Your Internet Speed: Megabits vs. Megabytes

I called my ISP the other day (Qwest) to ask for an upgrade on the speed of my DSL line at home. When I did, I learned something  very interesting:

Qwest employees don’t know the difference between a megabit and a megabyte.

Cut them some slack, you may say… it’s an easy mistake to make. Right? Wrong—this is a glaring error. There’s a massive chasm between the two. And for a company that eats, sleeps and breathes megabits, they should be all over this. They’re in the business of selling data transfers at “bits per second,” not storing chunks of data on electronic storage devices in bytes. The gentleman I spoke to on the phone told me that the top speed I could get at my house is “12 megabytes,” so I interrupted him and said “you mean megabits, not megabytes.” He was confused and made some comment like as “Uhh, yeah, same thing.” C’mon! They’re NOT the same thing! Would a Pepsi salesman say Pepsi and Coca-Cola are the same thing?

According to Google’s handy-dandy SERP calculator, 12 megabits is only 1.5 megabytes. If my math is then correct, that means that a transfer rate of 12 megabytes per second is eight times the speed of 12 megabits per second. Now isn’t that shocking, considering that you’re paying lots of money for your internet, and the price is based on the speed?

I’ve heard people (who don’t know better) brag about their “blazing” internet speeds of “20 megs” or more, which sounds impressive, but really isn’t. Most people who sign up for residential high-speed internet are thinking “megabyte” when they say “meg.” I think there really is something dishonest about the way the telecom companies are treating this—they’re counting on their customers to be ignorant, in order to sell their products at what sounds like a better deal than that it really is. If they weren’t banking on it, they would work hard to educate their customers on the difference, and the would certainly educate their own employees.

Think about it… let’s measure this in real units that people actually understand: movies. The movie “The Social Network” in HD is approximately 3.6 gigabytes (which is 3,686 megabytes) in iTunes. If I were truly downloading at 12 megabytes per second (MB/s), it would take me only 5 minutes and 7 seconds to download the movie. Now that is fast! However, according to the data plan that I have with Qwest, I get speeds of “up to” 12 megabits (Mb/s), which means if I’m blazing at full throttle—(which doesn’t happen often, I might add)—it should take me about 40 minutes and 57 seconds to download the video.

That’s a difference of over 35 minutes, or approximately 800%. Which is a big deal!


(See what I mean??)

Yes, you might try to excuse it as a simple mistake by a low-level phone operator at Qwest. However, it’s such a fundamental flaw that it’s worth bringing up, especially because I was calling them to buy service, and they were telling me the options available to me. In truth, they don’t offer 12 megabyte service, as much as I wish they did. My takeaway from this is that people should educate themselves before purchasing service, and at the same time, internet service providers should be extremely careful about this arguably-confusing but still misleading advertising.

P.S. In case you wondered what the abbreviations are, Megabyte = MB, and Megabit = Mb. Now that you know, impress your friends with your useless trivia knowledge. :)

Update, March 2014: it’s been more than three years since I wrote the original post, and I’ve recently felt bad about calling out Qwest in the post and saying they don’t know what they’re talking about. So I had thought about editing the content, but I just didn’t get around to it. …until last week, when I called CenturyLink (the company that bought Qwest) about getting a better Internet connection at my office, and THEY DID IT AGAIN. The sales guy I spoke to told me that the best speed he could offer me was “seven megabytes” (which is, on an unrelated note, a pitifully slow connection). So I’ve decided not to change it after all since they are still, clearly, not training their employees on the difference. What a shame.

22. February 2011 by
Categories: Technology | 39 comments

  • Jason McEwan

    There are 8 bits to a single byte. So 8 megabits a second is equal to 1 megabyte.

    That is why 12MB = 1.5Mb.

    b = bits (smaller portions)
    B = byte (large portions of bits)

    • Jordan Lee


      Fixed it for you.

