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The Ugly Truth About Broadband: Upload Speeds

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For the longest time I, like many, have been beating the drum of faster-faster-and-faster-still broadband. When I had 2 Mbps, I wanted 4 Mbps. Once I got 4 Mbps, I wanted 8 Mbps. South Koreans and their speedy connections made me jealous. I was envious of all the customers in France. I was mad about 50 Mbps connections in Japan and Scandinavia. Why can’t we have those speeds in the U.S., I often complained.

downloadsucksThankfully, my wish was granted when Covad offered an ADSL2+ connection with a download speed of up to 15 Mbps. And ever since that connection came into my apartment, life has been good. The speeds have been fairly consistent, generally hovering around the 9 Mbps mark, while at times falling to around 7 Mbps or rising to as much as 12 Mbps. That made pulling down email, web pages, RSS feeds, tweets, videos, iTunes, Flickr, and Facebook incredibly easy.


The problem arose this past week when I decided to do two things: one, sync my music collection between two computers using DropBox, and two, back up my Macbook Air using using Mozy’s Pro online backup service. It’s been about four days since I set everything up, and the results are dismal. Only 1 percent of my hard drive is backed up and less than 15 percent of my music has been uploaded.

Why? Because I’m getting upload speeds that are abysmal. While a speed test shows an upstream bandwidth of around 860 Kbps — Covad promises up to 1 Mbps in upstream bandwidth — the actual data transfers are much slower, around 90 Kbps. And when I tried to do the backups in the office, the performance over AT&T’s (s t) Business DSL line was simply terrible. I looked around and it turns out most DSL service providers have terrible upload speeds — 768 Kbps or lower.

The cable guys are a little better, though not by much. On principle, I don’t use Comcast (s cmcsa), especially since they instituted metered broadband. Of course I could move back to New York and sign up for either Verizon FiOS (s vz) or Cablevision (s cvc), but that isn’t exactly a realistic option.

The point is that inadequate bandwidth means the actual upstream speeds fall short of what the speed test claims — and that has left me unable to do practically anything. Forget sharing big files, and I can’t even make a decent Skype call. My T-Mobile BlackBerry Curve (s rimm) can’t use the UMA connection, and uploading photos to Flickr/Facebook is a pain. As more products come to market that need symmetrical high-speed Internet access, the paucity of bandwidth is going to become a bottleneck. The problem is that we get so enamored by download speeds, we forget that we need solid upstream capacity as well.

84 Responses to “The Ugly Truth About Broadband: Upload Speeds”

  1. I f you have access to FiOS or some other FTTP option, why in the world aren’t you taking advantage of that? I got FiOS the day it was available, _specifically_ for decent upload speeds – I could get comparable download speeds with cable, but a connection that’s only fast in one direction quit being useful to me a few years ago. 20 meg symmetrical connections can be had for ~ $60/mo, which is comparable to most cable/DSL connections that are only fast in one direction.

    why would you not take advantage of the best offering available?

  2. Adam___

    I have COX and they throttle the upload speed and limit it to 1 connection (anymore than 1 upload connection and they reset the connection) I belive it has to do with P2P. The upload is slow as molasses and in my opinion is a part of their deceptive advertising. It took me over a month to backup my 200 gigs of music to my own servers via COX. I have no other choice where I live – its either COX or Verizon DSL.

    This is a major problem for people like me – those who actually know how to use their bandwidth.

    • “for people like me – those who actually know how to use their bandwidth.” Are you sure backing up 200GB of music to an external server is a good idea? A 500GB hard drive cost about $200. Run a backup once a week and put it in a safe deposit box.

  3. Om, you are so right most people don’t appreciate that upload speeds can be significantly slower than download speeds. The MozyPro service that you are using has no bandwidth cap. The initial backup always takes a while, but once complete, Mozy does incremental backups at the block level which are very quick and you’ll find the cloud is almost always a mirror image of your local machine.

    Devin Knighton
    Mozy by Decho Corp

  4. Om,
    The real issue here is not about metered broadband. This what these carriers are going to do to make their ancient business models work. The real issue should be regarding why we accept this broadband status quo within the US.
    For instance, when was the last time you ran a story on an innovative new “real” broadband carrier? They don’t exist here today because the energetic ideas, and youth of today would rather chase the next great web application than waste their time trying to fix America’s broadband mess. Who can blame them, thats where most of the VC money is also flowing too, not to any challenger with great new “real” broadband plans. Until this fundamentally changes, I’m afraid we are doomed with senior telecom guys telling us that the best way to build America’s real broadband networks is the same way that they built the copper and cable plants. Trust me, this is exactly how it is getting done today and why we are getting left behind.

    It all needs a significant market shift, a new entrant that could make “real” broadband sexy again. Google, perhaps? However, if the focus is on making sure that all our applications can work over the existing last mile limitations, and not try to fix the last mile, then again, not much will change.

    I had hoped that the Fed stimulus plan for broadband might provide that opportunity. Instead, the reality is, it barely gets coverage in your blog, and I don’t see or hear any new innovative private companies going after those dollars with creative new “real” broadband plans. We’re all happy to sit back, wait and see, and accept the crap we’ve got.

