technological characteristics that affect these metrics. For instance, fiber uses light to transmit data through glass fibers, leading to very high bandwidth capacities and very low latency. In contrast, traditional satellite internet involves signals traveling to satellites far from Earth, resulting in lower bandwidth and higher latency.

Other technologies like cable and DSL use existing infrastructure with varying capabilities, while wireless solutions like 5G home internet and fixed wireless offer unique trade-offs between mobility, bandwidth, and latency.

Understanding these fundamental principles can help explain why certain internet types offer better or worse performance. Now, let’s look at how these technologies rank against each other in these areas.

Best Type of Internet for Bandwidth

  1. Fiber: Highest bandwidth due to light-speed signal transmission
  2. 5G home internet: High bandwidth, potentially competitive with fiber in some areas
  3. Cable: Moderate to high bandwidth, depending on infrastructure and network congestion
  4. Fixed wireless: Varies significantly, generally less than cable
  5. Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite: Varies, but generally less than fixed wireless due to current technological limits
  6. DSL: Lower bandwidth due to older copper wire infrastructure
  7. Traditional satellite: Lowest bandwidth, limited by the technology’s current capabilities and latency

Best Type of Internet for Latency

  1. Fiber: Lowest latency, nearly at the speed of light
  2. Cable: Higher latency than fiber but still low
  3. Fixed wireless: Variable latency, generally higher than cable but can be lower than wireless cellular networks
  4. 5G home internet: Lower latency than previous wireless generations but higher than fixed connections
  5. Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite: Higher latency than terrestrial internet but much lower than traditional satellite due to closer proximity to Earth
  6. DSL: Higher latency, limited by the speed of electrical signals in copper wires
  7. Traditional satellite: Highest latency due to the long distance signals must travel to geostationary satellites and back

This ranking assumes average conditions and the inherent technological traits of each technology. The actual performance can (and will) vary based on provider, location, and the specific technology used.

The Big Picture of Bandwidth and Latency: Fiber Is King

 A strand of fiber-optic cables with a crown on top, indicating it is king of the connections
Fiber is today’s internet connectivity gold standard, primarily due to its unrivaled ability to provide near-zero latency and extremely flexible bandwidth throughput.

Fiber stands unrivaled in terms of bandwidth and latency. It leverages light to transmit data, resulting in unparalleled speeds and the lowest latency achievable today. Its architecture is designed for the future, supporting the surge in data consumption and the need for rapid communication.

While other technologies like 5G and cable have made significant strides and serve critical roles, they still operate within the limitations set by their respective mediums — radio waves and coaxial cables. Fixed wireless and satellite services expand accessibility, especially in remote areas, but their performance fluctuates more and typically falls behind in the race for speed and responsiveness.

So, if you’re looking for consistent, high-performance internet connectivity with low latency and high bandwidth, you’ll want to find a fiber internet provider in your area. Otherwise, you may find yourself balancing bandwidth and latency when it comes to your internet choices.