  • Ron Stauffer

    David, you and I are agreeing on the principle, but we’re saying it two different ways. When I say seven times faster, that’s the proper way to say it.

    Just in the same way that $8 is eight times $1, but it’s only $7 *more* than $1… not $8 more. It’s a subtlety in the way you phrase it, but it makes all the difference. Another example: $1.50 is 150% of $1.00, but it’s only 50% “more.” That’s why I said “seven times FASTER” rather than “seven times the speed.”

    Regardless, the point is that I think ISPs need to do a better job in their marketing, rather than relying on ignorance to sell their products. Thanks for commenting! :)

    • some guy

      David = owned! * 7

      • Mike Kee

        In all fairness there is no such thing as “150% of 1.00″.  The “cent” in “percent” represents 100.  Therefore, it would be impossible to have $1.50/$1.00. 

        Great article Ron.  Thanks for the explanation! 

  • Ron Stauffer

    Wow… I think everything you said is over my head. Thanks for commenting though! It’s good to see that there’s a lot more information on this topic than most people are aware of. :)

  • Collin Shneour

    Cool beans! Thanks for telling me, teens like me didn’t know the difference until now good sir. :)

  • Christian Shelton

     That is a fantastic question. There’s been a lot done with data transmission these days. You should check out some of the standards like TCP/IP and UDP. I believe that is what you were referring to, in modern data transfer. But it would be interesting to see if they add any other headers or such on for some other processing.

  • Miles Nelson

    We all would love a 12MB/s internet HOWEVER, since many of our network devices are 100Mb/s there would be a limitation. Even more so if you are using the wireless, even a fast one 54Mb/s is the limit – if you are alone on the device! Lets take a peek 100Mb/s / 8 = 12.5MB/s, 54Mb/s / 8 = 6.75MB/s. Those are the theoretical limits of today’s home installed devices. Keep in mind those maximum speeds are only possible IF everything is working perfectly, all cables are shielded right, connectors clean, power adapters exact, wireless transmission getting zero interference, etc. I suspect we actually get something like 1/2 that maximum speed in most homes. If you have more than one computer on the device get ready for much slower limits.

    • Ron Stauffer

      Great points …which further prove just how bad this disconnect is! I would love to see the day come when we all have gigabit equipment and Google Fiber is the standard for the internet. Maybe someday… ;)

  • SRed

    So, your connection to your ISP is still based on the fundamentals of TCP/IP packet switching, meaning that data you request from the web, or communications to your modem/codec are going to be have the very same issues now as you had then.

    Your data will be encapsulated with headers, and also further slowed down by windowing, not to mention the necessary SYN/ACK signals.

    So, if your link speed is 8 Mbps, and you’re moving a 64 MB file, its not necessarily going to take eight seconds to copy.

  • Vince

    You should be the man who answers the qwest phone.

    • Ron Stauffer

      HAHAHA. Awesome.

  • William Battel

    So I found this post today, about 4 months after the last comment, but this is still a very interesting topic. When this article was posted, this was not as big of an issue as I think it to be now. This is because, newer technology such as 802.11n allow much faster data transfer over LAN. Wireless Connections used to be primarily in a/b/g with maximum transfer speeds of 54Mb/s which don’t get me wrong is very decent. Today however, the more popular wireless connection protocol 802.11n boosts that transfer rate up to around 270Mb/s. Not to mention the even newer technology just released, 802.11ac, which supposedly is 3 times faster than 802.11n. AND in addition to that there is another new technology still being developed called 802.11ad, which reportedly delivers transfer rates at over 6 Gigabits per second, 42 times faster than 802.11n! While all of this technology is amazing to have under your control, your WLAN connection to the internet starts to create a sort of bottleneck that limits the use for such fast speeds. ISPs such as Qwest and Comcast, have not changed as much as routing technology has. Google now is making their own internet service known as Google Fiber that apparently delivers internet speeds of 1000Mb/s, a.k.a. Gigabit Internet. If ISPs can harness a much faster infrastructure such as Google Fiber, then everybody wins. However if they don’t step up their game then what is the point of faster routing? Well there really isn’t one (besides LAN communications such as file sharing). I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if they had Terabit routing speeds before i’m 50 (thats only 35 years from now), what i’m not as sure about are the ISPs. They are off in their own little world, they don’t have to worry too much about boosting their speeds because it is a true Oligopoly with little competition, since a thousand companies can’t start ripping up people’s lawns to put in internet cables. The point is that the same problem, that Ron posted over two years ago, is still here and it is getting more and more urgent since everything internet is getting faster, except for the companies that provide it!

