Very recently, an Internet service run by no other than Google came to Provo, Utah. With this new service, dubbed Google Fiber, customers can get up to a 1,000 Mbits per second connection, putting all other Internet providers to shame. Google proudly touts the advantages, from downloading hundreds of photos in less than 5 seconds to streaming pixel-perfect HD video simultaneously across multiple devices.
But is it really true, that you can download a movie in 10 seconds or load websites hosted on the other side of the globe in the blink of an eye?
The short answer is, not necessarily.
Your computer’s network connection, the “client”, is only one side of the story. To load anything from the Internet, the client must communicate with the service that stores the content, the “server.” The time it takes to load a webpage, then, is dependent in large part on both your connection speed, or bandwidth, and the server’s bandwidth. If the server is running on old hardware and can only send you data at a max 3 Mbits/sec, then it doesn’t matter whether your connection runs at 6 or 600 Mbits/sec. You’ll receive the data at 3 Mbits/sec, no more than that.
To illustrate this, I present the following case in point. YouTube has a special page at YouTube.com/my-speed, where you can measure your video streaming speed in real time as well as allowing you to see your speed history. When I tested my network speed, it was hovering around 20 Mbits/s. Even with that speed, though, I can’t stream from YouTube at 20,480 kbits/s. The streaming speed hovers somewhere around 10,000 kbits/s. That’s not bad, but it’s not 100% of my bandwidth either.
But you might argue, “well Google/YouTube has fast-ass supercomputers that should be able to send me data at 1 Gbit/sec if they wanted to.” Sure, YouTube has blazingly fast servers. However, we aren’t getting video at 20 Mbps because of YouTube’s inability to reach that bandwidth. Rather, YouTube’s servers are intentionally limiting the bandwidth between their servers and your connection. Millions of people are probably on the site streaming video. The servers have to be smart, and send data per person at only the necessary rate.
This case in point is only taking into account giant companies who can afford superb server architecture. On 99% or more of the Internet, you’ll find personal websites on shared hosting, websites hosted in different countries, and even websites that are hosted at the owner’s house on an ancient server tower. Many of these websites will have physical limitations when it comes to bandwidth. Your connection’s bandwidth is inconsequential in these cases.