The Demand for Upload Speeds

I was recently at a public meeting about broadband in Davis, California and got a good reminder of why upload speeds are as important to a community as download speeds. One of the people making public comments talked about how uploading was essential to his household and how the current broadband products on the market were not sufficient for his family.

This man needed good upload speeds for several reasons. First, he works as a photographer and takes pictures and shoots videos. He says that it takes hours to upload and send raw, uncompressed video to one of his customers and says the experience still feels like the dial-up days. His full-time job is working as a network security consultant for a company that specializes in big data. As such he needs to send and receive large files, and his home upload bandwidth is also inadequate for that – forcing him to go to an office for work that could otherwise be done from his home. Finally, his daughter creates YouTube content and has the same problem uploading content – which is particularly a problem when her content deals with time-sensitive current events and waiting four hours to get the content to YouTube kills the timeliness of her content.

This family is not unusual any more. A decade ago, a photographer led the community effort to get faster broadband in a city I was working with. But he was the only one asking for faster upload speeds and most homes didn’t care about it.

Today a lot of homes need faster upload speeds. This particular family had numerous reasons including working from home, sending large data files and posting original content to the web. But these aren’t the only uses for faster upload speeds. Gamers now need faster upload speeds. Anybody who wants to remotely check their home security cameras cares about upload speeds. And more and more people are migrating to 2-way video communications, which requires those at both ends to have decent uploading. We are just now seeing the early trials of virtual presence where communications will be by big-bandwidth virtual holograms at each end of the communications.

Davis is like many urban areas in that the broadband products available have slow upload speeds. Comcast is the cable incumbent, and while they recently introduced a gigabit download product, their upload speeds are still paltry. DSL is offered by AT&T which has even slower upload speeds.

Technologies differ in their ability to offer upload speeds. For instance, DSL is technically capable of sending the data at the same speeds for upload or download. But DSL providers have elected to stress the download speed, which is what most people value. So DSL products are set with small upload and a lot of download. It would be possible to give a customer the choice to vary the mix between upload and download speeds, but I’ve never heard of an ISP who tried to provide this as an option to customers.

Cable modems are a different story. Historically the small upload speeds were baked directly into the DOCSIS standard. When Cable Labs created DOCSIS they made upload speeds small in response to what cable companies asked from them. Until recently, cable companies have had no option to increase upload speeds beyond the DOCSIS constraints. But Cable Labs recently amended the new DOCSIS 3.1 standard to allow for much upload speeds of nearly a gigabit. The first release of the new DOCSIS 3.1 standard didn’t include this, but it’s now available.

However, a cable company has to make sacrifices in their network if they want to offer faster uploads. It takes about 24 empty channels (meaning no TV signal) on a cable system to provide gigabit download speeds. A cable company would need to vacate many more channels of programming to also offer faster uploads and I don’t think many of them will elect to do so. Programming is still king and cable owners need to balance the demand for more channels compared to demand for faster uploads.

Fiber has no real constraints on upload speeds up to the capability of the lasers. The common technologies being used for residential fiber all allow for gigabit upload speeds. Many fiber providers set speeds to symmetrical, but others have elected to limit upload speeds. The reason I’ve heard for that is to limit the attractiveness of their network for spammers and others who would steal the use of fast uploading. But even these networks offer upload speeds that are far faster than the cable company products.

As more households want to use uploading we are going to hear more demands for a faster upload option. But for now, if you want super-fast upload speeds you have to be lucky enough to live in a neighborhood with fiber-to-the-home.

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.