When researching broadband packages, you'll often see the word 'latency' mentioned.
But what is latency, and how does it impact your online activity?
What is latency?
In broadband terms, latency measures the time it takes to send data and receive a response.
When doing anything online - from browsing a web page to gaming online - you're sending a request to a device (also known as the 'server'), asking to access that data.
You'll receive a response from the server you've made the request to, and, all things going well, that server will send you the data you've requested.
In other words, latency measures the time it takes for the entire journey - from when you made the request to when you received a response.
Using Switchcraft as an example, below is how latency played a role in loading the page you're currently reading:-
- Your device (e.g., iPhone, laptop) makes a request to the Switchcraft web server to access a page on the Switchcraft website.
- Switchcraft's server acknowledges this request, sending a message back to your device.
- Switchcraft's server then sends the data for the page requested, and the page begins downloading onto your device.
Latency measures the time taken for steps 1 and 2 to complete. Steps 1 and 2 is the time taken for your request to travel from your device to your router, to your broadband provider, to the Switchcraft server, and finally, back to your device.
Step 3 - where the webpage downloads the requested data onto your device - is measured by broadband speed, not latency.
Are ping and latency the same?
When speaking about broadband, the words 'latency' and 'ping' are often mentioned interchangeably, but have subtle differences in meaning:-
Ping:- The signal your network uses to measure latency. Your network sends out 'ping messages', measuring the time it takes for these messages to travel from your device to the server and back again.
Latency:- The amount of time it takes for data to travel from your device to a web server and back again. This time is measured in milliseconds (ms).
What about broadband speed and bandwidth?
Similar to 'latency' and 'ping', the terms 'broadband speed' and 'bandwidth' are also often used interchangeably, but again, have subtle differences in meaning. They are also entirely different to latency.
Broadband speed:- Determines how fast data can be downloaded or uploaded on your device, and is measured in 'megabits per second' (Mbps).
Bandwidth:- The measure of how much traffic a broadband connection can cope with at once. Bandwidth is also measured in Mbps.
Latency and broadband speed summarised
Now that you know the difference in meaning between latency, broadband speed, and bandwidth, you can understand where they are most important when using your internet connection.
To reiterate, broadband speeds and bandwidth are most important when streaming content (e.g., Netflix), browsing the internet, and downloading files.
On the other hand, latency is an important measure for online gaming and video calls (e.g, Facetime, Zoom, or Skype).
What is a good latency speed?
Essentially, the lower your latency number, the better. A low latency number will mean that the network is operating optimally, and that your connection is experiencing little-to-no delay in sending data from your device to the server and back again. A high latency number on the other hand, means there is a delay in transmission.
When using a nearby server, good latency is considered to be less than 50 milliseconds.
If you're making a request to a server that is located on the other side of the world, however, it's normal for it to take up to 200ms to come back, even if you have an excellent broadband connection.
Latencies for online gaming
When gaming online, the device you're using is constantly communicating with the game server (host). Your device tells the server where your player or character is located, and what it is they're doing. The server also lets you know where other players' characters are located and what it is they're doing.
If your ping is high while gaming, these constant updates cannot occur fast enough, and as a result, you will experience delay (lag).
Below is how latency may affect your online gaming experience:
- 20ms and below: Ping is optimal and your experience will be smooth.
- 20 - 50 ms: You should experience little-to-no lag.
- 50 - 100 ms: For particularly fast-paced online games, response times can result in some lag.
- 100ms+: Noticeable delays can be expected in all online games.
Latencies for video calling
Like online gaming, low latency for video calls on apps such as Facetime and Zoom, is important. If you have high latency, you may experience significant delays. This is because data is being transferred in real time between your device and anyone else on the call.
Below is how different latency may affect video calling:
- 20ms and below: Your conversation flows smoothly.
- Up to 150 ms: May experience some slight delays, but nothing too significant.
- 300ms+ Call quality is extremely poor, with extreme delays.
What causes high latency?
Communicating with a server overseas
Even if you have an extremely fast broadband connection, the location of the server you're accessing plays an imperative role in whether or not you'll experience high latency.
For example, if you're taking part in an online gaming tournament where the game server is hosted in a location that's far away overseas, you'll likely experience significant lag.
Many people accessing your broadband connection simultaneously
Bandwidth is the maximum amount of data your broadband connection can handle at any one moment. To put it in simple terms: consider bandwidth as a highway and the cars on that highway are the data. The more cars are on the highway, the more traffic you experience.
So, if you live in a household where everyone is accessing the internet at the same time, your latency will increase. This is especially likely to happen if you are using a slow type of broadband (e.g,, ADSL).
Using a VPN
Using a VPN means that any requests your device makes must travel through the VPN provider, potentially increasing latency.
Satellite broadband can be one of the worst offenders for experiencing high latency. This is because your signal has to travel into space and back down again.
A fault with your broadband provider's network
Sometimes, there may be a fault with your broadband provider's network, causing high latency.
To test whether this is the case, you can try performing a ping test to a number of different sites. A consistently slow ping time over these sites will likely indicates a problem with your provider.
However, if it is only one or two slow ping times, this may be indicative of a larger network problem, and not likely something your provider is either responsible for, nor can fix.
How can I reduce latency?
When trying to minimise latency on your broadband connection, there are a few things you can try:
Perform a ping test
Performing a ping test will not only measure your latency, but also your download and upload speeds. This is important in helping you understand why you may be experiencing high latency.
Reboot your router or modem
If it's been some time since you last restarted your router, this can cause network issues and play a role in experiencing high latency.
Limit the number of people using your broadband at any one time
If less people are using your internet connection at the same time, the less bandwidth will be used up.
Switch from Wi-Fi to a wired network
If you're experiencing a poor Wi-Fi signal, try using a wired connection to your router. Plugging your computer into your router using an Ethernet cable could make a difference to your ping.
Close down any applications that may be updating in the background
If your phone or gaming device is set to perform app or gaming updates automatically, it's a good idea to disable these. If these updates are being performed constantly, and in a household with slow broadband and lots of people connecting at once, you may experience high latency.
Playing games online? Select a server close to your location
If you're into online gaming, try and connect to a game server that is closer to where you live, rather than abroad.
Upgrade your broadband
If you find that your broadband connection slows significantly when a lot of people in your household are online at once, switching your broadband to a faster type of connection (e.g., from ADSL to fibre) may help reduce latency.
Before upgrading your broadband, it's a good idea to first determine the correct broadband speed for your home.
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