Before you say it, no, megabit is not the past tense of megabyte. Clever joke, though. Megabit (Mb) and megabyte (MB) are both terms used to refer to data, however they’re used in very different contexts, megabit for speeds, megabyte for storage.
Let’s say you’re on a 100Mbps internet service plan, but when you’re downloading a file, your browser says 11.5MB/s; your internet must be running slowly, right? Not quite. Mbps is short for megabits per second, while MB/s is short for megabytes per second – and there’s a substantial difference.
You’ll see telcos (like us, hi!) refer to speeds with numbers like 100Mbps, but many apps and programs (Steam is a good example) will display data transfer rates as MB/s. But if it’s not a matter of having a megabit of something or taking a megabyte, what’s the difference? Well...
All computer data is 1's and 0's
Like everything on a computer, your data is stored in a binary format. Everything can be broken down into chains of 1’s and 0’s, and that’s precisely what a bit is. A bit is a single unit of binary code, so a bit is either a 1 or a 0. Meanwhile, a byte is a packet of 8 bits, the smallest unit of storage a device can register.
This then increases, 1 kilobit is 1000 bits, one megabit is 1000 kilobits, 1 gigabit is 1000 megabits, and so on. So with 8 bits per byte, this means that a kilobyte is 8000 bits, and a megabyte is 8000 kilobits, and so on.
This is why you’ll generally see bits used when talking about speed. They’re referring to the number of singular bits of data that can be transferred per second. For example, if your internet service plan gives you speeds of 100Mbps, it’s capable of receiving 100 million bits per second.
But if you’re looking at your download information, you’ll see it doesn’t look quite that impressive. This is because downloads and storage are presented in bytes rather than bits, as your computer cares more about the packets of data, the bytes, instead of the individual bits. A megabyte is eight megabits, so, for example, if you’re downloading something at 11.5MB/s, times that number by eight, and you’ll see it suddenly makes a lot more sense with your 100Mbps plan.
So, there you have it; if you’ve been shocked to see a 500MB download taking more than five seconds on a 100Mbps connection, here’s your answer. Though it is worth keeping in mind that there are many different factors that can affect your overall download speed and internet experience such as server throttling, VPNs, and internet traffic. Usually, Mbps and MB/s are used exclusively of one another, representing two very different things (Mbps for speed, MB/s for storage). Hopefully, this has helped make a bit more sense of the internet jargon. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a sandwich begging me to take a megabyte out of it.