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What We’ve Learned About Upload Bandwidth

Until the pandemic hit, I rarely thought about upload bandwidth. I mostly used upload bandwidth to send files to people, and I rarely cared if they received the files immediately – I was happy as long as files got sent. But the pandemic changed everything for millions of people. All of a sudden, homes were unable to function well due to problems with uploading.

The big change from the pandemic came when many millions of people were sent home to work while students were sent home to attend school remotely. It turns out that connecting to schools and offices requires steady and reliable upload bandwidth, and many homes found they didn’t have that. My consulting firm has done several surveys per month during the pandemic, and we routinely have seen that at least 30% of those working or schooling from home, including those using cable company broadband, say that their bandwidth was not adequate for the needs created by the pandemic. Homes that tried to accommodate multiple people working online at the same time had the worst experiences.

We also changed a lot of other behavior during the pandemic that uses more upload bandwidth. Many who work from home started using software that automatically saves all work in the cloud. We started using collaborative software to connect to others working from home. And we began making Zoom calls to such an extent that this is now the largest use of upload broadband nationwide and has grown from practically nothing to consume over 15% of all upload broadband usage. Spending more time at home led millions to take up gaming – an activity that just started transitioning to the cloud before the pandemic.

We also got a stark reminder that broadband technologies are shared services. We saw that even homes with only one person working at home could suffer if the bandwidth for the whole neighborhood got bogged down from overuse.

It seems that everybody started collecting speed tests to figure out what was going wrong. Local governments, States, and the NTIA started gathering and looking at speed test results. We know that an individual speed test result is not reliable, but we’ve seen that masses of speed tests tell a great story about a given ISP in a given community.

We also learned that broadband networks vary by neighborhood – something that I don’t recall ever being discussed before the pandemic. Speed tests often showed that the performance of a cable company in a city could be drastically different by neighborhood. There have always been those who complained about cable company broadband, but they weren’t taken seriously by those in the same town that had adequate broadband. But we now often see some parts of cities with speeds drastically lower than the rest of the city – something cable companies have known about but never fixed.

We learned how awful rural broadband technologies can be when most rural folks had problems working and schooling from home. We figured this out when speed tests showed that rural upload speeds are often less than 1 Mbps.

Lately, I’ve been learning more about jitter, which measures the variance in broadband signal strength. Many people learned about jitter the hard way when they often got booted from school connections or Zoom calls when broadband signal strength fluctuated and hit a low point.

We also learned how the cable companies use the worst spectrum on a cable system to transmit upload speeds. They use spectrum inside the coaxial cables to transmit data, and the portion of the network used for upload is where natural interference from microwave ovens, small engines, and natural background radiation causes the most interference.

We’ve also learned that the pandemic has been good for the ISPs, although they aren’t talking about it. Millions of homes upgraded to faster broadband to try to get enough bandwidth during the pandemic. Unfortunately for many of them, their problem was not the download speeds, but the upload speeds, and the upgrade may not have brought much of a solution.

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