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When shopping for internet service, you may be tempted to buy the fastest service available. More is always better, right? But the highest speed services can cost a hundred dollars monthly (or more) and don’t always translate into additional speed or performance. The most expensive internet plans often feature the term “gigabit,” which sounds cool and fast. But what does gigabit actually mean — and is it worth the money? Let’s dive in.

What is gigabit internet?

Digital information is measured in bits, and a megabit is 1,000,000 bits. Internet speed is measured in bits per second — or, more commonly today, megabits per second. That’s a measurement of how much data can be processed over a network in a second. A gigabit is equivalent to 1,000 megabits.

In short, the more megabits or gigabits per second your internet connection can accommodate, the better performance you can expect when streaming video or playing online games without lag or glitches. At least — to a point.

Which providers offer gigabit internet?

Most of the large, national internet service providers offer gigabit plans. A handful of providers, including AT&T and Google Fiber, offer gigabit speed over fiber-optic connections — though availability remains limited to just over 40% of US households according to the Federal Communications Commission. Spectrum, Astound Broadband and others offer gigabit over cable connections, which are much more widely available than other connection types such as fiber or 5G home internet.

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A 1 gigabit plan typically costs between $60 and $80 per month, and a 2-gig plan often runs $100 or more monthly. Xfinity and Ziply Fiber offer 10-gig plans for $300 per month. 

Generally, faster plans usually offer the lowest price per Mbps, though Xfinity spokesperson Joel Shadle says there’s more to value than speed: “While it’s important to get enough speed, maybe even more, value extends beyond that. Reliability is almost more important than speed in an internet plan.”

Is there a difference between fiber and cable gigabit internet?

There are only two types of internet connection that can legitimately deliver gigabit-speed internet: fiber and cable. Fiber internet is the broadband gold standard, offering fast connections as well as symmetrical download and upload speeds, giving you the fastest internet possible. It’s arguably more reliable than cable and less prone to being affected by peak usage times or congestion.

Cable internet provides connection through the same cables that providers use for TV services, which is why it’s frequently bundled with TV packages. It’s more reliable than satellite internet and offers faster download speeds, too. But unlike fiber, cable internet’s upload speeds are significantly slower than its download speeds — so if you’re sending emails or video chatting, you might experience some delay. 

There are other types of internet connection, like DSL, satellite and fixed wireless, yet none of these will even come close to reaching gigabit speeds.

Why do some ‘gigabit’ plans feature speeds slower than 1,000Mbps?

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The fine print shows that Verizon’s 1-gig plan features download speeds up to 940Mbps.

Verizon offers a 1-gig plan for $65 per month, but notes — in the small print underneath — that it maxes out at 940Mbps for downloading and 880Mbps for uploading. AT&T’s 5-gig plan features speeds up to 4.7Gbps. This is common for ISPs, as many “gigabit” plans, especially ones that run on a cable connection, actually offer speeds lower than 1,000Mbps. So what gives?

It’s complicated — but it boils down to the fact that networking protocols and equipment consume some of that bandwidth. Think of it as networking overhead. And the specific equipment, like a modem or router, that connects the internet to your laptop or phone can also determine speed. This is the reason that providers often list speeds “up to” a certain threshold. For most of us, the difference between one gig and 940Mbps should be imperceptible.

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The fine print shows that AT&T’s 5-gig plan offers download speeds up to 4.7Gbps.

Given this, when CNET reviews ISPs, we may refer to providers’ plan names but use exact numbers when listing connection speeds. If a “gigabit” plan promises speeds only up to 940Mbps, we take that into account in our analyses and make it clear in our descriptions. 

Learn more about how we test ISPs.

Is gigabit internet worth it?

Some gigabit internet plans are quite pricey, sometimes costing hundreds of dollars per month. And there’s no point in paying for extra speed you don’t need or can’t use — whether due to network hardware or other limitations.

If you’re an internet power user who processes large video files or plays cutting-edge online games, a gigabit plan may be worth the cost. However, for most households, less than a gig of speed should suffice — and save you hundreds of dollars per year.

According to the FCC, a connection delivering between 100 and 500Mbps will be enough for one to two people to run videoconferencing, streaming and online gaming applications simultaneously. Many providers offer 300Mbps plans starting around $50 per month. And plans that deliver between 500 and 1,000Mbps, which typically cost between $70 and $100 per month, will allow three or more people to use videoconferencing, streaming and online gaming simultaneously.

These are only guidelines and internet speed, service and performance will vary — sometimes dramatically — depending on connection type, provider and address. That noted, only the most hardcore users have a rationale for paying for anything over a gig of speed.

“Most people don’t really need it,” says CNET writer and resident internet service expert Joe Supan. He points out that symmetrical download and upload speeds might be a reason to pay for a fiber connection, since having a higher upload speed will translate to less performance lag when sharing large files. “If you do have multiple people working from home, having a higher upload speed might be worth going up to that gig tier,” he says. That noted, you can get symmetrical speeds from any fiber connection and without upgrading to gig speed.

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