Published September 9, 2016
In many parts of the world, Internet access has become almost like electricity. With few exceptions, we expect it to be there and we expect it to work. For interpreters, it doesn’t matter if we are at a conference in a soundproof booth, at a medical clinic or a courthouse, the ability to access online materials while working with all kinds of devices is important. In addition, with the growth of remote interpreting platforms, fast, reliable Internet access has become essential for interpreters working over the Internet. Needless to say, reliable Internet access is essential for translators as well.
JUST HOW FAST IS MY INTERNET CONNECTION?
So, this begs a question. How do you know just how fast your Internet connection really is? In this edition of the InterpretAmerica blog, we’ll take a look at a simple way to test your connection on any Internet-enabled device. But before we get down to that, let’s take a look at three basic measurements that make up a speed test and will help you understand how fast your Internet connection really is.
Your Internet-enabled device (e.g. a desktop computer, laptop, tablet or smartphone) has to do three things to communicate on the Internet—establish a connection with a computer that has the data you are looking for (known as a server) and then download and upload data as needed. These data are first broken down into “packets,” which are sent across the Internet and then reassembled on the device that requested them. This information may be in the form of text, photos, audio, video or other data. It’s the miracle of ones and zeros known as binary.
These three actions (connection, download and upload) are the three parameters used to measure the speed of your Internet connection. Let’s take a look at each one. The screenshots in each section are from a speedtest.net.
CONNECTION OR "PING"
Your device’s reaction time with the server is known as the “ping.” Specifically, the ping, or ping rate, is the amount of time it takes for your device to establish a connection with the server it wants to communicate with and receive a response from it. It is measured in milliseconds (ms). The ping gives you an idea of how responsive your connection will be. As a general rule, if you have a ping of 150ms or lower, your connection should be responsive enough for audio and video conferencing but the lower (i.e., the faster) the ping the better. (It is very good for online videogames too; just don’t tell your teenage son.) Ping rates above 150ms can lead to pronounced latency (or lag) in both audio and video. If you are just using the Internet to do research or read information, ping rates over 150ms should not be a problem.
Download speed measures how fast your device can receive data from the server it is connected to. Download speed is often referred to as “bandwidth” or more technically as the “data transfer rate” and is measured in megabits per second (Mbps, millions of bits per second). Think of it this way. Your connection is like a pipe, the bigger the pipe the more data that can be pushed through it per second. Typical entry-level home broadband packages offer download speeds of up to 5Mbps. Faster plans are available, particularly with cable modems, which offer up to 50Mbps and even 100Mbps. Of course, the cost of the plan increases as the bandwidth does. Internet users are hungry for more bandwidth and Internet service providers (ISPs) are working hard to deliver it.
For example, in certain cities in the United States, Google Fiber provides speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second (that’s 1,000 megabits per second or 1Gbps), Verizon FiOS offers fiberoptic plans on the US East Coast of up to 500 Mbps, and Comcast is now rolling out home Internet connections of 1Gbps and up to 2Gbps in certain areas. That is serious speed that will make HD videoconferencing bandwidth requirements seem small.
Download speed is the measurement of greatest importance for most Internet users because most people’s Internet activity is based on what they download. That means they consume much more data than they produce. Think about it. How many books do you download and how many movies and video clips do you watch compared to emails you send or files you upload? In fact, according to Cisco Systems, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of networking equipment, by 2018, 84 percent of all Internet traffic in the United States will be streaming video (See Cisco’s Visual Networking Index Report 2015). If you are curious about what kind of download speed different online activities require, check out the US Federal Communication Commission’s consumer Broadband Speed Guide.
All of the concepts explained above for download (i.e. bandwidth and Mbps) apply equally to upload, the flow of data simply runs in the opposite direction from your device to the server. In basic consumer broadband packages if your download pipe is the size of a water main, then your upload pipe is usually more like a drinking straw. Typical entry-level home broadband packages usually offer around 0.5Mbps upload speed. The reason for this difference has everything to do with the habits of average Internet users. They download data much more than they upload it.
Here again, ISPs offer other packages with faster upload speeds. If you only use your Internet connection for surfing the web and email, 0.5 Mbps should be sufficient. If you use videoconferencing, web conferencing or interpret remotely over the Internet you should definitely have a more robust Internet access plan that provides you with upload well speeds of over 0.5Mbps.
There are many different services available to test your internet connection. In this column, I will focus on perhaps the best known and most used service—SpeedTest by Ookla. It is a simple test that takes just a few seconds but provides you with the ping, download and upload speeds of your current Internet connection. Best of all, it's free.
If using a desktop or laptop computer, the browser-based test (www.speedtest.net) will be simplest. If you are testing the internet connection of a tablet or smartphone, I recommend downloading the SpeedTest app from Google Play (Android) or the App Store (iOS). If you are one of the rare birds that uses a Windows phone, the app is available for that operating system as well.
The browser-based version has paid advertising, but don’t be put off. Just be sure to look for the “Begin Test” button in the middle of the screen. The free app versions of the test also have ads, but they are much more subtle.
Once initiated, the test establishes a connection with a nearby server and checks the ping. It then tests the download speed followed by the upload speed. And, voila! You have a snapshot of how well your Internet connection is working. The test will work on any network—wired, Wi-Fi or cellular. The app keeps a history of your tests so you can compare connections speeds on different networks and at different locations. If you know you need to connect to Internet servers located in a specific part of the world, on the browser-based version of SpeedTest, you can even specify the region of the world where you want to connect to a server. Just drag the viewfinder to the part of the world map where you want to connect, click on one of the white dots representing a server and start your test. Of course, if you are connecting to a server halfway around the world, your ping, upload and download speeds will be slower than if you were connecting to a server across the street.
I usually test my Internet connection when I am getting set up to work at a conference venue to give me a baseline of the kind of speeds I can expect. I then test throughout the workday, especially if the Wi-Fi network is shared by conference delegates, which can bring Internet speeds to an excruciating crawl. At which point, I usually switch to a cellular data network, if cell reception is good enough at the venue. At more established conferencing facilities, robust wireless networks are becoming more common. However, since interpreters often work in different venues around town and around the world, testing your Internet connection can give you some idea of what kind of connectivity you can expect at a given venue throughout the day.
Conducting regular speed tests from your home or office computer allows you to know if your ISP is actually providing you the kinds of upload and download speeds stipulated in your contract. As they say, knowledge is power.
Do you have a question about a specific technology? Or would you like to learn more about a specific interpreting platform, interpreter console or supporting technology? Send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*This blog first appeared in January 2016 in the Tech-Savvy Interpreter, a column written by InterpretAmerica for Jost Zetzsche's monthly translation technology newsletter the Tool Box Journal.