Broadband 101 is meant to be a “gentle introduction to broadband” for the non-technical reader. In this second part, I’ll explain the difference between upload and download speeds as well as between advertised and actual speeds.

In the last Broadband 101 chapter, I compared speeds of various types of internet access. Although I didn’t mention it, the speeds I talked about in that article were all download speeds, or how fast you can get data (web pages, emails, videos, etc.) from the internet to your computer. All internet connections have two distinct speeds, however, a download speed and an upload speed. Upload speed is how fast your computer can send data to the internet. The upload speed will generally be much less than the download speed. This is fine, though, because the broadband user needs more capacity to receive information from the internet and much less capacity to send information to the internet.

What are typical upload speeds? I’ve expanded the table from the previous chapter to show both download and upload speeds for some typical internet connections:

Service         Download Speed    Upload Speed
-----------------------------------------------
Dial Up            0.0336           0.0336
slowest DSL        0.768            0.128
slowest cable      1.0              0.128
fast cable        25.0              3.0

When will the upload speed of my connection affect my internet access? Upload speed will affect activities like emailing images or documents and uploading digital photos to get prints made. User’s who work from home often have to send large documents to clients or to their office. User’s who want to do video conferencing for business or with family and friends will have to be sure they have adequate upload speed as well.

The only definition for broadband upload speeds that I know of is from the Federal Communications Commission.  The FCC defines broadband upload as speeds of at least 1.0 Mbps1.  As for a comparison of what internet access plans would be considered broadband based on upload speed, it would look much like the comparison done in the previous chapter for download speeds.  Satellite, 3G wireless and low level DSL and cable plans wouldn’t be considered broadband.

Another topic which affects all of the speeds we’ve talked about is advertised speed vs. actual speed. Advertised speeds are what the provider tells you you will get. Actual speed is what you can expect to get on average. These are, unfortunately, quite different. The FCC found that actual speeds are usually 1/2 of advertised speeds for a typical residential plan. Any broadband user will tell you that their speeds do vary considerably throughout the day. I’ve used many types of service and, while some are much more consistent than others, 1/2 is a good rule of thumb. What you typically find is that during peak hours, when everyone in town is on-line, speeds can be very very low. Off peak hours, late at night for example, you’ll often get close or actually achieve the advertised speed.

Are consumers being ripped off or scammed because of this? Yes and no. No because networks are a shared resource and, unless you want to pay an arm and a leg for guaranteed bandwidth, You’ll at times have slow downs. Yes because there are no rules in place that make providers tell consumers what typical speeds they can expect and for how long during the day they can expect them.

In this chapter, I hope I’ve enabled you to better understand some of the details of internet connection speeds. Please feel free to post questions or comments, I’ll do my best to help out!

  1. “Sixth Broadband Deployment Report”, fcc.gov, July 20, 2010 <http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/FCC-10-129A1.pdf> []