When it works, you never hear a peep about it. But when bandwidth problems start to plague a residential or business customer, you’re probably the next person being called right beside the ISP themselves. An interesting piece on this dilemma recently showed up on Ars Technica which rounded out the bandwidth debate among technicians pretty well. Insight from various tech workers is sampled, and they all gladly describe their complacency or (more commonly) displeasure with internet speed being delivered to their workplace. What constitutes “enough” bandwidth one may ask?
That precise question is a tough one to answer. I’m fairly certain that a decent majority of techs reading this would say that “no news is good news” when it comes to a sufficient WAN connection for a given customer. For those of us in the States, this should come as no surprise, since we rank a paltry 26th in a recently released study of global average connection speeds. According to the study, funded by media distribution giant Pando Networks, the typical “broadband” connection in the USA stands at around 616Kbps. That’s only roughly 11 times faster than the best 56K connections of yesteryear. Even in the age of Comcast offering low income families access to 1.5Mbps service for $10/month, the majority of Americans probably have no clue what a “Comcastic” internet connection is.
What does a typical home or office WAN connection need in terms of bandwidth anyway? If there is a silver bullet answer for this question, I’d love to know about it. The way we consume the modern internet pipeline is vastly different from what we used to do back in the late ’90s. AOL was used by a good majority of Americans, Yahoo was still the hottest thing since sliced bread, and email was still a novel nicety, not necessarily a necessity yet.
Streaming music and video, constant social media, and Web 2.0 (er, now Web 3.0 perhaps) have transformed the web from a text driven experience to a full blown multimedia haven. Not to mention how rapidly new age cloud-based services are pushing the envelope on bandwidth needs. Google Apps, Office 365, and Salesforce are all excellent platforms – as long as you have the juice to supply them appropriately.
While the discussion doesn’t come up too often for residential customers of my company FireLogic, business offices are increasingly turning their sights onto Google Apps and Office 365 for email and collaboration platforms. But don’t count the residential user out by a long shot. They’re sucking down bandwidth quite heavily between Netflix, Pandora, and all of the online game services from PlayStation Network to Xbox Live. Estimating based on professional experience is how I handle a good portion of customers who inquire about what they need for bandwidth. But if you don’t have that background to be able to shoot from the hip with a good estimate, luckily I’ve compiled some decent sources to help out. Here are my best guidelines for recommending bandwidth needs for your customers.
Residential Customers: A Fairly Easy Crowd to Satisfy
Business bandwidth needs can get complex pretty quickly, so let’s start off with the easier clients. Residential customers have pretty straightforward needs most of the time (outside of those power users who need to stand out.) The things most residential customers care about (in general; not conclusive by any means):
- Regular internet browsing
- Social media
- Email & instant messaging
- Streaming video, music
- Online gaming (i.e. Xbox Live)
- Smartphone connectivity over Wi-Fi
The above list doesn’t represent anything too crazy, and is generally what I encounter onsite. But while bandwidth needs for a 1998-era internet were quite forgiving, today we have to account for many more variables such as:
- How much streaming video is being accessed on a daily basis?
- How many people are downloading music or streaming Pandora?
- How many simultaneous users will be on at peak hours?
- Are there multiple online gamers in the home?
- Is VOIP in the form of Vonage or similar being used?
All of these variables need to be taken into account to avoid the snags commonly experienced by an underwhelming WAN connection. While there is no great formula for determining residential WAN overhead, Ctrl-Shift.net has a pretty spot-on table showing what speed levels are accurate depending on general needs. I’ll go a step further to qualify the table and say that in general, a 2-4 person family without heavy gamers or media streamers can get away with the 3-4Mbps connection level. Add on a few more family members or heavy gamers/media types, and I’d likely look towards a 5-9Mbps or higher connection. Reference the table on their site to see where an average residence may fall depending on usage scenario.
