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—approximately 800%. Which is a big deal!

megabits-vs-megabytes

(See what I mean? What a difference!)

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, here’s a quick list:

  • Megabyte = MB
  • Megabit = Mb

By extension, speeds would be measured as such:

  • Megabytes Per Second = MBps (if this was the way it was actually measured)
  • Megabits Per Second = Mbps

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.” 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.