Last Updated on March 13, 2021 by Dave Farquhar
Is gigabit Internet worth it? I want gigabit Internet. I wanted it for a really long time before I was able to get it. And not everyone can. Here’s why I want gigabit Internet and how I can justify it. If you can get it, it’s worth considering. Here’s why it might make sense for you.
If you’re working from home and have a modern enough home network, gigabit Internet can make a lot of sense. But a lot of home networks aren’t up for it, so you may be wasting money.
When gigabit Internet isn’t worth it
Before we talk about what makes gigabit Internet worth it, let’s talk about when it isn’t.
First of all, gigabit Internet isn’t worth it if your home network is slower than a gigabit. Upgrading your LAN to gigabit will involve getting a gigabit-capable router, assuming your service doesn’t provide one, and possibly a switch if you don’t have enough ports on the router for all your devices. You’ll almost certainly need a new modem, unless your ISP provides one. You may also need to install gigabit network cards in devices that don’t have one. And if you don’t have at least CAT5e wiring in your house, you’ll want to run CAT5e or CAT6 wiring to your desktop computers so they can take full advantage. Here are some tips on wiring an old house for CAT5e or CAT6.
If your stuff isn’t ready for it, getting your network gigabit-capable can turn into an expensive and time-consuming project. There’s no point to be paying for high-end Internet service in the meantime.
Gigabit Internet is very dependent on your devices. Some of your devices may not take full advantage of it, especially wireless devices. Many wireless devices’ speeds top out at 300 or 150 megabits, or even 54 megabits in the case of very old devices.
What you do with your computers also matters. If all you do is social networking, for example, gigabit Internet makes it really fast to upload your pictures, but most of the time that capacity is probably not doing a lot for you. Gigabit makes social media really fast, but if the posts load faster than you can read them, how important is that?
Another caveat with gigabit Internet
Internet connections frequently run faster in one direction than the other. And it’s almost always the download speed that’s faster, since people download far more data than they upload. Cable companies’ gigabit service often lags way behind, giving you 100-megabit uploads (or less) to go with gigabit downloads.
A fiber-based service is more likely to give you similar speed in both directions. My upload speeds are actually slightly faster with AT&T Fiber than my download speeds. There are plenty of people who only upload when they upload photos to the local drugstore to get prints, or maybe when their phone backs their pictures up to Google automatically. But if you work from home, you upload more than you probably think. Any time you save a document to a network drive back at the office, or send a large e-mail attachment, you’re uploading.
Wired vs wireless
If you don’t have at least some wired connections, gigabit Internet may very well be overkill. If you buy a mesh network to get robust wireless, but connect them to each other wirelessly, it cuts your effective speed in half. In that case, paying extra for gigabit Internet isn’t worth it because your wireless network is running at less than gigabit speeds. You probably won’t notice the difference between 500 megabit and gigabit in that case.
If you don’t have an expensive mesh network, gigabit Internet can still be overkill because of signal degradation. You’ll get gigabit speeds when your devices have line of sight, but as you get further and further from your router, your speed degrades.
Uses for gigabit Internet
Two words: 4K streaming.
The adoption of 4K television is going to be the thing that really pushes gigabit Internet. Cable companies are still struggling to deliver 1080p content consistently, so the best way to get lots of 4K content for your shiny, expensive 4K TV is to connect a Roku or Apple TV box to it and stream it.
But for 4K streaming, each of your TV devices really needs 25 megabits all to itself. With two or three 4K devices in the house, a family of four is going to clog up a 100-megabit connection pretty quickly, especially if more than one person is using a phone or tablet or computer while watching a 4K stream. Once the novelty of 4K wears off, you can expect some family members will want to do that.
Gigabit is overkill for streaming, but it leaves plenty of headroom if you have a house full of devices and start adding 4K televisions. Streaming may not make gigabit Internet worth it on its own, but it frequently puts it over the top. And streaming isn’t going away.
Roku devices only have 100-megabit wired connections (if they have one at all) because they don’t need any more than that, but I wired as many of my Rokus as I could. This keeps them from competing with other devices for wireless.
Use of cloud-based services, especially cloud-based storage, makes a lot more sense with a gigabit Internet connection. You can retrieve files about as quickly from a cloud-based service as you would from a USB stick. That’s not as fast as local, but it’s still very fast.
Nobody backs their stuff up as often as they should. Would you back up your data more often if it was faster? You can tell yourself you would, at least.
Working from home
Since I work from home, I sometimes have to send and receive large files. If the uplink speed isn’t fast, gigabit doesn’t help you as much. But the uplink speeds with gigabit service do tend to be higher than the uplink speeds for slower tiers. Large disk images that used to take me half an hour or more to upload now upload in five minutes.
Unfortunately, in my line of work, I sometimes hear the words “a gigabyte doesn’t seem like that big of a file.” Pushing it up Charter Spectrum’s 11-megabit uplink makes it seem like a pretty big file. But with gigabit Internet, I can throw gigabyte-size files around like softballs.
And in March 2020, my gigabit Internet was a boon. Due to COVID-19, the whole family was home all the time. So my work was competing with three other people. But we had plenty of bandwidth to go around, even if both kids were using three devices at once while I was trying to shuffle around monster half-gig spreadsheets.
Hosting a web server
I also run a web server from home. Speed isn’t everything, but each time I’ve upgraded my Internet speed, my content has gotten more popular. It doesn’t help the obscure stuff I wrote about 15 years ago that nobody searches for, but that faster connection has helped some of my content break into the top 10. The unfortunate thing about blogging is that sometimes you write stuff, do all the research, and it doesn’t go anywhere because 10 other people have content that’s almost as good but it loads faster.
Potentially, getting increased traffic could be enough to make gigabit Internet worth it.
One last thing that can make gigabit Internet worth it: Data caps. Not all ISPs have them, but current FCC rules allow them, so they’re something we have to live with. AT&T waives data caps on its gigabit service but not on any of its lower tiers. If you use a terabyte of data in a month, AT&T hits you with a $30 surcharge. So if you think you may consume a terabyte of data, stepping up to gigabit to get the cap waived can make sense.
Is gigabit Internet worth it? It’s better than paying a $30 data cap fee every month if you use your Internet connection a lot. So let’s figure out what a lot looks like.
My family uses around a gigabyte per day streaming video, playing games, and otherwise using devices. Call it 31 gigabytes per week. If I chew up 10 gigabytes during my workdays, we’re looking at 240 gigabytes a month there. That’s a heavy estimate but I’ve done it before, when I’ve had to move virtual machine images around. Even if I double my estimates, we’d still be at 54% of the cap.
I could drop back to a 300-megabit plan to save $20 per month, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world. If I didn’t work from home I probably would. Or at least I’d think about it.
The other thing to do is check pricing. I was paying $75 a month for Charter Spectrum’s “200 megabit” service that really delivered 160 megabits. Then along came AT&T offering me gigabit service for $80 as long as I bought one other service from them. Or I could pay $90 a month for just Internet. Getting five times the speed, and getting that speed in both directions, seemed worth it for $15 a month more. That’s nowhere near a linear increase.
Then again, I could have also kicked Charter Spectrum and its low uptime to the curb, replaced it with AT&T’s 300-megabit fiber service, enjoyed a 50% speed increase in download speed and a nifty 250% increase in upload speed, and cut my bill instead of raising it. That’s also a very compelling argument.
Is gigabit Internet worth it? You have to decide for yourself. You know better than I do what you’ll think of it after the novelty wears off.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.