Business Customers: Bandwidth Hungry and Tough to Predict
The types of businesses I am referring to in this quick guide are home offices, small businesses and midsize businesses. Enterprise level internet setups follow similar parameters but generally have professionals that gauge needs with a lot more accuracy. What we’re after here is more of a guiding principle for how to evaluate what an office would likely need in bandwidth. And don’t think that getting this estimation right on the first try is always a piece of cake; many times, you may have to adjust a bandwidth subscription level depending on real life usage testing.
Offices represent a different kind of beast in comparison to residential internet customers. Social media and streaming video are still bandwidth hogs, but in most cases those can and should be controlled to certain degrees. Today’s office workers are embedded heavily in some of the following internet-centric tasks:
- Email (and lots of it)
- Cloud services (hosted email, hosted accounting, hosted CRM, etc)
- Online banking
- Online research
- VOIP in place of PBX phone systems
- Downloading/uploading large files
- Online backup
While resources are still scant on how to properly estimate this with 100% accuracy, I’ve dug up a few online outlets that offer documentation. Microsoft released an overly technical brief on the matter of bandwidth estimation that is available online, but to be honest, save yourself the headache and check out a streamlined alternative that summarized the theories. Since both websites focus on email “consumption” as the basis for their calculations, I’m going to extend the scope and bring in some real world considerations:
- Is VOIP in use at the office, and how many users are on it?
- How much email is being sent & received per day per user?
- Is cloud email like Google Apps being used?
- Are other cloud services like Salesforce or Quickbooks Online used?
- What is the office culture on streaming media usage like?
- Is content filtering an option, or off the table?
- Are any public facing web servers hosted internally?
- Are social media outlets open for usage or banned?
- Does online backup (i.e. CrashPlan) play a role in core backup needs?
The above items of interest all play key roles in how much bandwidth a company may require. The recommended site I linked to provides a simple way to calculate bandwidth needs in the form of:
N x T = BN
Numbers of users (x) Traffic estimate based on usage weight = Bandwidth Needed
Some decent examples on the page above provide insight as to what they consider “light” and “medium” and “heavy” users. However, seeing as weights were considered only dependent on email needs, they are deceiving for what the modern office worker slurps from the fat pipe. I’d be as liberal to say that the following user weight groups are appropriate today:
- Light user: 50Kbps
- Medium user: 80Kbps
- Heavy user: 120 Kbps
So for example, an office may have a mixture of users. This hypothetical company is comprised of 20 users. 5 heavy users who are the big whigs, 5 medium users who are the admin assistants and related positions. The remaining 10 users are light office workers who only use email. We would setup our estimate calculation in the following manner:
- 5 (heavy users) x 120 (Kbps usage weight) = 600Kbps
- 5 (medium users) x 80 (Kbps usage weight) = 400Kbps
- 10 (light users) x 50 (Kbps usage weight) = 500Kbps
- Bandwidth Needed = 1500Kbps or 1.5Mbps
The above numbers may even be a tad conservative. So many factors could inflate bandwidth needs like the number of VOIP connections being used at a time to how many large emails are being sent and received in chunks of time. Issues with bandwidth usage spikes are frequent in office settings, where peak usage may be horrendous during mid-day hours and level off in the morning and afternoon. Real life situations vary from customer to customer so don’t hold my generalities as rule of thumb../;
You may even want to multiply my usage weights above by a degree if you feel that they are too conservative. There is no exact science to these calculations. Network baselining may provide better insight into usage but even then professional judgement is key. And for those that want a simpler way to approach estimation of bandwidth, etoolkit.org put together a simple calculator that can plug and chug variables and spit out a figure. It may not be a bad idea to average out what both listed routes above provide for estimates. Second opinions are insightful with such imperfect science.
Keep in mind that bandwidth estimation for customers is tough to perfect but becoming ever moreso necessary. The white lie of “enough bandwidth” is just that: most of the time, customers need to settle on a happy medium of cost vs needs. Your job as the technician is to properly consult them on their needs and recommend quality, cost effective solutions.
Post your tips and comments on bandwidth estimation below – we’d love to hear about them!