Need for Speed: How Fast Does Your Internet Connection Need to Be for Online Courses?

If there’s one thing you need to get right for taking an online course it’s your access to the Internet. It needs to be reliable, readily available for you to use, and fast enough to ensure that you can complete the things you’ll need to do for the course. But how fast is fast enough? Here, we’ll address the basics of getting the best Internet connection for an online course and discuss the speed you need to keep pace with your coursework.

Understanding the Basics: Speeds and Types of Connections

Internet access is so ubiquitous these days that you might not have actually spent much time learning what the terminology behind the tech is–you’ve just never really had to think about it. Here are a few definitions that can help you better understand what you need and what  you’re paying for when you sign up with an Internet service provider (ISP)  and how each of these will impact your ability to access online course materials.

Dial-Up: Dial-up Internet is a form of Internet connection that operates through a telephone line. At one time, dial-up was the standard Internet connection, but today it is fairly uncommon (fewer than 3% of Americans have a dial-up connection) as it does not provide speeds high enough to do things like stream video.

If you live in an rural area or simply have a very small budget for Internet service, you may want to consider dial-up, but only if your course will not require you to stream, conference, or upload or download large amounts of data–these kind of web-interactions will not perform well on a dial-up connection.

DSL: DSL is short for Digital Subscriber Line. It also uses telephone lines to provide Internet service, but it’s different from dial-up in that it provides high-bandwidth service and that you can access your phone line and Internet service simultaneously, something that cannot be done with dial-up.

There are some definite pros and cons to DSL: it’s widely available and inexpensive, but it does not provide the high speeds that a cable Internet connection can. That said, for many, if not most, online courses, a DSL connection will be sufficient, but it is wise to determine both the speeds you can get from your provider and the requirements of your course to ensure that this type of connection will be a good fit for online learning.

Cable: This type of connection operates over cable TV lines, providing much more bandwidth than services delivered over telephone lines and in turn can be used to achieve extremely fast upload and download speeds. As landlines have fallen out of favor and speeds have inched up (as well as the need for higher speeds), cable Internet has become increasingly more popular with consumers.

Generally speaking, cable Internet offers the fastest speeds currently available to consumers. But that speed can come at a cost– cable internet is often the most expensive option for Internet service. However, if you are taking a course that requires a higher speed connection, cable service may be your best and least frustrating option.

Download Speed: Download speed is the how fast you can pull data from the Internet to your device. Download speeds will almost always be much faster than upload speeds, and it makes sense as most of the activities that take place online consist of downloads (streaming, loading websites, purchasing content). The download speed (measured in Mbps or Megabits per second) is generally the speed you should pay the most attention to when choosing an Internet provider.

Upload Speed: Upload speed, the rate at which you can transfer data from your own device to the Internet, is always lower than your download speed. This isn’t something you can control or improve–it’s set by your Internet provider and is designed to optimize your online experience since uploads are not as common as downloads.

What You Need to Consider When Looking for an Internet Service Provider

Now that you know the basics, here are the things you should consider before choosing a provider or a plan:

What you will need to do. The first thing you need to consider is what your course will require. If you’re just checking email and posting things to Blackboard, you don’t need the latest and greatest high-speed Internet to do that. But if you’ll need to do a lot of streaming or videoconferencing (yes, Collaborate counts), then you will absolutely need a faster connection. For those latter two functions, the FCC recommends 4 Mbps just to be safe– you may not be able to predict whether there will be any HD content which will necessitate a much higher minimum download speed.

How many people will be using it. Will it just be you using your Internet connection or will you have to share with roommates or family members? When several people are using a connection at once, especially to do things like stream video or play online games, it can really slow things down, sometimes to the point of making it impossible to do what you need to do. Keep this in mind when selecting your service– if it’s to be shared by several users you’ll need more than just the bare bones.

Your budget. If you can’t afford the top of the line plan, you simply can’t afford it. Determine what you can afford and work with that. You may be able to get a deal on service through a provider through introductory plans or by signing on for multiple years. Don’t be afraid to shop around for the best rates.

What is available where you live. Not all service providers are available in all areas. Most providers offer a feature on their website that will allow you to check if they provide service to your address, use it to determine which providers you can access and go from there to see who offers the speed you need at the price you can afford. Depending on where you live in Illinois, you may have access to many different options including WOW, RCN, Comcast, Time Warner, and Frontier (you can check here for what’s out there). Options for other states may be even more diverse so do your research.

Can mobile be enough?  Already paying for mobile service on your phone or tablet? Depending on the content covered in your course and what you’ll need to do for homework, you may be able to get by using the coverage you already pay for. Don’t assume this, however. Always check with your professor to ensure you won’t be missing out by failing to sign up for Internet service.

How your current service is performing. If you’re like most people, it’s not so much a question of acquiring Internet service, but making sure that the service you have will be enough for the demands of your course. To figure this out, do a test to measure your speed using a site like SpeedTest. Test at different times of the day and days of the week to get a more accurate picture of the service you’re getting.

Once you know what you need, what you want, and what it will cost you, you can begin determining which service is the best fit for you.

Recommendations for Online Learning

So what do we recommend for online learning? Ideally, the fastest connection available that you can reasonably afford. Here are some ranges for the low and high end of connections and what you can expect from each.

1.5 to 5 Mbps: You will need at least 1.5 Mbps to use most of the functions required of an online course, and to access anything that requires high definition streaming or video conferencing, you will need at least 4 Mbps. These recommendations come from the FCC, and account for only using one device at a time. If you’ve got multiple users and multiple devices, you will need to find a faster connection, and even if you don’t, you may notice performance issues in the lower ranges, especially during peak hours.

6 to 15 Mbps: Don’t want to end up frustrated with a slow connection? Most students will find that somewhere between 10 and 15 Mbps is enough to most things online with relative ease. This range also allows for more wiggle room if others are using your home connection or if you end up needing to do more than one activity online at once. Keep in mind that while your connection may technically be able to provide whatever speed it promises that it might not always do so, so it’s a good idea to have more speed than you need.

15 Mbps and Up: High speed Internet is defined as speeds of 25 Mbps and up and service is available that delivers even a whopping 300 Mbps (though 150 and under is much more common). Do you need this much speed for an online course? In most cases, probably not, but if you can afford it, it’s not a bad investment. Part of the appeal of online education is its convenience and flexibility, and a slow Internet connection can not only reduce those benefits but also hamper your ability to learn.

Bottom line: faster is better, but only within the constraints of what you can afford. For courses that don’t require a lot of streaming or high volume uploading or downloading, a super high speed connection is more of a luxury than a necessity. However, students shouldn’t consider anything under 1.5 Mbps (this is the minimum requirement to use Blackboard) and should ideally have service that offers at least 4 Mbps. To get the performance you’re used to in most school or work settings, 10 Mbps or more will likely be required.

Still unsure what kind of service you need for an online course? Check with your instructor or contact COD Online to ensure you won’t have to worry about slow speeds when taking your online course and can focus on the course content instead.