What Is Gigabit Internet, and Does Anyone Really Need It?

What Is Gigabit Internet, and Does Anyone Really Need It?

You’ve probably seen ads for gigabit internet service promising blazing-fast speeds that will eliminate lag when you’re playing games online and let you upload files in seconds. Upgrading to gigabit sounds tempting: After all, faster speeds are always better, right?

Not necessarily. In fact, some entry-level and most midtier internet plans are fine for most people—even if you work from home and collaborate on Zoom all day, or if you relax at night by streaming 4K movies while your kids stream music and videos. Every internet service provider wants you to sign up for its faster gigabit service, but upgrading to that tier can cost as much as 78% to 80% over the lowest (or “slowest”) tier.

According to Ookla’s Speedtest, 195 megabits per second is the median fixed broadband speed in the US as of January 2023, which means many households enjoy speeds above that, and many have speeds below that. Services such as Disney+, Netflix, Sony PlayStation Plus, and Zoom are aware of internet speed limitations and have designed their offerings to work with much slower speeds, though you may still want a plan with speeds of 100 Mbps to 500 Mbps if you want to support streaming from multiple devices throughout the day.

But first we’ll dive into what gigabit internet entails, why you might be tempted to sign up for a high-speed plan, and why you don’t really need one.

What is gigabit internet? Gig+? Multi-gig?

“Gigabit” internet is a misnomer. As with most advertised internet speeds, gigabit internet services advertise and deliver up to 1 gigabit per second, or 1,000 megabits per second. That means you don’t always see the ultrafast speeds you might expect.

Here’s how internet speed tiers typically break down:

High-speed internet service: This term technically refers to anything at or above 25 Mbps, according to the FCC’s increasingly outdated definition. This is the low end for any broadband internet service, whether it’s fiber, cable, DSL, or wireless 5G home service. Plans with slower speeds were common a few years back, and though you can find some affordable connectivity plans offering speeds as low as 50 Mbps at the moment, in early 2023, most current entry-level plans offer speeds of 75 Mbps to 300 Mbps. Areas limited to DSL service see download speeds at or under 100 Mbps.

Gigabit internet plans: These promise download speeds of around 800 Mbps to 940 Mbps and upload speeds of either 30 Mbps to 50 Mbps (cable) or 880 Mbps to 940 Mbps (fiber). Until this year, ISPs focused on selling gigabit plans, but now they are heavily promoting gig+ and multi-gig plans.

Gig+ plans: Such plans deliver download speeds between 1,200 Mbps and 2,000 Mbps. They’re not available everywhere, but internet service providers are starting to push them more.

Multi-gig plans: Expensive and rare, these plans allow you to download anything at speeds above 2,000 Mbps (2 Gbps) and theoretically up to 10 Gbps.

(Note that the gigs we’re talking about here are gigabits per second, or Gbps, not to be confused with gigabytes, or GB, which are commonly used to measure memory and storage capacity in PCs and SSDs.)

Is gigabit internet service really necessary in 2023?

Although faster sounds better, you shouldn’t sign up for a gigabit internet tier before figuring out how you use the internet and whether faster speeds would actually help you with work or play.

Streaming video in 4K requires only about 25 Mbps per stream, according to Disney+. Gigabit-level service provides speeds around 900 megabits per second, so an extended family (up to 12 people) could stream 4K content to each of their own devices at the same time and still stay under that limit. Streaming 1080p HD videos like those on Sling TV or YouTube TV and from most broadcast services requires around 3 Mbps to 5 Mbps each. Even if you have several household members, you’re probably fine with a plan offering 100 Mbps to 500 Mbps for watching TV or movies on the internet.

Online multiplayer games like Call of Duty, Fortnite, and League of Legends need throughput of 5 Mbps to 50 Mbps, but online games rarely send large packets of data; instead, they send smaller packets of data very quickly. Therefore, stats like latency, packet loss, and jitter are more important in this context, but these factors vary on a day-to-day basis, if not minute to minute. If you’re an online gamer, checking sites like Lag Report can give you a better idea as to whether your internet connection is sufficient for gaming. If you have strong Wi-Fi and a good router, your speeds are probably fast enough, even if your family members are streaming to their phones or tablets at the same time. For the best performance, however, you should connect your gaming console or PC to the router with an Ethernet cable.

What about working remotely or learning from home?

If you work from home, Zoom meetings are perfectly functional at speeds of 3.8 Mbps/3.0 Mbps (up/down) for group or individual meetings, and the requirements are similar or lower for services such as BlueJeans by Verizon, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and WebEx. Security cameras from companies like Eufy and Wyze need upload speeds of 2 Mbps to 5 Mbps if you’re monitoring their video feeds in real time. As with Zoom calls, a camera system’s upload speed is often more important than its download speed. On cable-internet connections, upload speeds are often lower than download speeds, and overloading that stream can lead to stuttering and broken connections. Unless you’re uploading or downloading huge video files all day, one of the moderate plans, offering 100 Mbps to 500 Mbps, should be plenty fast enough.