    • Morinack

      Good start of a great discussion Ron. Interesting piece on wireless protocols but there no mention of one of the key differences between WLAN and LAN communication. Ethernet relies on Carrier Sense Multiple Access/Collision Detection (CSMA/CD), meaning it can “talk” first and listen for collisions on the broadcast network. Switching technology (especially in hardware) has advanced far beyond the days of hubs and should no be discounted for improved data transfer rates. WLAN on the other hand relies on Carrier Sense Multiple Access/Collision Avoidance (CSMA/CA) which means if any other device is transmitting on the network it must wait for it to finish before transmitting. Of course this all happens in fractions of seconds but is important to understand. A couple of other points wireless is effectively hub technology, as well as susceptible to many forms of interference.

      Having run an ISP, the most important thing to know is that ISPs can have all the bandwidth in the world, but successful revenue models rely on over-subscription of the circuits. This means 10 users can all share the same 12Mbps b/c they don’t all transmit at the same time. When users do all download simultaneously the network suffers horribly and can be observed in Cable service when trying to stream or download something in the middle of the Superbowl.

      BTW I work professionally, almost exclusively with 10Gbps for Data Center traffic and we are beginning to see 40 to 100Gbps connections being deployed. 1000Mbps is old school. ;-)

      • Ron Stauffer

        All great points, especially over-subscription: that’s why ISPs are always careful to say “UP TO” X Mbps. I frequently run speed tests and almost never hit the upper limit of my plan. :)

        • Jon R

          My PC knowledge is well above the average user. But I have never looked into data speeds that closely. So I have 2 questions. How can my laptop receive data at 60Mbps (number derived from multiple wireless network programs ie. Nsauditor, Wireshark, etc.) when my max internet speed is 30Mbps? I also want to know how I can download a 50MB file in about ten seconds at the rate of 60Mbps? Am I seriously missing something here? Sorry, that was 3 questions.

          • Ron Stauffer

            Great question. I’ll wait to see if any of the people who commented above have insight into this—they certainly know more than me!

          • Justin Miller

            Your wireless network speed could easily be greater than your internet speed. The 60mbps could be the speed of transfer between your laptop and the wireless router. The 30mbps speed would be a cap between your modem and the internet, or at least the main server your ISP is providing you access to.

            As for the 50MB file in 10 seconds? Well, the megabits per second rate converts to about 8 times larger. So, if you can download at 60 megabits per second, you should be able to download 60 megabytes in 8 seconds. Of course it’s never perfect so it might take a bit longer to make up for packet loss.

          • Reg Snr

            Very Good question mate.

            1st answer – if your maximum internet speed is 30Mbps and you are on a 1:1 contention ratio (explained below) then you can literally download the 50Mbps file in 2 seconds max. But in order for you to LITERALLY receive 60Mbps then you need a 60Mbps line with a 1:1 contention, anything less would not produce 60Mbps. Contention ratios are essentially just planning rules which are used to design a network offering (typically) an Internet service. I stand to be corrected but I actually tried this with a client. I once watched one of my clients transfer 9GB of data in an hour. Then over the next 4 hours only 1GB was transferred. His IT person couldn’t understand this but my only plausible answer to this was that he was using contended services and the poor lad didn’t know this.

