What Is Latency and How Does It Affect My Internet?

Your internet's performance is affected by more than just upload and download speeds. Find out what latency is and how it plays a pivotal role in determining your online experience.
We may receive compensation from the products and services mentioned in this story, but the opinions are the author's own. Compensation may impact where offers appear. We have not included all available products or offers. Learn more about how we make money and our editorial policies.

If you’ve ever needed to set up or upgrade your internet package, you’ve likely seen terms such as upload and download speed. These terms are placed front and center on internet sales packages because they quantify important speeds most people care about. (Upload speed is how fast you can send information, and download is how quickly you receive it.)

While knowing your upload and download speeds is important, latency is another big factor that can have a significant impact on how fast your internet performs. And latency becomes especially important if you use a VPN to connect to servers in other countries. Read on to learn more about latency and how to improve it, so you can optimize your internet performance.

In this article
What is latency?
What are the causes of latency?
How do I improve latency?
What is a good amount of latency?
What’s the difference between latency and bandwidth?
What’s the best internet type for low latency?
Latency FAQs
Bottom line

What is network latency?

Network latency is how long it takes for data to travel back and forth between points in a networking real-time, usually to fulfill a user request with a response. Consider a scenario where you click a link to look at a picture of a bird. Clicking the link is the request, and being shown the picture is the desired response. When you click that link, data must travel to a server first and then bounce back to you. This round trip time (RTT) — measured in milliseconds (ms) — is latency.

When experiencing low latency, you will notice the internet reacts much quicker to your requests. Websites will load fast, video will stream without interruption, and performing actions in online video games will happen in sync with your button presses.

High latency, on the other hand, results in a poorer user experience. Webpages aren’t quite as snappy when you try to navigate them, video streaming might stutter and buffer more often, and actions performed in online video games will happen moments after you press the corresponding controls.

What are the causes of latency?

There are four main factors that can influence latency for better or worse. They are:

  1. Distance: The physical distance data must travel has a big impact on latency. The further away servers and data centers are from the original request, the higher the latency will be. This is also why you'll experience higher latency if you use a virtual private network (VPN) to connect to servers in other countries located far away from your physical location.
  2. Transmission medium: The type of cables used to transmit the data will limit how quickly data is able to travel. For example, modern fiber optic cables are known to produce the fastest travel time for data while old copper cables are considerably slower.
  3. Routers: As data travels between networks, it is processed by routers. Occasionally routers will need to break data up into smaller data packets. Certain routers can be more efficient with these tasks while others may create a bottleneck trying to break up data, but either way this processing can add milliseconds onto your latency.
  4. Storage delay: When a request is made for data that is kept in storage networks, it takes a small amount of time (milliseconds) for that data to be accessed and then processed to fulfill the original request. This time delay is commonly referred to as storage latency.

How do I fix latency issues?

Latency can be improved both on the server level as well as by users. An example of a server-side latency optimization would be using a content delivery network (CDN). Servers that make use of CDNs cut down on the distance data needs to travel by storing data on multiple servers spread throughout a region. This increases the chance that servers are physically closer to the users, resulting in lower latency.

Improving latency from the user’s end can be achieved in a few ways. 

  1. Be picky about your internet provider: Choose an internet service provider (ISP) that provides reliable and high speeds is a good starting point that will help reduce the amount of latency you experience.
  2. Give your router some TLC: Routine maintenance on your router, such as restarting it regularly and keeping its software up to date, can ensure your network is working optimally. Replacing old routers entirely is also important as some routers receive little-to-no software support once they are no longer being produced.
  3. Use a wired connection: If there are specific systems in your network that you know will be demanding of your internet — say a gaming console or an at-home workstation — you should opt to connect these systems directly via Ethernet instead of using Wi-Fi. Ethernet will always provide a more consistent connection over wireless, and this consistency can lead to more reliable speeds and lower latency.
  4. Upgrade your bandwidth: It is also possible for some users to upgrade their internet plan to one that offers more bandwidth. Bandwidth is the limit to how much data can be transmitted from your network at a time, so if you are experiencing high latency values, it may be worth contacting your ISP to see what your options are.
  5. Change your VPN server: If you're connected to a VPN server located in a distant city or country, try changing to a city or country that's closer to your location. 

