If you ever need a textbook example of misleading marketing, look at what some Internet providers are saying about gigabit Internet service.
Cable companies would have you believe that speeds over 1 Gbps are essential for modern Internet use. A gigabit connection “allows you to multitask”, proclaims Cox’s website, suggesting that it’s important to “scroll through the Instagram feed on your phone while simultaneously streaming Netflix and browsing Amazon Prime on your laptop.” Likewise, says Comcast consider gigabit speeds if “your family loves streaming movies and TV while playing bandwidth-hungry games and downloading the latest apps on your smartphone.”
To keep this article family-friendly, the term I’m going to use for these claims is “exaggeration.” Gigabit speeds are too much for the vast majority of internet users, but with more and more people ditching cable TV and belting their homes for remote work, internet providers have found a golden opportunity to push upgrades unnecessary with higher profit margins. So it’s no surprise that they’re taking advantage of the gigabit Internet mess.
Because gigabit internet may be too much
Consider the facts:
- Netflix recommends download speeds of 25Mbps for 4K HDR video. That means you’d need 40 simultaneous streams, 10 times as many as Netflix’s 4K plan allows, to take full advantage of a gigabit connection.
- Zoom recommends speeds of 3.8 Mbps for 1080p video conferencing. Bandwidth would only become an issue if you had more than 263 video calls going on at the same time.
- Tidal reports a maximum bitrate of 9216 Kbps for master quality streaming audio. You’d have to stream to more than 108 devices at a time to run out of bandwidth on a gigabit connection.
Gigabit Internet may also require additional hardware investment. If you have your own cable modem, you will you need one with DOCSIS 3.1 support to get gigabit speeds from most providers. Some routers, including older Eero models—they don’t even support gigabit speeds.
Anecdotally, I’ve been quite happy with the Spectrum’s 200Mbps speeds. While negotiating a lower price from the company a couple of years ago, I even turned down their offer for a “free” 400Mbps upgrade because I didn’t want to be hit with a steep price hike once the promotional rate expired .
I’m writing this because I’ve heard from too many people who have been tricked into believing that higher speeds will eliminate buffering and other connection issues. The thing is, most of the time, these problems can be fixed just as quickly a better wifi router.
That said, there are some scenarios where gigabit internet service makes sense. If you’re going to spend more, it should be for one of a few specific reasons:
Gigabit justification 1: You need faster upload speeds
Oddly enough, the main reason to pay for gigabit Internet has nothing to do with gigabit speeds. Instead, you may need a faster cable internet plan just to get better upload speeds for backing up your data or joining video calls. While upload speeds can vary depending on your cable Internet provider, they tend to be much slower than what you get for download speeds, leading to more noticeable bottlenecks.
With Comcast, for example, a plan with 200Mbps download speeds only offers 10Mbps upload speeds. Just to double those upload speeds to 20Mbps, you’d have to upgrade to a much more expensive gigabit plan.
Unfortunately, this is a common problem among cable providers because of the way they built their networks, so you’ll find similar “asymmetric” speeds on the Spectrum and Cox as well. (They also care about hide this pitiful fact from new customers.)
But even as a ticket to faster uploads, gigabit service might still be overkill. I found the Spectrum’s 10Mbps upload speeds to be fine for two simultaneous Zoom sessions. And if you have a fiber optic internet provider in your area, this problem probably doesn’t apply. Verizon and AT&T both offer equal download and upload speeds for their fiber service, so you can safely stick to sub-gigabit plans.
Gigabit Justification 2: You have a specialized use case in mind
To see if I was missing something, I recently asked folks on Twitter what actual use cases existed for gigabit internet service and got some interesting responses.
Rich DeMuro, KTLA technical reporter She said he has to transfer huge video files on a daily basis for his broadcasting job, so gigabit speeds come in handy. Nicholas DeLeon of Consumer Reports She said he likes being able to download PC and console games faster. A computer consultant named “Max” She said needs the speed to back up its customers’ computers every night.
These all seem like legitimate use cases, but they’re also pretty specific. They also assume that whatever server you’re contacting also supports gigabit speeds, which isn’t always the case. (This becomes painfully clear whenever my PlayStation 4 needs a big software update.)
Gigabit 3 justification: You want to brag
Even if you can’t think of a particular use for gigabit Internet, maybe you just want the satisfaction that comes from having the biggest data pipe available. That way, if high-bandwidth applications were to come along, you’ll be well prepared, and at some level, you’re creating a market for those use cases in the first place.
As a tech enthusiast myself, I won’t deny anyone’s right to technological excess. Don’t be under any illusions about what, exactly, you’re paying for.
This column originally appeared in Jared’s Counselor news bulletin. Signing up to get tech tips delivered to your inbox every week.