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At the risk of getting the prize for stating the obvious, we’re all using more data. Consumers are increasingly opting for unlimited packages for their fixed line broadband and competition in the mobile data marketplace continues to develop at a pace. Ofcom, in its annual report, consistently issues data proving that the domain of Homo Informaticus continues to grow year-on-year. To feed this unquenchable thirst the regulator has been working on behalf of the Government to figure out how best to implement the proposed Universal Service Obligation (USO), which will give everyone in Britain the ‘legal right’ to request a broadband connection providing download speeds of around 10Mbps. But for many the issue is that all of the improvements to national broadband coverage – be it the USO or the BDUK rollout of superfast broadband – are focused on download speeds and aren’t looking to improve upload speeds to the same degree.

Since our article ‘Is the upload speed REALLY important?’ was published in 2014, upload speeds haven’t increased at the same rate as downloads – according to Ofcom’s Connected Nations Report 2015, the average upload speed for superfast (fibre) broadband remained at 8Mbps following its previous measurement in 2014, whereas average download speeds increased to 63 Mbps from 54 Mbps over the same time period. For copper broadband the picture is obviously much worse, with users often getting upload speeds of 1Mbps at best.

The justifications for improving upload speeds so that they are more in line – symmetrical even – with download speeds include:

  • It could help to improve download speeds: no matter what kind of information is being downloaded, there has to be enough data uploaded (by way of recognising that the download has been received) to keep the download coming. If you’re not acknowledging enough, the Internet Protocol slows down and repeats information, causing a poor user experience.
  • The number of devices connecting to the Internet is increasing: every device that a user connects to their network needs enough of a slice of the available bandwidth to offer a good user experience. Quite simply, the more devices you have using a shared connection, the more download and upload speed you need.
  • We’re all producing, sharing, storing and streaming more content than ever: this trend is likely to continue; our use of the Internet is much more collaborative and active than it used to be. And this is largely the point – to understand why things are as they are, you need to look at where we’ve come from and what the physical capabilities of our infrastructure are.

The way we were…

When the Internet was first commercialised, we were passive in our interaction with it – it was all about receiving information, in other words downloading.

So with the need to access information established, we needed a cost effective means of distribution. We started out utilising our copper telephony infrastructure because the technology existed – it had been tried and tested for decades under military licence and because it used infrastructure that had been around since the 1890’s, it was a commercially viable way of providing data to the masses. Dial-up gave way to broadband, where data travels along the same infrastructure using sound frequencies not audible by the human ear. Still we were obsessed with downloading and so ADSL was designed to be asymmetrical, providing just enough upstream data to keep the downstream data flowing. As our desire for accessing information even faster grew, VDSL was developed. Although it offered significantly faster upload speeds than previous technology, download speeds were favoured over upload because our general need to access information dominated our need to upload it. Even G.fast, the service currently being trialled by BT ahead of the commercial rollout anticipated to start next summer, is asymmetrical for this same reason.

Similarly, DOCSIS, the standard used by Virgin to provide their high speed Internet services, works alongside a system designed for TV viewing, which is by nature passive – the only information really required on the upstream was an instruction to change the channel!

The future is fibre…?

It’s only since the advent of Ethernet fibre technology that the potential for symmetrical speeds has existed. Leased lines, which run Ethernet protocols over fibre lines, are widely known to offer symmetrical speeds (as are slower copper compromise technologies, EFM and GEA) but “Fibre To The Cabinet” (not the premises) or “Fibre To The Premises” are asymmetrical, providing uploads of up to 10 Mbps and 30 Mbps respectively. It’s a cost decision that is holding rollout back – the cost to implement or upgrade the kit required across the national network for symmetrical speeds means that it’s just not commercially viable… after all BT / Openreach needed to be given Government funding to even rollout FTTC across the country. With the funding for the USO now under consideration, changing kit to enable symmetrical speeds on fibre lines isn’t likely to be forthcoming any time soon.

So what can you do to increase your upload speed?

If you’re on an ADSL line, consider adding Annex M – this sacrifices some of your download speed for an improved upload rate. It will come with a cost attached though, albeit a modest one. Alternatively, if fibre broadband is in your area you’ll see an uplift in your upload capability of anything up to 9Mbps by upgrading.

If you’re already connected by fibre broadband then your options are more limited – either upgrade to an Ethernet service or play the waiting game; eventually the world will catch up with you.

Have your say!

Do you think it’s time for upload capability to be given greater consideration or will the ability to download always be more important? How are you managing customer requests for faster upload speeds? Let us know what you think about this issue by leaving a comment below.

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