What is a good amount of latency?

Since latency is a measurement of response time in milliseconds, higher latency numbers are bad and lower numbers are good. You can expect a range of latency possibilities depending on what type of internet connection you have, but as a general rule, the faster your internet is, the lower latency you can achieve.

As with good internet speeds, good latency values are subjective and up to the individual user. However, users who are seeking to play online video games at competitive levels or who want the best experience streaming or working from home will want the lowest latency possible. Latency ranging from 40 to 100ms or lower is a sweet spot for acceptable gaming and streaming experiences, while latency above 100ms can result in a sluggish experience.

What’s the difference between latency and bandwidth?

Where latency is the measurement of the time it takes data to bounce between networks, bandwidth is the amount of data that is allowed to pass through a network. Usually measured in bits-per-second (bps), bandwidth can be thought of as a pipe that your data travels through.

When you have a larger pipe (meaning more bandwidth) more data is able to travel through it, resulting in faster speeds and lower latency. Thus a smaller pipe (lower bandwidth) results in higher latency and slower possible internet speeds. The ideal scenario is low latency and high bandwidth, resulting in maximum throughput — the average amount of data traveling through a network at a given time. 

Users who are seeking to decrease latency can usually opt to purchase more bandwidth by upgrading their internet package through their ISP.

What’s the best internet type for low latency?

Your internet type is going to have the biggest impact on your latency. Faster internet speeds are mostly going to correlate with lower latency. However, depending on what type of internet you go with, there can be a broader range of possible latency values.

  1. Fiber optic: Fiber optic internet offers the fastest possible internet speeds along with the lowest possible latency — around 10 to 12ms. Note that this boost in performance usually comes with a higher price tag.
  2. Cable: One of the most common forms of internet today, cable internet strikes a balance between speed and price, and its latency sits at around 13 to 27ms.
  3. DSL: DSL is usually the more affordable internet option available, however it comes with lower overall internet speeds and higher latency. Latency with DSL averages out at around 11 to 40ms.

Latency FAQs


+

Why am I lagging even with good internet?

It is possible to have decent internet speeds and still experience lag. While there can be many factors affecting your internet speeds (such as multiple devices operating heavily on the same network), a good place to start would be checking how much bandwidth you have.

Higher values of bandwidth will allow more data to pass through your network — increasing your internet speeds, lowering your latency, and reducing lag. If you are regularly experiencing lag in optimal conditions, it may be worth considering increasing your amount of bandwidth.


+

How do I check my latency?

You can check your latency by searching for a “ping test” online and using the application provided. We like this ping test, as it measures your latency against multiple servers across the globe, giving you a fuller idea of where your latency values lie.


+

What is ping?

Ping and latency are interchangeable terms, both representing the time it takes for data to travel to a server and back to the original request.

Bottom line

When it comes to maximizing the performance of your network, investing in fast and reliable internet is the obvious choice. Many people don’t know or think about latency and the effect it has on our experience using the internet, especially when doing demanding tasks such as competitive online gaming. 

If you are a gamer and need to secure your connection with a VPN, you might also consider using one of the best VPNs for gaming. These VPNs barely slowed down our internet speeds during testing and reliably secured our Wi-Fi to prevent DDoS and other attacks.

Whether you are trying to push your network to its fullest potential or troubleshoot laggy internet, remember the key to optimal performance is low latency and high bandwidth.

4.9
Limited-time offer: Up to 67% off
Learn More
On NordVPN's website

NordVPN
  • High-quality VPN offering safety and speed
  • Loads of servers for multiple connection options
  • Works with popular streaming services, including Netflix
  • Too many confusing plans

Author Details
Juliana Kenny is a seasoned writer with over a decade of experience in cybersecurity topics. She holds a B.A. in English with a concentration in Irish Literature, a B.A. in French, and a minor in Art History. Since 2010, she has explored the dynamic intersection of technology and security, specializing in endpoint security, cloud security, and networking technologies like secure access service edge (SASE).