Should an ISP Offer Fast Upload Speeds?

Speed_Street_SignOne question I am often asked is if clients should offer symmetrical data speeds for residential customers. I’ve noticed lately a number of fiber networks that are advertising symmetrical speeds, and so this option is gaining some market traction. This is not an easy decision to make and there are a lot of different factors to consider:

The Competition. Most fiber networks are competing against cable networks, and the HFC technology on those networks does not allow for very fast uploading. The number one complaint that cable companies get about upload speeds is from gamers who want fast low-latency upload paths. But they say that they get very few other complaints from residential customers about this issue.

So this leads me to ask if residential customers care as much about upload speeds as they do download speeds. I know that today that household use the bulk of their download capabilities to view video and there are very few households that have the desire to upload videos in the same manner or volume. One of the questions I ask clients is if they are just trying to prove that their network is faster. Because to promote something heavily that most customers don’t care about feels somewhat gimmicky.

Practical. At the residential level there are not many users who have enough legal content to justify a fast upload. There are a few legitimate uses of uploading, but not nearly as many as there are for downloading. Some of the normal uses for uploading include gaming, sending large files, sharing videos and pictures with friends and family, doing data backup and other related activities into the cloud. But these uses normally do not generate as much traffic as the download bandwidth that is used by most households to watch video. And so one must ask the practical question if offering symmetrical bandwidth is just a marketing ploy since customers are not expected to use the upload nearly as much as they download.

Cost. Another consideration is cost, or lack of cost. A lot of ISPs buy symmetrical data pipes on their connection to the Internet. To the extent that they download a lot more data than is uploaded, one can almost look at the excess headroom on the upload side as free. They are already paying for that bandwidth and often there is no incremental cost to an ISP for customers to upload more except at  the point where upload becomes greater than download.

Technical. One must ask if allowing symmetrical bandwidth will increase demand for uploading over time. We know that offering faster download speeds induces homes to watch more video, but it’s not clear if this is true in the upload direction. If uploading is stimulated over time then there are network issues to consider. It requires a more robust distribution network to support a network that has significant traffic in both directions. For example, most fiber networks are built in nodes of some sort and the fiber connection to those nodes needs to be larger to support two-way traffic than it would be if the traffic is almost entirely in the download direction.

Bad Behavior. One of the main arguments against offering fast upload speeds is that it can promote bad behavior or can draw attention from those with malicious intents. For example, fast upload speeds might promote more use of file sharing, and most of the content shared on file sharing sites is copyrighted and being illegally shared.

There has always been the concern that customers also might set up servers on fast connections that can upload things quickly. And one of the few things that requires a fast upward connection is porn. So I’ve always found it likely that having fast upload connections is going to attract people who want to operate porn servers.

But the real concern is that fast networks can become targets for those with malicious intent. Historically hackers took over computers to generate spam. That still happens today, but there are other more malicious reasons for hackers to take over computers. For instance, hackers who launch denial of service attacks do so by taking over many computers and directing them to send messages to a target simultaneously. Computers are also being hijacked to do things like mine bitcoins, which requires frequent communication outward.

One would think that a hacker would find a computer sitting on a network that allows 100 Mbps or 1 Gbps upload to be worth a whole lot more than a computer on a slower network. And so they might well be targeting customer on these networks.

What this all means to me is that if you offer fast upload connections that you ought to be prepared to monitor customer to know which ones upload a lot. If such customers are operating server businesses they might be directed to use business products. Or you can help them find and remove malware if their computers have been hacked. But I find the idea of allowing fast uploads without monitoring to be dangerous for the ISP and for customers.

6 thoughts on “Should an ISP Offer Fast Upload Speeds?

  1. Upload speeds are the key to economic development via broadband. It is how producers of intellectual goods (research, photography, artwork, professional opinions, etc) get their wares to market. At a meeting on rural broadband in Rangely, CO last year. A photographer told me when he was ready to “ship” his work, he made the 5-hour drive to Denver to do so.

    Do railroads and trucking companies deliver one-way only? The malicious content upload bogey man seems to me to be a creation of operators of networks based on 1990’s ATM technology.


    • I have a few points to make in response to your comment. First, I completely agree that fast upload speeds are important to some customers such as photographers. On a fiber network there is no reason that you can’t make fast upload speeds available to those who need them. The kind of applications you describe are business applications, even if those businesses are operated out of homes and they are not typical of the average residential customer.

