Speed Test: The Numbers behind the Connections

It goes without saying that you want your network to be fast. But there’s more to networking than raw speed, and sometimes the best connection for a given networking situation isn’t necessarily the fastest. I’ll be exploring this issue over the next few weeks in a number of posts about network standards: the technologies that help you push data to and pull it from all of your connected devices.

Which standards do you need to know about? Let’s start with the Big Four: Fast Ethernet or gigabit Ethernet for wired connections and Wireless-G or Wireless-N (also known as 802.11g and 802.11n) for . . . I’ll let you guess that one. As you’d expect, each standard is designed to deliver a particular speed. And that’s where things can become confusing.

Networking speeds are typically measured in bits per second, a bit being 8 bytes and a byte being 1/1024th of a kilobyte. You’re probably most familiar with the latter, which is the common unit for specifying file sizes.

A Fast Ethernet connection — 100 megabits per second — translates to a maximum data rate of 12.5 megabytes per second. Gigabit networking ups the ante by a factor of ten: 1,000 megabits per second, or a theoretical maximum transfer speed of 125 megabytes per second.

The wireless standards break down like this: Wireless-G supports a maximum of 54 megabits per second, or around 6.75 megabytes per second. Wireless-N comes in at 600 megabits per second, or 75 megabytes per second. This is a theoretical number, though. In practice, most Wireless-N home equipment tops out at 300 megabits per second (37.5 megabytes per second) — still plenty fast.

Now that you know the numbers, you can see how the protocols stack up in terms of theoretical speed: Gigabit Ethernet, Wireless-N, Fast Ethernet, Wireless-G. As for which protocol best applies to a given home networking situation, stay tuned — we’re just getting connected.

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