Internet providers frequently use the terms “bandwidth” and “speed” interchangeably. In fact, there is a subtle difference between them.
Bandwidth: the maximum amount of data that can be transmitted over an Internet connection, as measured in Megabits per second (Mbps).
Speed: the rate at which data can be downloaded (or uploaded) to a given device using that Internet connection, also measured in Megabits per second.
Bandwidth vs Speed: The Plumbing Metaphor
Think of it this way: data is traveling over the Internet cable like water in a pipe. Bandwidth is the width of that pipe — essentially, the maximum volume of water (data) that can pass through at once. Speed, meanwhile, is the amount of Megabits per second that can be downloaded by a given device using your home network. Speed is more accurately called “throughput,” meaning the rate at which data is “put through” to your laptop/phone/etc.
Bandwidth vs Speed: The Highway Metaphor
Another common way of describing the difference between bandwidth and speed is the “highway metaphor.” Essentially, you can imagine bandwidth as the number of lanes on the highway, and speed as the speed limit on each lane in the highway. Just like a highway, there’s a point at which the amount of cars will cause a traffic jam or slowdown due to congestion. However, using only one lane doesn’t increase the maximum speed — it just means that car (data packet) doesn’t have as much competition in the journey from point A to point B.