      The question I raised is if you should just automatically give everybody a fast upload speed. But asking if everybody should automatically get fast uploads does not imply that some people should not get faster speeds. One alternate to opening the network wide for everyone is to make superfast uploads available only to those who ask for it or who are willing to pay a premium price for a premium service. For example, the photographer would probably be glad to pay $10 per month extra to get much faster upload speeds than the average residential customer. It sure would beat driving to the City to upload his files.

      Second, it’s a matter of degree. I am not suggesting that a fiber network ought to dumb down their upload speeds to match the cable company competitor. Fiber networks are much faster and operators should take advantage of that. But again, it does not logically follow that just because I can give everybody a gigabit that I should. For example, a 50 mbps or a 100 Mbps upload speed probably would satisfy almost the kinds of needs you mentioned in your example without opening up the pipe the whole way to a gigabit for everybody. And again, for the few customers for whom those speeds don’t suffice there ought to be the option to buy more speed. All customers are not the same and there are people who value upload more than download and there ought to be products to satisfy that niche. I am not a big believer in having a one-size-fit-all product. It’s so easy to provision different speeds on most fiber networks that a smart operator should be able to satisfy the photographer without giving everybody else the same thing the photographer wants.

      I have to disagree strongly that malicious content is a bogeyman. I know of dozens of cases where one of my clients has had their network blown up due to some malicious event. There is a very wide range of sophistication in how fiber owners operate networks. While some are extremely good at keeping negative things out of their network, many are not so good, and bad things happen. My advice in the blog is that network owners have to pay attention to what customers are doing and you might be surprised to find that many of them don’t do that. I have one client who found that their upload usage exceeded their download usage for a largely residential customer base and they uncovered a pile of issues when they finally decided to dig into it. They had never done the kind of monitoring that would have uncovered problems long before the network got so much out of balance.


  2. I’m part of a municipal network effort building a symmetrical ethernet network in a small rural bedroom community abutting a large university and a number of colleges. We are as a matter of course providing very high speed symmetrical ethernet over fiber to the home broadband. Our customers are mostly professionals academic and small business owner and artists who REQUIRE high speed upload as well as down load speed.

    Your argument is bogus in my opinion and clearly intended to serve the interests of the large cable companies and telcos the oligopoly who make it a point to make the minimum investment in infrastructure and provide the minimum service possible at the maximum cost the market will bear.

    Since our customers are also the owners of the municipal network we provide them the service they require. I understand that the cable companies are unhappy with that but frankly they would not serve our community and neither would the telco so we built our own network.
    Funded by a property tax funded bond issue.

    Our Network operator and ISP (services we contract for) are responsible monitoring the network and for protecting us from malicious behavior. I understand you are carrying water for the large ISPs but your bucket has a logic hole in it.


    • Hi Richard: I think you totally misinterpreted my intentions with the blog. I have been accused of many things in my career, but this is a first of being on the side of the big cable companies! My clients are all small carriers exactly like you, many of them muni systems that you probably know.

      The emotion behind your response is exactly the reason I wrote this blog. I have sat in meetings where there was extremely strong sentiment towards having a symmetrical network and fast upload speeds and have been in other meetings where just the opposite was the case. And in all cases I am talking about fiber network that are going to deliver at least 100 Mbps up a gigabit. This is a topic that draws very strong responses from people just as it has done from you. I find this interesting because there are very few other network issues that get people very excited. I also find it interesting that I get responses on both the pro and con side from both engineers and business people on the topic. It’s not like the engineers are on one side of the issue and business people on the other. And that was the whole point of my blog. There are a lot of different issues to consider in making this decision and different companies have built almost identical networks and yet made a very different choice about the speeds they offer customers.

      My opinion is somewhere in the middle. First, I completely agree that you ought to make available everything your network can deliver. That’s why you built it. If it can do a gigabit then you ought to have a gigabit product. But having products available does not automatically mean that every customer ought to get everything you have. As a businessman I find that to be bad business. These networks are expensive and to the extent that there are customers in a market that are willing to pay a higher price for a superior service, then I think that pricing ought to reflect that. Customers that are willing to pay more for bandwidth help to keep the prices lower for everybody else. So I generally recommend pricing in tiers.

      In every network I have ever been involved with, at least 80% of customers buy the least expensive data product (assuming that the speed is okay). This means that most people still care a lot more about price than speed. Your particular community being professors, scientists and small businesses is not the normal neighborhood that most networks reach. I can certainly see with that customer base why you are in favor of fast upload speeds since you have many customers that value it. But I would venture to say that you must have a lot of customers who just want to use the fiber to watch videos like any normal household.

