How To: Find the Right Starting Bandwidth for your Company

Determining how much internet bandwidth a company should start out with is something that IT professionals and telecom professionals work on every day.   If you ask those people what process they used to arrive at those bandwidth numbers you will likely receive a different answer with every person you ask.

This post includes my answer to that question and my reasoning behind it. 

This is mainly designed for instances where you don’t have historical data.  For instance, when you are setting up a new office or the current office is about to change so drastically that looking at the historic performance would not be a useful guide.

All Models Are Wrong, but Some Are Useful

In college I interned at Northwestern Mutual, a financial services company.  One part of helping people prepare financially is figuring out how much life insurance they should have.  Similar to our issue of determining how much bandwidth a company needs, determining how much life insurance an individual needed was a largely personalized process.  Financial advisors and customers used many different ways to arrive at a number. Some people used heuristics like: “Buy 10-15 times your income.”, “Total your expenses for the next 20 years and subtract your assets.” 

Ultimately, there wasn’t a right or wrong way of approaching the problem.  The important thing was that people were doing something and any of those calculations would get them in the ballpark of where they needed to be.

The fact that they were doing any calculation at all meant that if they did end up making an early exit, the people who they loved the most wouldn’t be left out to dry financially. 

This is a process for getting you in the ballpark of where you need to be. I’m not claiming it is the absolute right way of arriving at the number. It is simply one way to arrive at the number and I hope you find it useful.

Finding the Sweet Spot

Finding the right bandwidth is a matter of finding the right range.  Get too little bandwidth and you can effectively bring business to a halt, interrupting daily operations, the company’s ability to function, and create a lot of frustrated end users.  On the other hand if you purchase too much bandwidth unnecessarily you’ll be wasting money that could have been allocated to other projects or to the bottom line.

So the sweet spot is the point where you added bandwidth so that everyone can use their devices at the same time and their applications work seamlessly, but not too far beyond that point.  You want webpages to load in an acceptable amount of time, videos streaming without buffering or having to downgrade their quality, real time communication applications like VOIP and video conferencing working without being choppy.  Essentially everything is working as it was intended without draining company resources.

My Process for Estimating Your Required Starting Bandwidth

This is based on my work with thousands of customers and seeing what has worked and what hasn’t.  Then I built this process to map back to that experience.  I expect this to work for a large majority of companies and their situations.

4 Simple Steps

  1. Determine your number of users
  2. Categorize those users.
  3. Run a calculation.
  4. Select the right bandwidth for you.

Step 1: Determine Your Number of Users

What is the expected maximum numbers of users that will be on the network at one time?

Step 2: Categorize Users

What type of users and usage do you expect on your network?  Are they light, moderate, or power internet users?

These categories are largely subjective.  I wouldn’t dwell on these categorizations for too long. Think about what the user’s role is, how they use the internet and quickly classify them into a category that feels right.

Here is some context for thinking about these categories:

Light User – These users might not use the internet much as part of their core job function..  When they are in front of their computer, their needs are basic.  Applications such as emailing and general web browsing come to mind.

Moderate User – Being plugged into a computer is a large part of their job.  Using the internet for basic functions like web research, instant messaging, bookkeeping, and email. 

Power User – They are working with large files on a regular basis and need the ability to move those files at an acceptable pace. They’re running many applications at once, streaming web conferences, absorbing lots of video content and needing real time applications running smoothly. They’re probably connected with multiple devices to the network and constantly accessing applications on the cloud.

You, you are probably what I would consider to be a “power user”, so you understand.

Step 3: Run Your Calculation

Step 4: Select the Lesser of Two Bandwidths

It’s not likely that the calculation will produce a number which conveniently lines up with a bandwidth tier provided by your carrier.  It’s more likely it will suggest a bandwidth between two of their tiers. I suggest starting with the lower of the two and here’s why:

  • There is buffer built into the calculation.  You’ve designed for the maximum amount of users and are assuming they are all using the internet at once.
  • Telecom companies will let you upgrade your internet, but will give you a hard time or make it impossible to downgrade once you’ve committed to an agreement.

Bandwidth on a Budget

What happens when the calculation produces a suggestion that there is no budget for? Not to fear, this is a common occurrence, assuming that you can still get yourself in the ballpark. If the calculations suggests 630 Mbps and your budget only allows you to get 20 Mbps, well you’ll likely need to find a way to make more budget. If the tool suggested that you need 630 Mbps, but your budget only allows you to get 250 Mbps, well than that’s what you should get and you’ll make it work.  Making do with less than the optimal amount of bandwidth is feasible and companies do it everyday.  You have many tools at your disposal for making this work.  Some of those include:

  • Quality of Service – Guarantee bandwidth for the applications that are mission critical and need bandwidth.
  • Web filtering
  • Bandwidth limitations for each device on the network.

Fine Print

This process needs to be used in conjunction with you and your team’s best judgement. I’ve used this process countless times with clients and found it to be a useful exercise to find a good starting point. Often we end up using what the tool has suggested. Other times we find that more or less bandwidth is required based on the given situation.

The bandwidth recommendations you are getting from the calculator are 3 Mbps per Light User, 6 Mbps per Moderate User, and 12 Mbps per Power User.

Still Have Questions?

If you still have questions, want a second set of eyes, or would generally like help with your project, you can get on my calendar by scheduling a free consultation.