Posted November 3, 2016 by James Van Roekel 

Understanding Internet Bandwidth

I received some ideas on topics to write about for my next article. The idea that stood out to me was to write about one of my strangest or more interesting on-the-job requests. Actually, I think there might be a book in that, as we all can relate.

For me, the strangest was not really a request, but a discovered part of a student art project which included a raw turkey. Yes, not pretty. More often though, and usually tongue-in-cheek, I am asked to make the Internet go faster.

As you may well remember, the Internet was created as a network of networks including military and government during the Cold War to allow these entities to communicate and share information in the event of war. Later, research and academic institutions were added to the Internet. Sorry, Al Gore.

This network of networks works similarly to a train system, where every Internet packet of information is a car and every Internet connection is a track. When the train leaves for its destination, it is coupled. However, as it travels many of the cars are split up and follow other tracks, all heading for the final destination. The train is then recoupled in proper order at the destination. Data packets were set up this way to expedite information travel. The World Wide Web was introduced to the world in the early 1990s and commercialized soon after.

When speaking of the Internet, I often hear complaints about bandwidth. There never seems to be enough of it. What is it exactly? Bandwidth is the capacity to drive more data down a given channel. Think of it as a multilane freeway. The more lanes a freeway has, the more traffic it can handle at a faster pace. This is important, especially during rush hours. As lanes are taken away, traffic begins to slow as cars and trucks begin to merge into the remaining lanes. As congestion worsens, traffic slows even further.

There are many instances where an eight-lane freeway suddenly becomes a two-lane freeway. This is called a bottleneck. This holds true in bandwidth for computers and the Internet as well. As more users log on, more and more data packets are sent along the same paths. Traffic is especially slowed as big, multitrailer semi-trucks carry multimedia-streaming content over the lanes. Bandwidth is not only an issue of traffic, but of the physical “road” as well.

Early in the Internet’s history, copper lines designed to carry voice signal were, and sometimes still are, required to carry data as well. These lines are noisy and require software-based error control; this, too, slows traffic. A better road is fiber. Fiber can deliver close to 1,000 billion (1000G) bits per second, whereas the best copper with a modem can achieve is 56,000 (56K) bits per second, though DSL upgrades using the same copper is usually advertised between 128K to 3M (3 million) bits. Cable access is advertised up to 1.2G (1.2 billion).

A fiber about the size of a human hair could transmit a million channels of television simultaneously. Of course, most individuals do not yet have access to fiber in their homes. As individual users become increasingly interested in content that is larger and, consequently, slower to download or view, bandwidth must be made to keep up because as with driving on roads, we all have to share the same space.

The point is: Sorry, I can’t make the Internet go faster. I wish I could.


James Van Roekel

James Van Roekel is the Director of Student Affairs Technology at Sam Houston State University.

James has more than 18 years of higher education experience as a faculty member and administrator in academic and student affairs. His research, which can be found in 25 publications (including three books), and teaching focus investigates the utilization of free and off-the-shelf hardware and software toward the development of multimedia and digital applications in student learning. His grant writing has brought in more than $725,000 to engage faculty and students in current and emerging technologies. He is a member of EDUCAUSE, Infocomm International, and the Region II Leadership Team. James is a past recipient of SHSU’s Sammy Award and the Vice President's for Student Services Bearkat Spirit Award.


GREAT article - thanks James. It really helps non boffins like me to think of the super information highway as an actual highway. The horrors of copper are well known Down Under. We're getting a multi billion dollar upgrade to our internet here. Originally it planned to roll out fibre to everyone's house (or to 94% of the pop). But we got a new government and guess what: we're going to stick with copper!!
Alistair Cowie
Comment posted 11/07/2016 6:08 PM
Cheers! I have always found that the non-boffins are the folks who come up with the best ideas in how to actually use the technology; i.e., "can we do this?" Tech-head: "um, yeah. We hadn't ever thought of doing it that way."
James Van Roekel
Comment posted 11/09/2016 12:11 AM
Great job at comparing networks and band with the evolution of other products and history.
Pa Vang
Comment posted 11/20/2016 10:03 PM
Thank you--J
James Van Roekel
Comment posted 12/05/2016 12:59 AM
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