We Need to Talk About Upload Speeds

By James O Malley on at

Last month Google announced that it was spinning off its Photos app, away from the ailing Google Plus. So far, so expected. But that news came with a dramatic announcement: if you want to upload your photos, for pictures up to 16MP you can upload as many as you like for free, with no storage limits. Brilliant!

Combined with Google’s creepy photos algorithms, this makes for an irresistible offer, and the perfect way to ensure that your treasured photos – each representing a different memory – will be looked after forever, even if you switch phones or computers, or if your house burns down.

So with this offer of unlimited storage, fire up the laptop and set 15 years' worth of digital photos uploading and wait… and wait… and wait… WTF? Four days remaining for the upload? Is that even possible?

Related: Results of the Giz UK readers' broadband-speed audit

Yes, it is time to talk upload speeds. Internet Service Providers are locked in an endless arms race to provider faster download speeds, as evidenced by the likes of BT and Virgin Media regularly trumpeting new speed milestones. But upload speeds are seldom mentioned in marketing materials.

How Fast?

Typically, upload speeds are only a fraction of the speed by which you can download. For example, Sky has just announced what sounds like a startlingly good offer: FREE fibre-optic broadband, with download speeds up to 38Mbps, which is theoretically fast enough to download a file at 4.5mb/second. When it comes to uploading though, you’re left languishing at 1.3Mbps, which works out at about 160kb/second. This means that if you have a meagre 1GB of photos, while you can download them in 3m42s, if you want to upload them again it’ll take 1h44m9s. What a pain.

According to Broadband Genie, the best ISPs for upload at the moment are Virgin Media and BT’s fibre network, as both claim to offer upload speeds in the region of 10-20Mb (with the legacy BT ADSL network much slower). Business broadband tends to be significantly better for this too. But if you’re stuck as a home user wanting to upload your photos, there isn’t much you can do.

Apparently traditional ADSL technology was designed with this “asymmetry” of download-to-upload speed combined (the “A” literally stands for asymmetric) and the reason upload is poorer is because the line connecting you with your ISP is going to be noisier at the ISP end, requiring management of the data packets to avoid confusion, necessarily slowing them down. This isn’t so much a problem at your end because you only have one modem receiving data rather than an entire system with everyone’s requests coming in, thus data can be handled more quickly.

At the moment only very few places in Britain offer “fibre to the home” connections; in the overwhelming majority of cases “fibre” broadband really means fibre to the green box somewhere on your street. With the last part of the journey made over copper wires, so problems can persist. Apparently “symmetric” broadband is more common in places like South Korea, where internet connections are so blisteringly fast it would make us westerners weep.

We're All Creators Now

So that’s the current situation. But why should ISPs care? Why is upload even important? The reason is because of the changing nature of our relationship with the web. The download/upload ratio may have made sense a few years ago when we mostly just consumed content from the web, downloading webpages, music and videos. Increasingly though, we’re sharing more too.

Like my example above, cloud backup is increasingly common with the likes of Dropbox and Google Drive offering to automatically synchronise data across the web. Apple’s iCloud is even baked directly into MacOS and iOS, to the point where we expect our files to be effectively instantly accessible across devices. But this will only work smoothly if we don’t notice the uploading and downloading. We don’t want to wait.

Poor upload speeds could also be hampering the new creative classes. If there is one clear trend in how we consume media over the last few years is that media is getting more personal, as it has become easier than ever for individuals to create their own content. Not only are young people watching more YouTube than traditional TV, but they’re likely to be creating too. I guess you could argue that it is acceptable for insist someone wait a little while to upload a large YouTube video, but the army of Twitch streamers can’t work like this. Given the internet for normal people is increasingly as much about creating as it is consuming, isn’t it about time our internet connections reflected this?

More broadly, sharing is an inherently good thing for the internet. It is something that when everyone participates, can help manage the load on servers. Whenever there is something that everyone wants to get their hands on (say, a new update for iOS), download speeds slow to a crawl as everyone hits update at the same time. It is essentially a virtual traffic jam.

The solution to this already exists in the form of BitTorrent, which by enabling a larger pool of users to share files with each other provides a much more effective and faster means of downloading as everyone takes a little bit of each file from a wide range of places instead. Yes, BitTorrent has a somewhat tarnished reputation due to its relationship to piracy but the fundamental technology underlying it is very clever indeed. For this to work most effectively, better upload speeds are needed.

So ultimately my point is this: isn’t it about time that ISPs got their act together and worked to make upload speeds better? Yes, there are technical challenges, but other countries have managed to overcome them and if we want to ensure our internet connections are up to scratch for the 21st century, it is time to cater to the creators and not just the consumers.