Do I need gigabit Ethernet?

Last Updated on March 13, 2021 by Dave Farquhar

Ever since I first saw gigabit Ethernet, sometime around 1999 or 2000, I wanted it for my home network. Of course it was crazy expensive then. But today it’s not very expensive, and I want it. But do I need gigabit Ethernet? Do I need a gigabit router? Do you?

It depends on the speed of your Internet connection. If your Internet connection is 100 megabits or lower, a gigabit router or gigabit Ethernet won’t make your Internet faster. On the other hand, if you have a 200 megabit Internet connection and only a 100 megabit router, you’re wasting half your Internet speed. So even though gigabit sounds like overkill for a 200-megabit connection, you need it.

Gigabit Ethernet might not make your Internet faster

Do I need gigabit Ethernet?
A gigabit router like this one is kind of a waste if your Internet connection is 100 megabits or less. But if you have faster Internet than 100 megabit, you need gigabit Ethernet to take full advantage of it.

A small but slowly growing number of people can get gigabit Internet, but the majority of us plod along with speeds much closer to 100 megabits, if that. If your Internet connection is over 100 megabits, then your 100-megabit home network is slowing you down somewhat. My old cable connection gave me speeds of around 117 megabits. During long downloads, I’d notice that extra 17 megs. When I’m visiting web sites or streaming audio or video, not so much.

If you can’t even get 100-megabit Internet, which many people cannot, then gigabit won’t make your Internet any faster at all. It’s kind of like owning a Ferrari but only having 25 MPH roads. Here’s FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, quoted in The Verge:

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wants to increase the minimum broadband standards far past the [2015 standard] 25Mbps download threshold, up to 100Mbps. “We invented the Internet. We can do audacious things if we set big goals, and I think our new threshold, frankly, should be 100Mbps. I think anything short of that shortchanges our children, our future, and our new digital economy,” Commissioner Rosenworcel said.

For a variety of reasons, only one or two of them technical, I don’t expect widespread deployment of faster-than-100-megabit Internet to happen before 2020, unfortunately. There’s nothing wrong with getting ready for it now. But to a great extent you and I are building great networks inside a digital slum. Do I need gigabit Ethernet, when I have a 117-megabit upstream connection? Barely. Just barely.

Do I need a gigabit router?

If your Internet connection is faster than 100 megabits, you do. If your speed is 117 megs like mine was, the difference is negligible. But for a 200 or 500 megabit connection, you’ll notice a big difference.

One large ISP that I won’t mention by name advertises that it upgraded its minimum speed to 200 megabits and pats itself on its back about how generous it is. The thing is, when the majority of your customers have 100-megabit routers, they’ll never know if you upgraded their speed or not, and they won’t take advantage of it. When I’ve measured my relatives’ and neighbors’ connections who use this provider, I’ve found they still have 50-megabit connections in spite of what the ads say.

If you test your Internet connection and you find that you get right at 100 megabit speeds, that’s a sign that you might benefit from a gigabit router. Here’s how to test your Internet connection reliably.

But before you go buy a new router, it’s worth contacting your ISP and asking them what your speed is supposed to be, and if they provided your router in the first place, ask if they’ll charge you to upgrade your router. If an ISP-provided router isn’t fast enough for the speed they offer you, they may replace it free of charge.

Gigabit Ethernet improves your local speed

If you have a media server, gigabit Ethernet certainly improves your connections to it. A media server can serve up more than five 4K streams over gigabit. Gigabit also allows your computers to have multiple connections to one another without slowing anything down. With the push to the cloud, we tend to store less and less locally these days, but there’s no reason we have to do that. With gigabit, network connected resources are almost as fast as locally connected ones.

If you like computers and you like to tinker, you can do a lot of cool stuff with a local gigabit network. Do I need gigabit Ethernet to do these things? Certainly not. But it’s a lot nicer when I have it.

Gigabit Ethernet may improve your wireless speed

If you have at least wireless-N networking, gigabit Ethernet can improve the speed of your local traffic. If you have wireless networking that works at 160 megabits or more, that speed gets throttled to 100 megabits if it has to hit the wire for any reason. Some wireless can even outrun gigabit, at least under the best circumstances.

High-speed routers that don’t have gigabit ports on them kind of miss the point because they create a bottleneck on the wired side. I like the Asus RT-AC66U because it’s reasonably affordable and has several gigabit ports on it.

Gigabit Ethernet (indirectly) improves your security

Having backup copies is the best security. One reason people don’t make backups is it takes too long. Plug a 256 gigabyte flash drive into the USB port on your router, share it out, and you can back up your documents folders on your other computers in seconds over gigabit. Then you just have to remember to do it, but at least it takes the pain out of it.

The best defense against ransomware is having backups, so anything that facilitates easy backups is a good thing.

It’s a shame to have gigabit Ethernet and not be using it

do I need gigabit Ethernet? Well, I have it anyway.
Realtek gigabit networking is built into most motherboards.

Even though we live in a digital slum, even the cheapest computers today come with gigabit networking because it costs less than $3 to put gigabit on the motherboard. On top of that, a low-end gigabit switch now sells for what I paid for a low-end 100-megabit switch in 2013. The only question is whether your cabling in your house supports it, but if you’re pulling new wire, it will.

So while there’s an argument you don’t need gigabit Ethernet, at least not for everything, you probably have it. And it’s a shame to let 90% of its capability sit idle. Since you have it, you might as well make some use of it.

Using gigabit Ethernet can help your career

If you work in IT, I recommend you deploy gigabit Ethernet at home whether you think you need it or not. Here’s why. People don’t ask you about your home network in every job interview. But it’s only a matter of time before someone does. In many hiring managers’ minds, if you have an ambitious network at home and you’re doing cool stuff there, you’re going to attack projects at work with the same energy. If your home network is just a laptop and a smart TV connected to whatever your ISP gave you, you’re at a disadvantage to the candidate who ran gigabit ports to every room and has a web server, a media server, and a file server.

I’m painfully aware that there are differences between running a home network and a corporate network, but some of it sticks. I learned a lot more Linux at home than I did at work. That’s because I worked from 1998-2005 for someplace who didn’t like Linux, and then from 2005-2009 for someplace who outright prohibited it. But every job I’ve had since 2013 required Linux know-how. I actually missed out on a job opportunity in 2013 partly because my interviewer didn’t think my home network wasn’t ambitious enough. But knowing Linux helped me land other jobs.

So if you’re an IT professional, or aspire to be one, I would encourage you to spend a couple hundred bucks on a gigabit-capable router and enough cables and other hardware to wire your house, deploy gigabit. Then find something cool to do with it. Do I need gigabit Ethernet? Not necessarily. But I do need a job. And running an ambitious home network helps me stay ready for that time when I need to get another one.

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