I'm a web developer and I've often heard other technical and developer types say:

Sorry, I don't have the bandwidth to take on your project at this time.

I started using the term myself and thought it was an excellent way of expressing that you don't have enough time for something. Recently, I used this term with a potential client and he interpreted it as meaning that I still had a dialup internet connection so would not be able to handle his needs.

I then realized this is where the term originated from so I guess I could understand his confusion. Should I use the word only in specific circles of people that I know will understand it?

  • 3
    I'm surprised your client didn't get the reference. I may be living in a bubble, but my impression is that don't understand that figurative use of bandwidth are way out of the loop. Nevertheless, you were turning him down, so whatever he understood is not all that critical. My guess is, dealing with him would be a pain in any case.
    – Robusto
    Feb 13, 2012 at 17:09
  • Robusto, thanks for your insight, I did turn him down because all my developer inner warning bells went off in preliminary dealings with him. Feb 13, 2012 at 17:18
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    I've never come across this usage before, even if it's common among geeks (until now, I thought I was one myself!). So I'm voting to close as "too localised" Feb 13, 2012 at 17:53
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    May I recommend the good old-fashioned non-confusing word capacity. Feb 13, 2012 at 22:08
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    Never use a euphemism where the simple truth is expected.
    – Kris
    Feb 16, 2012 at 10:15

8 Answers 8


I happen to find this use of the word irritating, but there is no doubt that it is widely used, at least in technology companies.

As you indicate, it will be misunderstood in some quarters, which might be a good reason for avoiding it.

The question of whether or not it is "proper" is meaningless, unless you define the particular arbiter of manners who you want to defer to. There is no authority for the English language.

  • 1
    +1 for: the question of whether or not is is "proper" is meaningless, unless you define the particular arbiter of manners who you want to defer to. There is no authority for the English language. Can I quote you on that? Even better, can I pretend that I wrote it myself?
    – Pitarou
    Feb 13, 2012 at 23:25
  • @Pitarou: be my guest!
    – Colin Fine
    Feb 13, 2012 at 23:40

Bandwidth, literally, is the amount of data that can be passed along a communications channel in a given period of time. On the other hand, in business jargon, it is sometimes used to refer to the resources needed to complete a task or project. Clear language is important for clear communication. So it may be better to avoid jargon if you are not sure they will understand you.

  • +1 that's interesting, any references to documents in which it would be used in this sense?
    – Vladtn
    Feb 13, 2012 at 21:44
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    @Vladtn, especially in IT environments, bandwidth may also be used to refer to "data allocation"- the amount of data that can be used in total. I think, this usage evolves into "the resources needed to do something" Wikipedia.
    – Mustafa
    Feb 14, 2012 at 6:58

Lacking bandwidth is generally interpreted as lacking resources. In your case, you mean time, but this is not a given, so it is likely to cause confusion.

Also, "lacking bandwidth" is a term the programmers in my group use to derisively describe folks with diminished processing capabilities.

I would have interpreted this statement to mean that you were too technologically (or cognitively) primitive to be able to complete my request, not that you simply couldn't schedule it.


"Bandwidth" is an expression inferring available "processing power" or "throughput"; how much you can do in a given time. Thus, it is perfectly acceptable in my mind to use the term figuratively to refer to your business' ability to take on more work, roughly synonymous to "manpower" or "man-hours".


Bandwidth was originally used to mean the width, in Hz, of an Electromagnetic Spectrum "band" (a contiguous interval of frequencies) that is allocated to a particular use.

Wider frequency bands allow more "channels" of data to flow through. For example, the US FM Radio band is allocated from 87.5 to 108.0 MHz. Each FM radio channel occupies about 100 kHz of this band.

This term was borrowed for use in telecommunications to represent the total capacity of any channel, regardless of whether it was utilizing a specific EM band or not. (Cable and Satellite communications do use EM bands for their data, whereas dial-up internet uses sound waves transmitted over copper.)

Now, if we think of the tasks that we perform throughout the day as consuming separate "bands" of time, then the term makes perfect sense. Being "out of bandwidth" would indicate that you do not have enough unallocated "bands of time" in your day to complete the task.

Using the term bandwidth to describe time maps more closely (in my opinion) to the original definition, than the current definition describing data capacity does.


Claude Shannon’s Information Theory developed the concept of bandwidth. Shannon’s information formula calculates the maximum rate that data can be sent without error (Hardesty, 2010) (Shannon, 1948, pp. 379-423, 623-656).

Bandwidth describes communication rather than time. Latency may be a better synthesis for personal time in regard to networking.

The situation is ironic because the client's interpretation was correct. Use of "bandwidth" as a reference of personal time projects ignorance (please don't do it).

I recommend you refrain from using any slang when working with clients.


From the ways I have seen it used, it means "cognitive force," in the sense of a high level of cognitive abilities being used per unit of time.

It is used in analogy to a network's ability to carry bytes of data per unit of time.


Extra bandwidth explanation:

Simply means you have the extra capacity to work on addition projects given the same time constraints. A very interesting American term!

From a European.

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