Bandwidth Snake Oil


Is a bigger internet pipe the fix to your problems? Maybe. First let me say that a faster, more stable connection to the internet is almost always a great idea. But there is a growing trend to see bandwidth as the business wonder drug. Video conference cut out? More Bandwidth! Phone call sound bad? More bandwidth! Need productivity? More bandwidth! Male pattern baldness? More bandwidth! But some applications require more than just speed. Using the internet for voice and video traffic creates unique issues, and sometimes more bandwidth won’t solve the problem.

Some of this is based on how the internet works. For example, you access your favorite website and as the page loads you see some text, then a photo starts to load, then an advertisement on the side of the page, then another article, etc. And your internet browser doesn’t really care in what order those elements arrive. That’s how data is transferred between computers—in little data packets—that your programs can put in proper order at the end. But what if your video stream shows up in the wrong order? Or your voice conversation?

If some of those data packets are lost in route to you, your browser can just ask for them again, but in a real-time application, they’re gone—forever. And if that’s a phone conversation, it could manifest as a moment of silence, or choppy audio, or a strange noise.

Now, if your application is completely using up your internet speed, you’ll have lots of problems and they may show up in a similar way. And the fix for that is absolutely more bandwidth.

So how do you tell the difference? Work with your internet provider and your internal IT staff. Your provider should be able to see if you are actually maxing out your bandwidth—if so, “Eureka!” It’s time to order a bigger pipe. If not, then you’re in for some detective work. Your staff and the provider can check things like “latency” and “jitter” on the circuit, maybe a problem will be found there—and you can look for a circuit with a more stable delivery method. Perhaps your internal network is getting overrun with traffic and you need to take a look at a protocol like QOS (quality of service) to give your voice traffic priority when the network is working too hard. Perhaps the issue is on the other end—maybe your video works great except to one remote site—and they have network equipment that needs to be updated. There are lots of possibilities.

The primary take-away from all this is that increasing your bandwidth is not a cure-all. It can fix some issues, but others will remain after the upgrade is complete. And there are some providers that immediately see your problem as an opportunity to sell a faster connection rather than looking for a way to fix the actual issue. I’ve also run into internet voice and video providers who prescribe more bandwidth to fix any customer issue that’s reported. That’s like taking a prescription from a doctor that won’t examine you—it may be fine, but I wouldn’t suggest it.