            2nd answer – in order for you to download a 50Mb file online in 10 seconds you need an unshaped 50mb line with a maximum contention ratio of 5:1, (Contention ratio explained again) this means that the ratio of the potential maximum demand to the actual bandwidth is divided over 5 people meaning If all 4 people were downloading at the same time then your download speed could drop hugely, maybe you’d only get about 10mbps in the worst case scenario.

            The perception of the quality of that service will depend on the actual usage of the users of the service. This is partly why rules such as 10:1 for business and 50:1 for residential users came about. The actual usage demands of users have changed over the years and for evening/weekend traffic residential users can be demanding a lot of bandwidth making 50:1 contention ratios inappropriate. I hope this helps

  • Ron Stauffer

    Update, 2014: it’s been more than three years since I wrote the original post, and I’ve recently felt bad about calling out Qwest in the post and saying they don’t know what they’re talking about. So I had thought about editing the content, but I just didn’t get around to it. …until last week, when I called CenturyLink (the company that bought Qwest) about getting a better Internet connection at my office, and THEY DID IT AGAIN.

    The sales guy I spoke to told me that the best speed he could offer me was “seven megabytes” (which is, on an unrelated note, a pitifully slow connection). So I’ve decided not to change it after all since they are still, clearly, not training their employees on the difference. What a shame.

    • John Dunham

      I just updated my 1.5 Mbps to 7 with CenturyLink. The very helpful gal on the phone wasn’t familiar with the MB vs. Mb distinction. At some point, Ron, you were gracious, saying, “Maybe front line staff shouldn’t be expected to know this.” I feel the same way, except that the movie-theater-preview-narrator who was selling me stuff while I was on hold very clearly said “megabytes.”

      I was almost giddy when I thought about 7 MBps, but it quickly became clear this was Mbps. Question: Why on earth would you market at MBps when you could do Mbps? You get to multiply your number by 8! You could kill the competition by changing a vowel sound in your unit of measure! Except that this vowel change has already inflated my expectations incorrectly, and I’m really getting only .875 MBps max. By the way, their website speed illustration clearly says megabits per second. Oh well. Caveat emptor.

    • Justin

      I would like to weigh in and say that the misrepresentation of transmission speed, is “Indirectly Deliberate”. Meaning that the consultant (phone answerer) of your ISP is genuinely ignorant of the differences themselves, and is not doing so for gain or incentive. This is simply because the company does not train them on it. You may think that it would very important (it is) But it is not treated as so from the ISPs, because many today offer as well at least phone service too, and usually TV. The representative your speaking too when you call has a wealth of programs, protocol, and terms to learn in the few weeks of training they do get, for all these services. Most places do not require anything above a H.S degree, an often staff base is extremely young.(And, if your wondering, ethnic lol). I was a sales consultant for ***NOT AT&T UVERSE**** and am still friends with an older guy whos been there since DAY1, I brought this matter up to him and he says he’s always called it MBps.. I guess what Im trying to confirm lol is that YES, more people dont know, than know, in the average Customer Service Center for ISPs.(and they all have them, notice when you call you talk to someone of diff. geographic location everytime. Huge Companys like this have no way to take all these calls themselves, so outsourcing is needed.)

      • Ron Stauffer

        Justin, good thoughts. However, I’m not saying it’s the representative’s fault… it’s the company’s fault, 100%.

        • Justin

          Agreed Ron. Its amazing you posted this in ’11, yet the main idea of article/comments is still 100% Accurate.. UPDATE : “Not AT&T UVERSE” still provides no training on this matter to its reps, or any sort of clear-up to consumers for that matter..

          • Ron Stauffer

            Justin, yeah… interesting stuff. You’d think ISPs would start paying attention but they sure haven’t.

  • Sam de Lange

    I found this interesting. Just thought I may as well post my dilemma here!

