What is Mbps?

Shopping around for an internet service plan from various providers inevitably leads to reading a lot of technical-sounding terms – things like “bandwidth,” “data caps,” and “Mbps.”

If you don’t know what these terms mean, trying to decipher the difference between plans can be tough and confusing. One of - if not the - most common words tossed out is that third one: Mbps. It’s tacked onto everything speed-related, so it must be pretty important - but what does it mean?

In short, Mbps represents the speed an internet plan is offering. The higher the number, the higher the speed possible. 

But with that in mind, what is a good internet speed? Is 10Mbps fast? How about 50, or 100Mbps? What is fast internet considered to be? 

Let’s explore what Mbps means, then discuss how much of it you really need. 

Bandwidth - gotta understand it first

But first, to understand Mbps, you need to have a general idea of what bandwidth is. It’s another common term to read or hear when discussing internet and is intimately related to Mbps. 

Bandwidth, at a basic level, is the total download rate of your internet service - i.e. the fastest that you’ll be able to download information (data) to your computer or internet-connected device. 

It’s often described like a watering hose. If you need to fill a 5-gallon bucket with water and your garden hose can put out 5 gallons of water each minute, it’ll take 1 minute to fill the bucket. But upgrade to a firehose that can fill 1 gallon per second, and your 5-gallon bucket will be full in 5 seconds – 12x faster. 

So, bandwidth is like these hoses, and data like the water traveling through them: the larger your “hose” the more data can travel through in less time. 

In internet terms, we don’t talk about data in terms of gallons-per-minute, though – we measure them in “bits.”

That’s where “Mbps” come in. 

What does Mbps stand for?

Mbps stands for “Megabits per second.” Mbps refers to download and upload speeds – as we mentioned earlier. 

However, there’s another very similar acronym out there that mean a different thing: MBps

MBps means “Megabytes per second.” A megabyte is equal to 8 bits (like in Mbps above). The term Megabytes refers to the size of a file you’re downloading or the amount of data that’s been transferred to your computer over the internet. 

Or in other words: the number of Megabits (Mbps) is how fast you’re downloading/uploading Megabytes (MBps). 

  • Mbps = megabits per second. Download/upload speed
  • 8 bits = 1 Megabyte.
  • MBps = megabytes per second. File size.

What is a good internet speed in Mbps?

So that’s what Mbps means and what to watch for to make sure you understand what they provider is saying. But how much do you actually need?

Now in most cases, the faster you internet speed (i.e. the higher the number next to “Mbps”), the better, right? Yes. But how much is enough is just going to depend on your usage.

As general, quick guidelines, you can check out this table. All numbers come from the FCC

Activity Bare minimum download speed
Streaming SD music <0.5Mbps
Browsing, email, and social media 1Mbps
Streaming SD video 3-4Mbps
Streaming HD video 5-8Mbps
Streaming 4K video 15-25Mbps
Online multiplayer games 4Mbps
Video calls 6Mbps

Obviously, if you stream videos in 4K HD, then you’re going to need more Mbps than someone who just browses the web and checks their email. 

But if you tend to download a lot of files, there’s definitely a connection between your speed in Mbps and how fast they’ll download – that should be pretty clear by now. 

For instance, check out this table: 

Approximate size in MB 1Mbps 5Mbps 10Mbps 20Mbps 100Mbps 1000Mbps
4-Minute song 4MB 30s 5s 3s 1.5s 0.3s 0.03s
5-minute video 30MB 3m 40s 26s 13s 2.5s 0.2s
9-hr audiobook 110MB 10m 2m 1.5m 46s 9.2s 0.9s
45-min HDTV show 600MB 1h 15m 8.5m 4m 50s 5s

*All estimates from fastmetrics.com

As you can see, the higher the Mbps, the faster each file size downloads. So if you like to download videos, music, or other large files – especially multiple simultaneously – you’ll get a better experience with higher Mbps. 

More users = need more Mbps

As an aside, there’s another thing you need to take into account when figuring out how many Mbps you really need: the number of users in your household. 

Remember the garden hose analogy? Let’s take it a step further. 

Your internet use represents one 5-gallon bucket; add on one roommate as another 5-gallon bucket. If only one of you is using the “water” (bandwidth) at a time, then no problem. But say you both go on simultaneously – now your hose has a splitter so that water can go in each of your buckets, but it’s still the same total number of gallons flowing through the hose. 

That means each of you will have slower rates than just one of you alone. 

And you can easily expand this comparison to 3, 4, 5, or even 6 users at once – and it’s easy to see how everybody’s internet speed would be reduced. And that doesn’t even take into account what each individual is doing online – 4K? More data needed there. Browsing? Not so much. 

So, the more internet users in your home, the more Mbps you’ll typically need.

Number of Devices / Usage 1-3 4-8 8-10 10+
Light usage 5-10Mbps 15Mbps 25Mbps 50Mbps
Moderate usage 15Mbps 25Mbps 50Mbps 100Mbps
High usage 25Mbps 50Mbps 100Mbps 150Mbps
Very high usage 50Mbps 100Mbps 150Mbps 200+Mbps

Putting it together - what Mbps have to do with your internet speed

In the end, bandwidth, Mbps, and MBps are all related to your speed. Hopefully we’ve laid it out pretty clear by now. But let’s recap what they all have to do with your internet speed: 

  • Mbps: how fast a file is downloaded to your device, and how fast one can be uploaded to the internet.
  • MBps: file size. The larger it is, the longer it will take to download or upload from or to the internet. 
  • A general rule: the more Mbps you have, the faster your music, videos, webpages, etc will load. The opposite is true, too. 

We’ll close by saying this: there’s a balance to be found in all this. Internet providers want to sell you as fast of speeds as possible, which may very well be beyond what you need. So evaluate what you (and other members of your home) use the internet for, and use that to guide your decisions – don’t pay more than necessary. 

For extra help with specific uses, check out some of our other guides on internet speeds: 

Written by: Luke Pensworth

Luke is the managing editor and site manager of Dailywireless. As a wireless enthusiast/consumer, he reviews a lot of services based on his own experience. Disgruntled as he may be, he tries to keep his articles as honest as possible.

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