Latency, ping, bandwidth, Internet speeds – what does it all mean? These are terms encountered by people searching for Internet service or who already have Internet connections. They have a lot of overlap, so they might seem confusing.
All these terms relate to how reliable your network connection is. If your web pages take a long amount of time to load or your online video games freeze in the middle of the action, that’s latency. Read on to find out why it happens and what you can do about it.
Latency, Ping, and Bandwidth
An Internet connection is like a highway. Data packets travel like cars up and down this highway. Internet latency means that there is an amount of data traveling. Good latency means that the traffic can travel smoothly down the highway, no matter how many data-cars there are.
Latency is measured in milliseconds, but can also be measured in framerates, called “ping.” Framerates are the number of times per second a graphic updates itself on your screen. A good ping speed will facilitate smooth framerates. High ping means low framerates, but ultimately means there are too many data-cars for your highway. This is especially important to online gamers and frequent streamers.
Network bandwidth refers to the “width” of the highway, similar to the number of lanes. A wider highway, of course, can allow more cars to pass through freely. Likewise, higher bandwidth allows more data to pass through freely.
Uploads and downloads mean data travels in both directions, which is called throughput. It is desirable to have high bandwidth for better throughput so data can travel at the same speed in either direction, known as Internet parity.
Latency vs Bandwidth and Speed
If bandwidth is like the width of a highway, and latency is the volume of the traffic, Internet speeds are how the two combine. A narrow road can even bottleneck low traffic, while a wide highway can accommodate all but the most extreme traffic. In the same way, low bandwidth means that even the lowest latency can still result in slow speeds.
Internet use even has rush hour, just like a highway. High latency means a lot of data is traveling down the bandwidth. Periods with a lot of network traffic might slow download speeds the same way periods of vehicle traffic slow down highways. Highways that have enough lanes to accommodate all the cars on them allow traffic to travel at high speeds. Internet that has high bandwidth allows data to travel at high speeds the same way.
Why Latency Matters
We use the Internet for a lot of things. There are basic uses, like browsing and email, that don’t take up a lot of data. Browser games, streaming, video chat or devices add an intermediate level of use. Devices include cell phones, some office equipment like printers, and smart devices like thermostats or light bulbs. Intense use includes up- or down-loading large files, video conferencing, and 4K streaming.
Good throughput, low ping, and smooth latency for gaming are necessities. Online games, such as World of Warcraft, League of Legends, or Apex Legends, download a lot of data while requiring instant upload capability so players can execute their moves. Throughput is important for any intense uploading from your connection to ensure your data is sent clearly and uncorrupted. Gaming, whether on computer or console, needs those uploads in real time.
Mitigating Latency Issues
What can you do about latency problems? Remember, latency is just the amount of data that is being transmitted on your Internet connection. If your latency is high, this might slow your connection, or it might be an indicator that there is an interruption somewhere between you and the central hub.
There is some basic troubleshooting you can do at home. The first thing is an Internet speed test. You can find free ones in your favorite browser. Sometimes latency is caused by speed issues, which may indicate an infrastructure malfunction. If your speed is significantly lower than your plan, you might need tech support from your service provider.
If your speed looks good but you still have high latency, there is a lot of hardware you can check. The first is your ethernet cables, including your computer or gaming console. Ethernet cables do wear over time, and faulty cables can distort packets. In fact, if the problem is outside your home, the technicians are probably also replacing worn cables.
Check the device use in your home. Your service provider might have a portal that allows you to manage your Internet account, and often also shows what devices are accessing the Internet. Sometimes high latency is a matter of adding a password to your home WiFi network. Other times, there are devices in your home that you are not accounting for, like tablets and cell phones.
If you find you simply do not have access to enough bandwidth, it might be time to upgrade your service. It’s a good idea to compare available plans, speed offerings, and prices. More speed means wider bandwidth to accommodate it. For your use, that’s low ping, even in high latency. That’s how your Internet should be!