How Much Bandwidth is Enough?

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How much bandwidth does a business need? As the FCC considers a national broadband plan, it's an important question. Do we really need the gigabit broadband that Google is planning to experiment with, or are the speeds already commonly available fast enough?

It is tempting to paraphrase and simply say, "You can never be too rich, too thin, or have enough bandwidth." And it's true enough; Google thinks users can fill a 1Gbps pipeline. Maybe someday, but our actual proven needs are much more modest, and achievable.

I'd like to suggest a number and defend it: 5Mbps, which is a fairly common speed that is available today, typically from cable modems. It's more than my small business has available--a speed test just found my DSL to be running at 3.5Mbps downstream and a slow 0.5Mbps upstream--but less than the 13Mbps my editor has at his home.

My 5Mbps estimate is a speed that's suitable for a fairly large number of business users.

The precise bandwidth a company needs to purchase will depend on its usage pattern, but in most cases a 5Mbps Internet connection could be shared by a 40 or more users, provided they aren't all watching video (or downloading it) at the same time.

It wasn't so long ago that companies with 50, 60 or even more users commonly shared a single 1.544Mbps T-1 connection and thought its performance was spectacular. Today, with the advent of VoIP telephone systems, video conferencing, streaming audio, and other bandwidth-intensive desktop apps, more bandwidth is required.

There are many bandwidth calculators available on the Internet to help with capacity planning. Most are fairly technical and/or don't answer the important question: How large an Internet pipeline does my company need?

Although not intended for general business, the bandwidth calculator at School 2.0, intended for education users, can give you an idea. This calculator probably works better for smaller businesses and isn't intended to be a definitive answer, but when I played with it, entering figures for companies with which I am familiar, the required bandwidth was less that I'd have guessed.

Higher-end bandwidth calculation, based on real data, requires a network analyzer to look at the actual traffic on your network. For enterprises, a consultant may be able to offer a better answer more quickly than doing it yourself.

The 5Mbps suggestion works as a baseline for most businesses, who might then add additional lines if they required greater capacity.

Home users--most of them--can get by with the same amount, though home is where the real bandwidth hogging applications live. Multiple users playing online games, video conferencing, or streaming movies can eat up a lot of bandwidth really quickly.

Getting 5Mbps Internet to every business (and home) in America will be a lofty achievement. While cable modems and other fast connections are common in many areas, much of the nation remains unconnected.

Conceivably, a 1 or 2Mbps connection would be fine for tiny businesses in locations distant from easy connectivity and might be a second level of service that would be more cost-effective where such limited need exists.

Still, I think 5Mbps is a goal we can achieve and doing so will promote job growth and improve our competitiveness.

I know this is a subjective analysis and I am open to changing my opinion based on your feedback. Tell me what you think and I'll write another column if it makes sense to change my estimate.

David Coursey has been writing about technology products and companies for more than 25 years. He tweets as @techinciter and may be contacted via his Web site.

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