How much does gigabit internet cost?

Considering that most online services don’t require faster speeds to function, we believe that plans providing 100 Mbps to 500 Mbps are good enough for a three- to eight-person household; in comparison with gigabit internet, they cost significantly less per month. If you are paying for gigabit internet but are using only 300 Mbps at any given time, you’re wasting money by paying a lot for extra overhead you don’t need.

Using Xfinity, the largest cable ISP in the US, as an example, we determined that a current customer out of contract would pay $60 a month for the lowest tier, which delivers a download speed of 75 Mbps and an upload speed of about 10 Mbps. On the top end, a plan providing a 1.2 Gbps (1,200 Mbps) download speed and a 35 Mbps upload speed costs $107 before taxes and fees. That’s $564 extra per year, until the rates go up (as they inevitably do). Xfinity offers a 200 Mbps plan for $77 a month and a 400 Mbps plan for $92 a month, both of which are a lot more palatable than the $107 plan. Of course, you can find gigabit internet plans at a discount, either when you sign up as a new customer or threaten to switch providers, but we decided to leave that out of the equation because offers from the customer-retention department are variable, and switching ISPs is a hassle and sometimes not possible unless you move.

Who actually needs gigabit internet?

People who run video-editing businesses would actually benefit from gigabit speeds, because they’re downloading and uploading large, multi-gigabyte work files all day. Businesses that deal with large data sets would also benefit—think blueprints and engineering designs for a car manufacturer, rather than, say, a text-based inventory system for a comic book store.

Gigabit internet might make sense for you in a few cases: If you run a data-heavy business at home, work in video-content creation, or are a database developer, you probably could use gigabit or faster speeds. In that case, look for gigabit on both the upload side and the download side (symmetrical speeds, usually found on fiber networks).

People who regularly play new, modern video games might also benefit from faster download speeds. For example, God of War Ragnarök is an 80 GB download on the PlayStation 5 and 100 GB on the PlayStation 4, and on a 55 Mbps internet connection, the best-case scenario for an 80 GB download is more than three hours. On a 940 Mbps connection, in contrast, that download time would be just over 11 minutes. And even after that initial game download, many games have massive, multi-gigabyte patches required to continue playing them online or to fix bugs or other problems.

A screenshot of the game God of War in the process of downloading.
Photo: Arthur Gies

What’s the difference between fiber and cable gigabit internet?

We recommend choosing fiber if it’s available in your area. The upload speeds on fiber dramatically outclass those of a cable-internet gigabit plan, offering 940 Mbps in contrast to 30 Mbps to 50 Mbps. However, your area may have only one high-speed internet choice, so your mileage may vary. Check the FCC’s broadband-lookup site to see if additional internet providers are available at your address.

What devices do you need to take advantage of gigabit internet or faster broadband?

We usually recommend owning your equipment, but if your ISP includes a router and a cable modem, or a combined gateway, as part of your gigabit service for free, try it out; it may solve your internet problems.

You’ll likely want a Wi-Fi 6 standalone router or mesh-router system to get the most out of gigabit service, or a Wi-Fi 6E or Wi-Fi 7 router for gig+ or multi-gig service. For more details, read our guide to the best routers.

Sometimes people think they need to upgrade their internet tier to gigabit service when they actually need to upgrade the router itself and nothing more. Here’s a way to check: Is your internet speed fine in the room your router lives in but slow in a room where the Wi-Fi signals need to go through more than three or four walls? Before upgrading your internet service, take a look at a Wi-Fi 6 or faster mesh-networking system. Slow Wi-Fi can make you think that your internet service is slow, and a mesh system can often help to resolve the problem by spreading the signals around your home.

If you decide to upgrade to gigabit internet, make sure your devices can actually take advantage of those ultra-fast speeds. If you wire your streaming boxes or smart TV through Ethernet cables, you’re all set. For laptops and tablets, look for Wi-Fi 7, Wi-Fi 6E, or Wi-Fi 6 connectivity at a minimum. On a desktop PC or a professional laptop, look for a 2.5 GbE wired Ethernet port, or add one with an adapter, to get the most from multi-gig service; a PC or Mac with a Gigabit Ethernet port is enough for gigabit internet. Check your device’s tech specs on the manufacturer’s website to confirm that it will support gigabit speeds.

This article was edited by Caitlin McGarry and Arthur Gies.