    You mention Sweden and Japan, well without some sort of major shift, you can keep dreaming or move back to the East coast and if you live in a wealthy area, you might just be lucky enough to get FiOS. (assuming of course there are multiple businesses nearby where they can really make their money).

    The model is broken, but I don’t see that many people care or want to do anything about it.

  5. You need to move to Lafayette, LA. Their utility system just launched their fiber network where you can get 50Mbps symmetrical for less than $60/month. Plus they have an embarrassment of riches in that Cox just launched their first DOCSIS 3.0 service in Lafayette, almost certainly in response to the presence of LUSFiber.

    Needless to say, I’m green with envy as here I am in the heart of our nation’s capital, with the Capital Dome out my window, and the best residential service I can get is roughly 12 down, 2 up, and I’m paying more than $70 a month.

  6. Your pipe is in rated in Kb and your application is reporting in KB (8 times smaller) so what you are getting is what you should be. Not that this is any help :)

  7. Exactly. I had a 6mbit down, 500k up Comcast Connection. Time Warner took over and uploads started going down to 30k. Not to mention, when you would upload, the download speed would go down to 300k. After 7 months, they had an engineer come to my place and explain to me that they were prioritizing packets. I upgraded to business class (10mbit Down 1.5up) and now I get an upload speed of 200k. Hmmm.

  8. Kenneth Trueman

    Om, I have read a number of your posts like this and it seems that you want to have your cake and eat it too … for example, what is so bad about metered broadband? why should I subsidize the guy next door who wants to pirate commercial content?

    • … and if metered broadband were really about making the network better for all users, your statement might make sense. Look at the ISPs who are doing metered broadband (in the US, at least): surprise, they’re all cablecos. It’s not about customer service, it’s about 1) making sure that you have a lever to encourage your customers to continue to subscribe to overpriced TV programming plans (rather than getting their content over the Internet), and 2) to a lesser degree, to avoid having to build out the infrastructure necessary to support the services you claim to provide (over-provisioning is finally catching up with providers, thanks primarily to the explosion in IP video over the past few years).

  9. Matt Brodeur

    Yeah, I used to have Charter here in Central Mass and the upload was killing me. I used to work for the company and had the highest speed, which at the time had about 2MB upstream if I remember correctly. Then I got Vonage phone service and the very next week they dropped it down to 768. Which worked fine for Vonage . . . unless I wanted to download something big at the same time. And digital distortion on the phone line doesn’t fly with my un-technological wife.

    So I ended up having to set up my Linsys WRT54G router with DD-WRT and set up some QOS rules to severely clamp down on bit torrent speeds and anything else and give Vonage preference. But it still wasn’t perfect.

    Then Verizon FIOS came to town. I’ve got a 2MB upstream now and just leave the router speed wide open. I can watch streaming video, download bit torrent, and talk on the phone without a blip. It’s a beautiful thing.

  10. I have to settle for satilite in my rural area. I wrote all my senators an email about how we’re falling behind the rest of the world when it comes to broadband speeds, and we claim to be tech. Advanced. The world is on it’s way to being paperless and we can even transfer basic files in a decent time. Senator Vitter addressed my concerns and agreed we need a national standard minimun broadband speed . Obama also has this at tge top of his list of things to do. I encourage everyone to write your senators! With Obama in office, we have the best chance of getting these standards raised across the US.

  11. This is exactly why we created iForem. Most critical documents and files are small in size. Backing up all of these systems music files and the like are important, but the most important and critical things should not have to wait in a list behind your system files and countless over/under exposed snapshots.

    Find the most important items, email them to a secure place and let this long term backups go for things you may or may not really care about in 20 years. I created iForem for just such a reason and I hope you might appreciate the value as well.

    Good luck with system backups. Cheers.

  12. I work at Cucku and we fix the upload speed problem for backup by letting you run the first backup at LAN speed and then use the Internet for sending changed/updated files (the same is true for restore). This works because you’re backing up to a friend or family member (social backup) rather than to the cloud. I’m afraid we don’t support Mac yet, but for Windows users I think that it’s the best of both worlds.

  13. My current speeds via Comcast using the same test service are 27.28mbps download and 2.39mbps upload. Higher than I pay for. An advantage to living in a community with few geeks, I guess.

    1. When I get numbers at or below what I’m paying for, I shout at Comcast cust service – and things are usually back to normal [above std] within hours.

    2. More to the point, I have a few friends telecommuting who arranged with customer service for their ISP to re-apportion their bandwidth. That is, those who have a total of 16mbps to slice asked for and got 8mbps up and down.

    Have no idea if this was easier in the burbs where most of these folks reside; but, it can be done in some circumstances.

    • Not a bad idea, but no diversity and I have well seen many times when the host corrupts the drive itself. For super critical documents and such VOLUME is not the choice. Its finding the most important things and getting that protected. The rest can be lost in your home in a natural disaster in a flash. So while for the bulk of things a drive is good, there is no substitute for a diversified backup off site. The bandwidth problem is a function of need. Lower the need and the problem goes away.

