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How Much Internet Speed Do We Need?

Many internet providers dress up their data to make federal speed scores look better, The Wall Street Journal reported last week.

On the other hand, the same news outlet reported a few months ago that many – if not most – consumers are already paying for much more speed than they actually need or use. Those powerful high-speed packages our providers are eager to sell us exist mainly for marketing purposes, not practical ones. When it comes to binging your favorite streaming series, or pulling “It’s A Wonderful Life” out of your online library of purchased movies, neither your provider’s speed claims nor the performance it actually delivers are likely to matter very much.

For those readers old enough to remember, an analogous situation used to exist in the clock speeds of our personal computers. For decades, vendors touted how many megahertz (and later gigahertz) their processors delivered.

I bought my first IBM PC “clone” in a Manhattan camera store in 1986. My portable typewriter had died, and I needed something on which to write my business school papers as I finished my night-school MBA. I chose a machine made by a long-gone company called Leading Edge. Its processor ran at 4.77 megahertz, the basic PC standard, but there was a switch that let me boost it to 7.16 megahertz. This was called “overclocking.” My typing speed in those days was around 60 words per minute, although with enough caffeine I could overclock my typing to perhaps 75 wpm.

I am writing this post on a four-year-old MacBook Pro with a processor that runs at 2.8 gigahertz, about 587 times faster than the brains of that old PC. I still probably type at around 60 words per minute. These days the coffee I drink in the morning overclocks me enough to get out of the house, but that’s about it. It doesn’t do much for my typing.

The latest MacBook Pros come with processors that have a “Turbo Boost” mode that gets them up to 5 gigahertz or so. People my age should attempt turbo boost only under medical supervision.

In many places, shopping for internet service today is a bit like shopping for a car. I don’t mean this in a good way. (I am not sure there is a good way to mean this.) Try to find the price of Spectrum’s internet service in Brooklyn, for example, and the provider’s website will prompt you to give a specific address. Enter one – I used my daughter’s as an experiment – and the site will ask if you are the current subscriber at this address or if you will be setting up a new account. I know better than to mess with my daughter’s service, so I played the role of a new shopper, perhaps an incoming owner or tenant. I was then offered a single “package” of 200-megabit service for $44.95 per month. This is a promotional price for a two-year agreement. How much is the regular price? It was not stated – at least not at this point in the shopping process. Hence the car-buying analogy.

I have no reason to pick on Spectrum in particular. In fact, it is my provider at my Florida vacation home, and I am happy with the service. That 200-megabit service in Brooklyn is far more than any household is apt to need for residential purposes. The Federal Communications Commission says that 26 megabits per second should be enough for multiple users to stream high-definition video, play games or take part in video conference calls. By definition, any broadband service will meet this threshold. But I fully expect that anyone who calls Spectrum is apt to be steered toward higher-speed packages. Customers might also struggle to find a cheaper package that would serve for video streaming, web surfing and blog uploading if they wanted to downgrade after the promotional period expires.

Here are some internet facts of life. First, the speed your provider advertises will almost always vary from what it actually delivers to your modem, either up or down. The expression “your mileage may vary” has never been more applicable. This is because so many variables can affect performance at a particular location at any particular time. But the speeds of modern cable broadband are so much greater than the demands of virtually any residential use, even for households with multiple devices, that it is unlikely you would ever know the details of this variation without running speed-test software.

Second, the speed your internet provider delivers to your modem is not the speed you experience. Your modem itself is big contributor, because some perform faster than others. Your modem may also include a router, or you may have your own; the sophistication of that router and the way you configure it will have a major impact on performance. And if you connect via Wi-Fi, the way you set up your Wi-Fi network and your device’s distance from the router or access point will likely have the biggest impact of all.

The technical ins and outs are too extensive for this discussion (not to mention the potential that 5G could eventually render it all moot). Suffice to say that if you don’t know you have a problem with your internet service, then you don’t have a problem, no matter what a customer service representative might tell you. If you do have an internet speed problem, chances are it isn’t with the package your provider is selling you. Your only problem with that package is likely that the provider is selling you more service than you need.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s most recent book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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