What Minimum Broadband Speed Do You Need?

One of the essential tools for a work-at-home job, as a freelancer or telecommuter, is fast web access. Modern home-offices have all kinds of uses for broadband. But Tom N. in Tennessee asked a relevant question: “How fast is fast enough?”


Broadband, you may be amused to learn, is anything faster than POTS. The funny part is that POTS stands for Plain Old Telephone Service.

Using a modem at each end of the line to convert data to sound and then sound back to data, POTS tops out at about 56Kbs. (Go here for an explanation on data transfer speeds)

The unfunny part is that some companies (and even the government) seem to be satisfied to call 128kbs digital service over phone lines broadband, even though that’s a dribble of data by today’s standards.*

Here’s a chart that explains broadband speeds and data transfer rates (a movie, for example) by the standards of a few years ago the US.

Keep in mind this chart would have been science fiction ten years ago, and will be laughable ten years from now. And most European and Asian countries think it’s hilarious now—we rank 16th in connection speed according to the 2nd quarter 2011 The State of the Internet report by Akamai.


Using some fancy software and hardware, phone companies managed to find a way to push bits through the same cooper wires you see hanging an telephone poles and called it Digital Subscriber Line or DSL.

DSL tops out, technically, a 6mbs or six megabits per second, although you’ll never actually see that because of system overhead. Most DSL providers offer several different speeds,  and charge higher prices for faster speed.

But buyer beware. How far you are from the switch will determine the speed of your service. If you pay for, say, 1.5mbs DSL service you may actual only get a slow 300mbs. Read the fine print. Basic DSL may be advertised for $20 a month “with speeds up to 1536kbs.” What that really means is you can expect anywhere between 300 to 1536 kbps.

In our experience DSL is better than POTS, but it’s a PITA or Pain In The Ass. It’s slow, hard to setup, and unreliable. Your mileage may vary.


Pictures require lots of bandwidth, and movies require huge bandwidth. So companies spent thousands of dollars a mile to run coaxial cable to make TV available in your home. And that meant they could also use part of the cable’s capacity to send data to your home.

Fiber optic cable has replaced a lot of coax and 10-30Mbs service is common in metropolitan areas.

The downside is it ain’t cheap, and is only available in areas with lots of homes to justify the cable company’s investment. If you live out in boonies cable isn’t a choice.

Dongles and Satellite

But what if you’re miles from the nearest phone switch so DSL is out of the question, and cable companies can’t afford to run expensive cable for the handful of scribers where you live?

If you’re in range of cell phone service you can buy a device called a dongle that plugs into your computer so you can use a mobile phone company’s data service to connect to the internet. It’s not particularly fast and it’s not particular cheap, but if you have no other alternative…

Satellite has been an option, but it’s expensive and sometimes spotty—even weather can sometimes disrupt things. A new ViaSat service, thanks to a recent successful launch of a billion dollar satellite, may change that. The new service will be 4-5 times faster and priced close to cable. Watch for ads in 2012.

So what is fast enough, already?

DSL, cable, and satellite internet access comes in a lot flavors and a variety of prices. Personally, I think the fastest available is best and we have 20 megabyte per second (20mbs) service through our cable company. But that ignores the reality that the fastest services can also be very expensive—we pay $80 a month for our service.

The Mayo Clinic, on the other hand, has a telework program for office services people such as transcriptionists. They require a  “minimum connection speed of 384Kbs.” That’s only 2% of the speed we have, but if all they’re doing is sending medical reports back and forth—just text—that may be adequate. But it sure wouldn’t be good enough for a radiologist was trying to evaluate MRI images.

So the honest answer is “it depends,” but to give you a straight answer you can use, we figure 10Mbs is adequate, and no less than 5Mbs. To find a service provider visit DSL Reports for a list of who offers what in your area and customer reviews.


*In Korea you can get 1Gps (1 gigabit per second or 1,000,000,000 bits per second) service for just $47 a month. You can get 2Mbps, which is better than most DLS, for a mere $2 a month if you pay a $10 installation fee.

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