  14. matticakes

    The service provider measures in kilo-BITS-per second:

    1Mbps = 1048576 / 8 / 1024 = 128 kilo-bytes per second MAX

    860kbits = 860000 / 8 / 1024 = 104 kilo-bytes per second

    With TCP/IP overhead and such – your speeds seem pretty normal as per the service you have.

  15. Unfortunately, even in 2009, rich media like music is best in a traditional, old school client-server model. I just set up a home server and access it via some mp3 yi component i found somewhere. 1996 technology.

    Hopefully fiber will start to become more and more ubiquitous, but even that doesn’t solve the ‘last mike’ bottleneck.

  16. Om, Firstly blame ADSL which is Asynchronous design to deliver higher downstream bps than upstream
    Also, since downstream traffic has rocketed sky high, operators put upstream data on really high concentration ratios

  17. And then Imagine that KPN in the Netherlands is rolling out P2P ethernet FTTH and is still only offering asymmetric subscribtions. 3/30, 5/50 and 6/60. the mindset has so settled in the minds of marketeers that thye can’t see the world any different anymore.

  18. Josh, there are a lot of companies (some of them providing Internet access) for whom the outdated idea of “who needs to upload anything? The Internet is for downloading” is their dream of how the Internet should be. All the really interesting, disruptive things we can do online rely on being able to take part.

  19. Om, you’ve got more than enough upstream bandwidth for a decent Skype call or even Slingboxing. However, I agree your online backup plans will suck. Even with my higher cable modem speeds it took days on Mozy to back up a portion of my stuff. Which is why I now back up locally again and will physically move some data out of the home for safe keeping.

  20. I’m at 30Kb/s download speed and thats the best unlimited broad speed in India. Who should I complain to? But yes, what I have now is much better than what I had 2 years back. I hope to move from a 256KB connection to 2MB connection in the next 1 year or so.

  21. SteveR

    Sounds like you need to look into QoS settings for your router and give certain things higher priority, like voip service.
    If your router doesn’t have it, get one.
    Also, maybe adjusting port settings or dedicating a port for transfers instead of using random ports might help with the speed.
    Also check your number of TCP/IP settings for number of download connections (default is 10, change it to 50). There are programs that help with this.
    If you’re going to push the technology to it’s limits, you have to do some tweaking.

    • Shannon

      QoS isn’t going to do much good since nobody outside of your home network is going to respect your Diffserfv Code Points. QoS is most assuredly important inside corporate networks (where you have ther control to deliver QoS end-to-end) and if your internet router itself were the bottleneck then maybe – but at 800k upload speeds I am positive that the router’s internal queueing and processing isnt the issue. Changing ports isnt going to make any difference either unless for some reason somebody upstream is throttling or otherwise slow queueing your traffic over those specific ports, and the TCP/IP setting to which you refer only apply to the browser. Any other TCP/IP application isn’t bound by those restrictions (and incidentally for IE before version 8 the limit was 2 connections per RFC2616 which is ignored by IE8 and firefox to use 8 or 10 simultaneous downloads – which is plenty.) You do NOT want to increase theis number to 50 unless you are sure know what you are doing because it causes an unnecessarily heavy load on any webserver at which you point your browser.

  22. Funtomas

    Doesn’t A in ADSL stand for Asynchronous? The technology itself is doomed as it’s hit the wall with the downstream speed. If the telcos fail to upgrade they network (read: deploy FTTH and the likes), radio based connection will prevail, I guess.

  23. Yeah, I’d say a lot of this problem stems from the outdated idea of “who needs to upload anything? The internet is for downloading”. With all these new cloud based initiatives that one sided ness tends to go away.

    Assuming you had such a thing, how usable would an online Adobe Premier app be if it’s going to take you 4 days to upload your raw footage.

    It’s an issue you never see brought up when people discuss the future of Cloud computing.

  24. CarterB

    With Mozy at least, there is some sort of upload cap. It took me 15-20 days for my entire hard drive to be backed up (and I had to prevent it from backing up my 8GB Parallel image because it changed too frequently)

    • esnagel

      I’m not sure about that upload cap idea. I backed up 85 GB to Mozy in less than a week. Once I got my computer to stop going into standby in the middle of it, things went much quicker!

      • dhemmert

        85 GB shouldn’t have taken anywhere near a week. I am pretty sure Moby has a cap. I am on FIOS but only can 1.2Mbs transfer over our 20Mbs line.

      • tririver

        I’m having the same problem with my computer going into standby when I’m trying to do a Mozy backup. What did you do to get it to stop? I’m tired of having to reset every few hours.

      • tririver

        Thanks for the feedback. But I’m using an iMac and I my problem is that my connection gets broken off as I’m uploading. Responds to repowering the cable modem. Don’t know if it’s a problem with Comcast capping my upload, my cable modem is going bad or there’s something with my internet connection settings.

    • Kyotocutie

      When I first started with Mozy, I didn’t back-up my whole drive at once. I started with the most critical folders, and added a new one to the upload every day until it was all up. Then after almost all of it was up, I finally set it to back-up everything. Not a big issue :)