In its election manifesto, one of the major political parties in the UK recently promised to provide “virtually every household in the country a broadband service of at least 2 megabytes per second by 2012.”
The “2 megabytes per second” was actually a mistake. A speed of two megabytes per second is the same way as saying 16 megabits per second, a speed which is technically feasible, but unlikely to be universally available in the UK any time soon. The sentence was altered in later versions of the manifesto to the much more realistic “2 megabits per second”. The typo, however, highlights how easy it is to make mistakes using technical language where words often have very specific meanings. If you’re using terminology from medicine, computers, statistics etc., it pays to check that you have each term correct.
In this case, the original authors confused the words bit and byte. Both are units of computer memory/storage. A bit is the smallest amount of storage, a 0 or a 1, the word formed from a blend of “binary” and “digit”. A byte, on the other hand, is a collection of bits – almost always eight of them. So, a kilobyte is eight times larger than a kilobit.
While computer memory is generally expressed as a number of bytes (kilobytes, megabytes, gigabytes etc.), network speeds are generally expressed as a number of bits per second (kilobits, megabits, gigabits etc.) The terms are very easy to confuse especially when they are abbreviated to just “meg”, “gig” etc. as both sets sometimes are. But, a broadband speed of “2 meg” would always mean “2 megabits per second” and never “2 megabytes per second”.
Abbreviations are often used for these terms, and the same care needs to be taken. For example, the abbreviation for megabyte is MB whereas the abbreviation for megabit is Mb. The case of the “b” makes all the difference. The same is true for kilobytes/kilobits (KB/Kb), gigabytes/gigabits (GB/Gb) and so forth.