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The Confusion of Broadband ISP Speeds – Megabits vs MegaBytes

Posted Thursday, April 2nd, 2015 (1:12 am) by Keith Oddy (Score 36,761)

Getting the data size or Internet transfer speed measurement for Megabits and MegaBytes or Gigabits and GigaBytes back to front is an easy mistake, albeit one that seems to have become increasingly common. But it’s also an error that gives an entirely different meaning to what you’re trying to say, so why do so many organisations and people get it wrong?

Only yesterday I was asked by a passing friend, “Keith, you amazing person and pinnacle of human wonder, any idea how I can get a better Internet speed than the 12 MegaBytes delivered by my ISP?” (I embellished a bit). Now, being polite and knowing the area, I secretly recognised that he meant Megabits and suggested some alternatives.

At the same time my inner IT demon was screaming to correct his error, perhaps by using a touch of sarcasm or something akin to, “FOOL! How dare thy confuse MegaBytes with Megabits in front of MEEE… Don’t you know that the two are fundamentally different! I shall cast thee aside, into a pit of lava no less and watch thee burn!”. Come to think of it, I like that response better.

In this instance there was no need to chastise the miscreant; after all we can’t expect everybody outside of the IT realm to understand the differences between Bits and Bytes now can we? Occasionally even I’ve type the wrong thing, it’s an easy mistake, but one that our editor Mark usually spots. But when an ISP or mobile operator gets it wrong, well that’s another story and sadly it happens rather a lot.

What’s in a letter? (8 bits = 1 Byte)

The trouble with trying to explain the difference is that we’d soon stray into the realm of basic math and I know how some people hate that, so instead we’ll keep it ultra-simple with only minimal number usage. Essentially things like Kilobits, KiloBytes, Megabits and so forth are all measures of data size on a computer, which can also be used to express the speed of an Internet / network connection.

For example, let’s say there’s a music file that you want to download and the file size is 1 MegaByte (1MB). In simple terms, 1 MegaByte = 8 Megabits, so if your broadband connection was running at 8 Megabits per second (“Mbps”) then that means you could reasonably expect to download that file in the space of a second; this could perhaps also be expressed as 1 MegaByte per second (“MBps”).

But most broadband providers tend to prefer to quote Megabits for their speeds, not least because it’s more familiar and attractive from an advertising perspective. For example, some people might think that 1MBps is slower than 8Mbps, even though they’re effectively the same, and advertisers do so love bigger numbers. So the importance of that little ‘b’ and big ‘B’ is not to be overlooked.

Now, while I’ve got you here, the same also applies between Gigabits and GigaBytes (i.e. 8 Gigabits = 1 GigaByte (GB)). But take note that transfer speeds / data sizes aren’t all based around an eight times difference, indeed it’s worth keeping in mind that around 1000 Megabits per second is equal to 1Gbps (Gigabit). But that’s another story and I don’t want to confuse matters.

The Big ‘B’alls Up

Sadly plenty of organisations and people make the same mistake as my friend because, unless perhaps you were education in IT, it’s very easy to overlook the difference between a little and big letter. Indeed it only takes one typo to completely change the meaning and over the years there have been some big errors.

ISPreview.co.uk’s Pick of the Top 5 Mistakes (Mega.. ‘bits’ and ‘Bytes’ Confusion)

1. TalkTalk’s Internet Traffic Record

At the start of last year TalkTalk’s Chief Technology Officer, Clive Dorsman, claimed that their data traffic had passed a new peak of 557GBps on New Year’s Day. After several attempts to clarify, the operator stuck to their story, although it later transpired that the updates had been posted by a PR person and in actual fact the result was 557Gbps (Gigabits) not GigaBytes. So for a brief period TalkTalk had claimed to become one of the biggest overall networks in the whole world.

2. EE’s 4G Mobile Launch in October 2012

The 2012 launch of the country’s first truly national 4G (LTE) based Mobile Broadband network (excluding UKBB/PCCW’s service) was marred by their website’s reference to the connection speed being listed as MB/s (MegaBytes per second) instead of Megabits. In other words, EE’s early promised average 4G speeds were fictitiously eclipsing most high-end fixed line superfast broadband connections.

3. Europe’s Connecting Cumbria Approval

Last year’s move by the European Commission to grant Major Projects Approval to the state aid supported Connecting Cumbria project in North West England expected that “a minimum of 90% of Cumbria” would be given access to broadband speeds “in excess of 30 megabytes per second (mbps)“. In this case the EC even stated “megabytes” directly, which for a period effectively promised real-world speeds of at least 240Mbps (Megabits per second) for most of the county :). Sadly they meant Megabits.

4. Orange’s Mobile Speeds Mix-Up

Back in 2008 we made a query to Orange UK in regards to whether or not they intended to impose a data transfer speed of just 384Kbps (Kilobits per second) on their iPhone customers, which had previously occurred in France. The response ultimately confirmed the situation but in the process referenced figures in both KiloBytes (KB) and MegaBytes (MB) instead of bits.

5. EE’s new 400MBPS 4G+ Service

A promotional image supplied for EE’s new 4G+ service trial depicted the peak speed as “403MBPS“, when they should have said 403Mbps for Megabits. If it really had been 403MBPS then the Megabits performance would have equated to 3,200Mbps+. Yes please EE, we’ll take that!

We continue to see mistakes like this and no doubt there will be plenty more going forward. So here ends my brief tale of casual pedantry.. well, except for that small matter of how some ISPs reference speed simply by saying “Megs” – *sound of a head exploding*.

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4 Responses
  1. tonyp

    When I was shown the pride of a nationally known bank’s gleaming IBM 360/65 with an amazing 1MByte of magnetic core storage in 1970, it was explained that a Byte was 9 Bits, 8 data and 1 parity. And you could see them on the flashing lights at the console. IBM used EBCDIC code rather than ASCII X.3 1968. And the quantity stuck! I would prefer Bits and Octets (as per ITU) though with 32 and 64 bit MCU’s, IP packet sizes of 1500 or Jumbo, the Byte thing ought to be redundant.

    • SamB

      Blinded by numbers! Those who have less than approx. 10 years (or more) experience in the I.T. field (like myself) would find your comment illegible. ASCII X.3 1968??? IEEE anybody?? Octets?? MCU?? packet sizes?? JUMBO PACKETS??? I think that a relatively low level article written to help people understand the difference between bits and Bytes (without reverting to binary, the reason behind the numbers) has been hijacked by a know it all wanting to blind the world with his technical knowledge… NOT helpful methinks. Ho Hum, at this point I am reminded of the old saying “you have two eyes and one mouth, use them in that proportion”. Just saying….

    • I had one customer not so long ago who insisted on using the term Baud rather than bit when referring to broadband speeds! 🙂

      What tickles me most is when I am working on consulting projects with career economists who take an anal view on grammar in reports (note, I am pretty fussy about it myself though!), but don’t seem to care one bit (byte? 🙂 ) about using B not b, M not G etc etc.

  2. rolly

    I strongly disagree when you state that “Megabits and so forth are all measures of data size on a computer, which can also be used to express the speed of an Internet / network connection.” yes, of course, just like km may be used to express one of the involved quantities (the distance) but that means a transfer rate (speed) only when a period of time, per unit of that one, is specified. Pretty obvious it is ‘per second’ here, but if we were talking about km, what could it be the reasonable time on which we refer to, either s or h?, In physics every teacher surely consider wrong and misleading the use of the same “unit”, even if it is mnemonic acronym, for both a quantity and its time derivative, never omit ‘per second’ , please

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