In the age of content creation, why don’t upload speeds match download?

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Internet Service Quality

For a brief period of time, the Internet at large served the consuming masses. For those who can recall the day the mainstream public discovered YouTube, you’ll fully grok this concept. Janitors, executives, students, engineers, hippies, and baby boomers all sat down to watch video after video (after video). In a way, this defined the consumption era. The public began yearning for home-based Internet services, not satisfied with having to report to work, a local library, or a coffee shop in order to catch up on the latest news and converse over AIM. The thirst for knowledge shaped the business models surrounding Internet service providers, but those days are long gone. Unfortunately for us, the ISPs haven’t yet realized it.

A decade ago, the average Internet user logged on in order to be quenched. They desired to consume news. To read articles. To watch multimedia. There were exceptions, of course, but the vast majority of those breaking into the Internet scene were doing so in order to swallow up content produced by professionals. Pros produce, the masses consume.

Because of that, asymmetry became an accepted Internet delivery method, but as the technology continues to empower mere mortals to produce richer and more engrossing content, I’m left to wonder: when will the upstream get the respect it deserves?

Creatures of habit

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Call up your local ISP (or ISPs, if you’re so fortunate to have more than one company serving your region) and ask what packages are available. Dollars to donuts you’ll hear something along the lines of: “5 meg, 10 meg, 30 meg, or 100 meg.” For those unaware, that’s referencing download rates. Every major Internet service provider talks in these terms, as they’re the terms that laypeople understand. In a sense, it’s similar to camera manufacturers boasting of megapixels — despite it only being a fraction of the total imaging story, it was the one metric that the masses seemed to comprehend.

For years, providing more downstream bandwidth than upstream bandwidth made sense. In a nutshell, the masses simply weren’t in a position to truly take advantage of a symmetrical connection. People wanted to watch Netflix, not produce it. The average Wikipedia query coming from an end user needs to download more data than it sends, and the same could be said for just about every major Internet activity done in the past 10 to 15 years.

The lines were drawn: consumers needed more downstream bandwidth than upstream, while businesses were the only entities that could ever dream of needing more than 1Mbps on the upload side of the equation.

Catching up

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Today, the above couldn’t be farther from the truth. Hundreds of millions of people are uploading images and video to a variety of social networks. Flickr hands out a terabyte of free space for families to host uncompressed versions of precious imagery. YouTube has removed time and size limitations for users, allowing any John or Jane Doe on the planet to upload a million videos in 4K resolution as a means to make ends meet. The working public are telecommuting in record numbers, and HD video calling is inching dangerously close to mainstream.

The point is, upstream bandwidth is needed in a major way. With precious few exceptions (FiOS in the Northeast U.S. corridor, for example), it’s practically impossible to locate an ISP that’ll sell consumers a symmetrical connection. Worse still, most of them offer upstream limits that are at least 4x slower than the downstream side of the equation. And, as you’d imagine, the problem is far more pronounced in rural areas.

I’ve heard that many ISPs refuse to hand out upstream as they do downstream for fear of users running servers out of their homes, but that’s just absurd — everyone from CenturyLink to Comcast imposes monthly usage caps, which count data uploaded as well as downloaded.

What gives?

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Presently, I’m paying for an ADSL connection that offers 10Mbps down and 1Mbps up. If I’m uploading a gallery of full-size images to Flickr, I’m completely unable to complete a Skype call. I’m barely able to load Gmail. Surfing the web and streaming Netflix each become perfect examples of futility. For no amount of money am I able to upgrade my upstream cap — the ISP simply refuses to offer anything greater.

This issue has become particularly thorny for me as I ponder a local relocation. In one area, SuddenLink offers 50Mbps down and 3Mbps up, but in order to get anything greater on the upstream side, I’m asked to pay $350 per month for a “business account.” A “business account” that offers — wait for it — 8Mbps up.

In another area, a local company actually offers fiber to the home (yes, like Verizon’s FiOS), which one would assume would be the answer to all of my woes. Au contraire. It’s a cinch to secure 50Mbps in the downstream direction, but the maximum they’ll offer on the upstream side is 3Mbps. On what planet does that ratio make sense? Or, perhaps I should ask: In what year did that ratio stop making sense?

If anyone reading this has any amount of power at an ISP, hear me out: allow me to trade you downstream for upstream. I’d be pleased as punch with only 10Mbps down if I could have 20Mbps up — attempting to upload an 800MB home video to YouTube on a 1Mbps connection takes all night. As in, the entire night. I realize I’m more of a technology addict than most, but uploading an 800MB video isn’t nearly as niche as it used to be.

As a closing thought, it occurred to me that the refusal of home-serving ISPs to update their upstream offerings leaves open a massive window of opportunity for wireless carriers. Most LTE networks can deliver 10Mbps in both directions without breaking a sweat, and that’s on a bad day. Once network saturation becomes less of an issue and mobile data prices begin to sink, tapping a wireless network as one’s home network will surely be more appealing.

Bring on the competition, I say.

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