Mbps versus MBps

By Michael Williams

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, May 4 2011 8:56 a.m. MDT

Don't you love those commercials that show 40 "megs" of download speed and "blazing" fast Internet? They are so enticing, and for the longest time it was thought, "Wow, I can't wait to watch Netflix with a connection speed at that rate."

Internet providers prey on the common consumer by using a lower case letter instead of an upper case letter in Mbps and MBps. The lowercase 'b' refers to bits when the uppercase 'B' refers to bytes. Most of us are familiar with a CD and how much information is stored on it when you use it to burn your favorite playlist. Right on the front of the CD or its package it shows 700MB (megabytes).

In regards to Internet providers they never say "blazing speeds of 20 megabits" because what is a megabit? Most of us are only familiar with megabytes, so in order to not educate the common consumer and make it any more confusing they refer to it as megs, which isn't a lie, neither is it the truth.

So what is it when you have a 20 meg (Mbps) connection speed? Here is the conversion 1 bit = 0.125 or 1/8 bytes. Thus a 20 "meg" connection in reality is only 2.38 MBps. To put that in perspective the average size of an MP3 of five minutes in length is 4.5 MB (Mega Bytes). In theory if you have a true 20 "meg" connection you should be able to download a song in just under two seconds.

Many have been tricked like my neighbor into getting the lowest teir in a "high speed Internet" package of 1.5 Mbps, remembering that conversion to bytes, now you are at 0.17 MBps. The same MP3 will now take around 25 seconds. Some people may say, "if that is the case, I will set it to download and go get a snack and it will be done." This is only true if you are getting the advertised speed.

Getting to what matters to most of us who have the Internet: streaming content such as Netflix, Hulu, Youtube, Vimeo and KSL. This is where the higher "megs" is important.

According to Netflix tech support, Netflix's "content library is encoded into three bandwidth tiers, in a compression format based on the VC-1 video and Windows Media audio codecs. The lowest tier requires a continuous downstream bandwidth (to the client) of 1.5Mbps, and offers stereo audio and video quality comparable to DVD. The middle tier requires 3Mbps, and offers "better than DVD quality."

The highest tier requires 6Mbps and offers 720p HD with surround sound audio. As of December 2010, the PS3 is the only device able to stream Netflix at 1080p resolution. Even with the 20 megs slowdowns are possible, and even interruption of Netflix as it adjusts the quality due to bandwidth restrictions.

More megs is better and more costly, but remember what those megs stand for.

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