Is your internet plan straining under the weight of your household internet usage? Here’s how to figure out how much you’re using and how much you really need.
The internet is a bit like your household hot water. You don’t really think much of it until it’s a problem.
But this analogy goes further than that. The size of the hot water tank you need depends on how many people are using it and what they’re using it for. Two different households of five people each may have different needs, for instance, if one household is only taking quick showers at different times of the day and the other is enjoying a brand-new sauna shower. By the same token, a household of five that only streams an hour or so a day may not need as much internet as a household of five that includes a Twitch streamer and a kid who watches five hours of Peppa Pig every day (please: send help).
So How Do You Measure Your Internet Usage?
First, let’s start with how much bandwidth you’re paying for and how much you’re getting.
The first step is simple. Is your plan a 50 Mbps plan? Then that’s the bandwidth you’re paying for.
The second step is a bit trickier. Using a speed test service such as Ookla Speed Test, you can measure the actual speeds you’re getting. Try to conduct a test when no one else is using the internet; if you do a test when someone in the next room is watching Netflix, your test will be impacted.
From a speed test, you’ll see if you’re actually getting your full 50 Mbps. That speed may fluctuate depending on things like time of day and whether there’s a lot of heavy internet usage in your area. If you want, you can run tests throughout the day and week to see how much fluctuation there is in your speed.
Next, you want to determine how much internet bandwidth your household is using. For that, we need to do a bit of math. Let’s start with the biggest bandwidth user: streaming video.
Netflix says you need—at a bare minimum—5 Mbps to stream full HD content and 25 Mbps to stream 4K content. Keep this in mind: this benchmark is per device. So, in theory, if you had five people streaming five shows at full HD on five different devices, you’d need a minimum of 25 Mbps. Chances are, if you actually had five people streaming five shows on five devices at once on an internet plan that offered 25 Mbps, you’d see streaming errors.
Why? Well, for one thing, that promised 25 Mbps can fluctuate a little based on things like time of day, how many people in your area are also using the same internet, and the quality of your router. For another, some of those family members are going to be doing more than streaming video. They’re using laptops, doing homework, or doing other internet-intensive things in the background.
Keep in mind: this rule of thumb isn’t just for Netflix. It’s for any streaming video, including any streaming service, YouTube, streaming something from Twitch, and more.
All your internet-connected devices eat up bandwidth. Obviously, they aren’t all eating bandwidth at the same time—just when you’re using them and when they’re updating. The simplest thing to do is to count up all the connected devices you have in your home, including computers, tablets, TVs, phones, game consoles, and smart devices. For each device you actively use, assign the value of 10 Mbps. For each smart device that is, in theory, active all the time, assign the value of 1 Mbps.
For example: in a household with two smart TVs, one gaming computer, two laptops, five phones, one tablet—plus smart devices including a doorbell camera, a smart thermostat, and a smart sprinkler system, you’d need around 113 Mbps. Would you be using all those devices at all times and eating up every byte of that precious bandwidth? No. But with all users at home using something, you’d notice a drop in internet quality if you had a lesser plan.
Whatever you need, round up to a higher bandwidth internet plan for a bit of safety. If you know you need 53 Mbps at a minimum and the plans on offer are 50 Mbps, 60 Mbps, and 75 Mbps, take the 60 Mbps plan.
You Can Always Add More Speed
Keep in mind that you can always upgrade further if you’re finding that your new plan still isn’t enough. Maybe a couple members of your family use much more internet than you thought. Or maybe you upgrade to a new 4K TV and want to take advantage. Upgrading to a higher speed within the same provider is just a matter of a phone call and waiting a bit for the change to push through.
Isn’t There an Even Simpler Rule of Thumb?
If all this is making your head spin, don’t worry. Estimate 20 Mbps per member of your household and that should be more than enough.