What Is Network Latency?
Bandwidth is just one element of what a person perceives as the speed of a network. Latency is another element that contributes to network speed. The term latency refers to any of several kinds of delays typically incurred in processing of network data. A so-called low latency network connection is one that generally experiences small delay times, while a high latency connection generally suffers from long delays.
Latency vs. Bandwidth
Although the theoretical peak bandwidth of a network connection is fixed according to the technology used, the actual bandwidth you will obtain varies over time and is affected by high latencies. Excessive latency creates bottlenecks that prevent data from filling the network pipe, thus decreasing effective bandwidth. The impact of latency on network bandwidth can be temporary (lasting a few seconds) or persistent (constant) depending on the source of the delays.
Latency of Satellite Internet Service
Satellite Internet service illustrates the difference between latency and bandwidth on computer networks. Satellite Internet connections possess both high bandwidth and high latency. When loading a Web page, for example, most satellite users can observe a noticeable delay from the time they enter a Web address to the time the page begins loading. This high latency is due primarily to propagation delay as the request message travels at the speed of light to the distant satellite station and back to the home network. Once the messages arrive on Earth, however, the page loads quickly like on other high-bandwidth Internet connections (DSL or cable).
Besides propagation delays, latency also may also involve transmission delays (properties of the physical medium) and processing delays (such as passing through proxy servers or making network hops on the Internet).
Measuring Network Latency
Network tools like ping tests and traceroute measure latency by determining the time it takes a given network packet to travel from source to destination and back, the so-called round-trip time. Round-trip time is not the only way to specify latency, but it is the most common.
On DSL or cable Internet connections, latencies of less than 100 milliseconds (ms) are typical and less than 25 ms desired. Satellite Internet connections, on the other hand, average 500 ms or higher latency.
Two key elements of network performance are bandwidth and latency. The average person is more familiar with the concept of bandwidth as that is the one advertised by manufacturers of network equipment. However, latency matters equally to the end user experience as the behavior of satellite Internet connections illustrates. Businesses use the term Quality of Service (QoS) to refer to measuring and maintaining consistent performance on a network by managing both bandwidth and latency in a coordinated fashion.
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