What’s the Right Definition of Upload Speed?

I read a blog on the WISPA website written by Mark Radabaugh that suggests that the best policy for broadband speeds would be met by asymmetrical architecture (meaning that upload speeds don’t need to be as fast as download speeds). I can buy that argument to some extent because there is no doubt that most homes download far more data than we upload.

But then the blog loses me when Mr. Radabaugh suggests that an adequate definition of speed might be 50/5 Mbps or 100/10 Mbps. I have seen enough evidence during the pandemic to know that 5 Mbps or 10 Mbps are not adequate upload speeds today. My consulting firm conducts speed tests and surveys for communities and during the pandemic, we’ve learned a lot about upload demand.

We’ve seen consistently in surveys that between 30% and 40% of the families that worked or schooled from home during the pandemic said that the upload connections were not adequate. Many of the respondents making this claim have lived in cities using cable company broadband with upload speeds between 10 Mbps and 20 Mbps. While those speeds may be adequate for one person working from home, they were clearly not adequate for multiple people trying to use the upload connection at the same time.

But it’s not quite that simple and we need to stop fixating on speed as the way to measure if a broadband connection is adequate. Many of the people who find home upload speeds to be inadequate complain about inconsistent speeds. They’ll connect easily enough to a work or school server, or a Zoom call but eventually get dumped out of the connection. Speeds on most technologies are not constant and bounce up and down as demand changes in the neighborhood. A 10 Mbps upload connection is not adequate if there are times when the speed drops below that speed and connections are dropped. Inconsistent broadband connections can also be related to poor latency and heavy jitter.

The latest grant requirements from the NTIA for using ARPA funding describe the issue succinctly. The NTIA says that the ARPA grants can be used in places where an ISP is not “reliably” delivering speeds of 25/3 Mbps. Reliability is a concept that is long overdue in our discussion of broadband because, unfortunately, many of our broadband technologies deliver different speeds from minute to minute and hour to hour. We cannot keep pretending that a WISP, DSL, or cable modem service that delivers 15 Mbps upload sometimes but a 5 Mbps connection at other times is reliable. Such a connection ought to more properly be labeled as a 5 Mbps connection that sometimes bursts to faster speeds.

The WISPA blog also fails to mention the context of discussing a speed requirement. There is a big difference in setting a definition of speed for today’s broadband market versus setting an expected speed for a project that’s being funded by a federal grant. We should never use federal grant funding to build broadband that just barely meets today’s definition of broadband. It’s an undisputed fact that households, on average, use a lot more broadband every year. We know that the amount of bandwidth used by households is likely to double every three years. If we build to meet today’s broadband demand, a network will be obsolete within a decade. Grant funding should be used to build networks that meet expected future needs.

I often tell stories about network engineers who undersize new transport electronics. While they know that broadband demand and traffic have been doubling on their networks every three years, they just can’t bring themselves to recommend new electronics that have ten times today’s capacity. Even experienced engineers have a mental block against truly believing the impact of growth. But anybody designing a network needs to be looking to make sure the new network is still going to be robust a decade from now.

It’s just as essential for policymakers to understand the incessant growth in broadband demand. When talking about awarding grants we shouldn’t be discussing the current definition of broadband, but instead the likely definition of broadband in a decade. That’s the big point that the WISPA blog misses. I think it’s easy to demonstrate that 5 Mbps or 10 Mbps is inadequate broadband speeds today – we have too much evidence that upload speeds need to probably be at least 25 Mbps. But we can’t accept today’s upload needs when funding new networks. Grant-funded networks should be forward-looking – and I think the NTIA’s suggestion of 100 Mbps upload for future networks is reasonable.

3 thoughts on “What’s the Right Definition of Upload Speed?

  1. “It’s just as essential for policymakers to understand the incessant growth in broadband demand. When talking about awarding grants we shouldn’t be discussing the current definition of broadband, but instead the likely definition of broadband in a decade. That’s the big point that the WISPA blog misses.”

    WISPA’s stance is perfectly aligned within the context of WISPs as a stopgap solution for the present deficit in fiber to the home.

  2. I call 100 megabit symmetric “Hectamega” (or “Hektamega” if you have a Greek spelling bias). But to network techies this is simply basic Ethernet when run over Cat-5 UTP. Current cabling standards offer three choices over copper UTP – Cat-5, Cat-5e(nhanced), and Cat-6 (gigabit capable).

    My employer in the late 1990’s moved into an office that was equiped with two (2) T-1 lines (1.55 megabit; long tom / 100). One was used as usual for a bunch of voice channels (humans + analog modems). The other was dedicated to data. The analog modems had to be throttled back a lot from 56K bps to lower speeds – sometimes as low as 9600 bps – due to bad lines at the other end. The data T-1 was a rock of Gibraltar. Large O/S downloads were a breeze and uploads to meet regulatory requirements were painless.

    The point of my story is this – SPEED PAYS. The edge cases of a few years ago – a home office with a video chat and a massive upload or a small office (or a busy family) with several video chats – are now commonplace. Setting the baseline at Hectamega will buy us five to ten years before it starts to pinch like a shoe that no longer fits. Then people will have to double the baseline which will take a few years to get past the naysayers.

  3. Dear Doug:
    With some background in telecommunication, and more recent background as a music teacher, I figure I have a very unique viewpoint on broadband and its use in the world during the past year.
    Back in the Pre-COVID days, school lessons centered around most lessons being taught at the school sight. Broadband tends to be more robust at schools than it is at homes, with a few rare exceptions, and students and teachers could more readily use the broadband at school if the requirements outstretched their service at home.

    Come March, 2020, that all changed. Schools remained the broadband focal point, but remote usage and access — both for the teachers and the students — became paramount. School systems’ IT departments were over-promising and under-delivering on their LMS deliverables, and were losing their jobs left and right.
    Suddenly, file size limitations were causing great problems for students trying to download assignments, and teacher trying to grade them. People had no idea how to send Trombone, Trumpet or Flute assignments — frequency and bandwidth hogs on a good day — over channels designed for standard voice communucation of the 1950s.
    The biggest problem facing these users and IT departments seemed to be their vendors’ inability to handle the “bursty” nature of school data usage. Assignments due at 9PM on a given night cause their own burstiness, and variety of file sizes and types — from simple Word docs to science files to video-recordings for music and foreign language assignments — wreaked havoc for all these systems.
    Kind of proved the point that they never really planned this through real well!!

    The growth of Zoom from a niche oddity to an international necessity in about one month’s time showed how such an explosion of clients/users/applications could be handled more or less well.
    Meanwhile, the experiences with the AP exams in May 2020 might provide a more cautionary tale on how not to run a dumpster fire.

    To the question posed at the top of this thread, the right answer is “… enough to appropriately serve your clients.”

    ~ Ron

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