      That leads me to a very practical question to ask. Do you think even most of your customers can really tell the difference between a 50 Mbps, a 100 Mbps or a 500 Mbps upload? I would venture to say that only a small handful of them could tell the practical difference or would even care. I would be willing to bet that if you gave your customers the option to pay less to accept a slower upload that a whole lot of them would choose to save the money.


      • Let me answer your last question first: Will all of our 800 users even know or be able to tell the difference between 50 Mbps a 100 Mbps or a 500 Mbps upload? The answer is probably not, but that should not matter. Each of these folks is paying the same cost per $1k valuation for the service and each is paying the same monthly fee for the service so each of them is entitled to that speed when the need it.

        So when my nobel prize winning in climate scientist next door neighbor wants to upload a manuscript to Nature magazine, Or the lady down the road who is a cancer researcher wants to upload her latest manuscript on breast cancer to science they will have the full speed of the network they paid to build and connect to at their disposal.

        Furthermore when the potter down the road wants to sell her art on the internet she should have the full speed of the system she paid to build as should the freelance editor, the author and the academics putting their course material on line. Ditto the third grader uploading her paper to the elementary school or the elementary school teacher uploading his class material.

        Now you say giving the all the customers all they are entitled to is bad business. I say rubbish! The customers are the owners and financiers of the network. They voted to tax themselves to build it and pay a flat rate that is adjusted to operate the network in a fiscally prudent and conservative manner.
        There is not a profit incentive because there is no profit.

        Since everyone pays the same monthly rate and the same percentage of their taxes to build and operate the network they are all entitled to equal access to the network.

        Make no mistake about it the people in our town want to break the mold of charging people more than they receive in benefit from the network to pay share holders profit. There are no tiers of service. The share holders are the customers and tax payers and their profit is a high speed network delivered at cost.

        If we find someone abusing the network the problem will be addressed, probably in town meeting. The same goes or illegal use of the network. But if we find the entire town is using more capacity than the backhaul can provide the town will vote on whether the backhaul should be upgraded. This decision will get made in town meeting. This goes for both upload and download sides of the network

        Also remember the ISP and the Network operator are contractors paid to operate the network. They get paid for running the network and their profit incentive is only based on the number of users they serve. They bid for the job and are happy to participate.

        Essentially we are operating a telecommunication cooperative that the town voted over 90% in favor to establish because the big telcos and cable networks would not serve us. It’s like our food coop, or our roads and public schools, non profit services, and it is how all public utilities should operate if you ask me.


  3. I’d like to make a point of clarification for others who read these comments. Richard above is from Leverett Massachusetts. They are currently building a fiber network to everybody in the town in a way that is unique. They have had two votes on the project and got 90% approval on the last vote to build the network from an increase in property taxes.

    And so Richard’s comments are based upon that project. I say kudos for the town for having found a way to get broadband. Until the network is completed the town is basically without broadband and people either use satellite or very slow DSL. There are no cable modems and cell phone coverage is also lousy. And so Leverett is going to build fiber to everybody in town and has contracted with an ISP to provide gigabit service to everybody.

    This project is unique in many ways. While there are many municipal networks, most of them try very hard to NOT finance the networks with tax money. This network is unique in that respect.

    Second, most munis that have built networks already have at least one competitor, generally a cable company. And because of this they almost never get 90% of the customers like is expected to happen with this network. A more normal penetration rate for a competitive network is 40% to 60% although a few have done better. Leverett will basically be a utility n the City rather than a competitive business. All of my various comments were aimed at companies that need to make a profit on their fiber network – which is just about everybody in the world other than Leverett.

    Finally, this is a small community with only a few thousand people. Generally places this small cannot make an economic business case for building and operating a fiber network. But Leverett is using property taxes to build it and pay for it over twenty years instead of trying to pay for it out of the ‘profits’ of the business like everybody else has to do. The property tax is a really clever way to bring fiber to a town that badly needs it.

    I do have to say, as a customer and not as an industry consultant, that I am a bit disturbed with the idea that abuses of the network might be handled by the City Council. I can’t picture a City wanting to get enmeshed in these kinds of issues and hope they can find another way to address the problems that inevitably arise on every network. I can see that sort of thing getting very ugly and Cities don’t really want to tell citizens what they can and do with their Internet connection.

    In a place like Leverett where everybody’s taxes are building the network, it makes good sense to give everybody the full gigabit. Each and every one has paid for it. But in every other network I have ever worked with, both muni and commercial, there is always the concern of becoming and remaining profitable. And so the more normal practice from network both large and small, both muni and commercial, is to have different rates for different classes of customers as a way to maximize revenues by matching revenues to deliverables. Generally the more people buy the more they pay, which is basic economics 101.


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