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Bandwidth describes the maximum data transfer rate of a network or Internet connection. It measures how much data can be sent over a specific connection in a given amount of time. For example, a gigabit Ethernet connection has a bandwidth of 1,000 Mbps, (125 megabytes per second). An Internet connection via cable modem may provide 25 Mbps of bandwidth.

While bandwidth is used to describe network speeds, it does not measure how fast bits of data move from one location to another. Since data packets travel over electronic or fiber optic cables, the speed of each bit transferred is negligible. Instead, bandwidth measures how much data can flow through a specific connection at one time.

When visualizing bandwidth, it may help to think of a network connection as a tube and each bit of data as a grain of sand. If you pour a large amount of sand into a skinny tube, it will take a long time for the sand to flow through it. If you pour the same amount of sand through a wide tube, the sand will finish flowing through the tube much faster. Similarly, a download will finish much faster when you have a high-bandwidth connection rather than a low-bandwidth connection.

Data often flows over multiple network connections, which means the connection with the smallest bandwidth acts as a bottleneck. Generally, the Internet backbone and connections between servers have the most bandwidth, so they rarely serve as bottlenecks. Instead, the most common Internet bottleneck is your connection to your ISP.

NOTE: Bandwidth also refers to a range of frequencies used to transmit a signal. This type of bandwidth is measured in hertz and is often referenced in signal processing applications.

Updated: May 16, 2012

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