    My internet speed reaches 256 “kbps”. Yet we have ADSL2+, which is supposed to be one of the fastest internet connections you can have. I don’t think I really know what I am talking about, but our deal/bundle is called “iPrimus ADSL2+ Starter pack”.
    I don’t really know how to explain. Just, I have read that we should be receiving a whole lot faster speeds but we are only getting 250kbps.

    • Ron Stauffer

      Yeah, that seems strange. Sounds like you should call your ISP and see what’s going on.

  • Chris McLeod

    Unfortunately in my area we have no other options for internet. Having dealt with them in the past on similar issues and found them to be equally uninformed about the business they are in. I will be calling them tomorrow to reconnect service and intend on calling them on this if they give me the same nonsense.

    • Ron Stauffer

      Bummer man. That’s the way Internet service is sometimes, unfortunately.

  • Matt K

    Just got off the phone with them, asked the same question. I was quoted 12 “mega bytes” per second. I asked if they’re sure it’s not bits. Guy had no clue, but said he’d check with his supervisor. Got back on the phone and said it’s “bytes”. Guess I’ll go with another provider.

    • Ron Stauffer

      I’m sorry to hear that Matt… I’m really surprised that they haven’t taken this more seriously.

      • Matt K

        I’m not, not considering the general public’s knowledge. I work at a Best Buy and sell routers and modems everyday. I have yet to have a customer walk in and know the difference.

  • Heidi Brenegan

    I called Centurylink (formerly Qwest in MN) a month ago to get service. They said I would get 12 Megabytes of service. When I said, “You mean megabits?” The woman said, “Yeah, uh, same thing.” You’re right, clearly a training issue that’s still not corrected.

    • Ron Stauffer

      Wow. Thanks for the supporting info. I didn’t know it was that bad!

  • KeJorn

    Sequester, since in the days of said dinosaurs, you were not dealing with TCP/IP in those transmissions, you had to consider those unique factors depending on the mode of transmission, esp since some of the connections you are referencing are to printers, not across a network. In today’s TCP/IP networks, the headers are your overhead and account the different functions you describe above and happening at the different 7-layer OSI model. Example, at layer 2 (Data Link), there are error detection functions taking place, inspecting the physical connection for errors. At layer 4 (Transport), there are several reliability / Quality of Service (QoS) aspects taking place.. At layer 7 (Presentation) you deal with encryption, compression, even character code translation (ACSII) … all of which are part of the overhead during data transmission. Therefore, yes, in every packet sent across the network, there is overhead (data offset/header length) to be considered as part of the entire transmission, but it is accounted for in the TCP/IP model.

  • Jacob black

    My electronics teacher said his internet was around 4 Megabytes/second and that it took him over 2 hours to download a 3 GB file… Sounds like Megabits not Megabytes!

  • Branton Burke

    I have a question. If my internet provider is providing me with roughly 126mb, and I try and download say a 1.17GB file, why can’t I download any faster than 1.5MB. Is it my provider or is it something else.

    Your explanation is fantastic and as a novice it was completely understandable, but I have been fighting my internet provider to explain itself, and I would like to have a little more information before I give it another go.

    My internet provider is Comcast, and I think I’m paying way to much money and not getting what I need. I did have a period of 3 weeks or so where I was doing over 10MBps but that is over.


    • Ron Stauffer

      Hi Branton! Wow… there can be a lot of variables at play, including the cabling you’re using (if any), the wireless router you’re using (if you’re on wireless), the network card you’ve got, the operating system you’ve got, etc. But if you’re paying for 126Mbps and you’re only getting 1.5, I would definitely call your ISP and complain. They will run you through a few troubleshooting steps and should be able to help you figure out what’s going on.

      Also, most high-speed internet companies offer a guaranteed *minimum* speed, so you may be able to get a refund on your service if they can pinpoint that you haven’t gotten the advertised speeds. But check it out first by calling them.

      I’m glad you found my post helpful!