Broadband companies always refer to download speeds when advertising their services, because in general people are passive consumers of online content.
When we view our Instagram timelines, play Call of Duty or watch content through BBC iPlayer, we’re downloading reams of information to our devices.
However, computers and other web-enabled devices are also sending information all the time, from emails and video chats to requests for the next chunk of a Netflix video.
Look up, not down
Broadband providers recognise this, but they’re also aware that consumers generally spend much more time downloading than uploading.
For instance, most of the emails you handle in a typical day will be sent to you, rather than sent by you.
Internet service providers tend to bias broadband connections in favour of downloads – often by ratios as high as ten to one.
In other words, it’s ten times faster to download a particular file than it would be to upload it.
However, we are increasingly moving towards an always-on society and as a result, upload speeds are more important than they’ve ever been.
Why fast upload speeds matter
Even though consumers download more than they upload by definition, these are some of the common reasons for uploading data:
- Sending emails, particularly ones with attachments
- Voice calls and video conferencing, using platforms like Skype and Zoom
- Playing online games, where your device has to update servers with your current status and progress
- Streaming media from iPlayer or YouTube, for the same reason
- Backing up data to online storage services like iCloud and Dropbox
- Confirming receipt of information – internet browsers do this constantly when loading website pages
- Making status updates via social media, particularly photo or video messages
- Working on cloud-hosted documents in packages like Google Docs.
If any of these are a significant part of your daily life, it’s advisable to research typical upload speeds in your postcode before signing up with a new broadband provider – in the same way you might check download speeds if you’re an avid gamer or Netflix addict.
How to measure upload speeds
Your broadband provider probably won’t mention upload speeds in their marketing literature, and it’s doubtful it was listed in any letters welcoming you as a new customer.
It’s rarely obvious what upload speed your home hub or broadband router is capable of achieving.
Websites are able to run tests for you, but it’s advisable to use a device that’s physically connected to the router.
WiFi is a far slower method of data transfer than Ethernet cables, so line speed results from a wireless iPad will be inferior to those achieved by a hardwired laptop or PC.
If you don’t have an Ethernet cable long enough to connect a device to your router, you can use Powerline adaptors that channel broadband signals through plug sockets in your home.
Head to a reputable broadband speed test and click ‘Start speed test’ to get going.
The first figure will be your download speed, but the second will identify your upload speed – and it’ll be much lower.
How fast is that?
These figures are reported in megabits per second (Mbps).
A megabit is one eighth of a megabyte – the unit of measurement used for computer files, software downloads and much more besides.
An internet connection at 8Mbps can only download a maximum of 1MB of data per second.
In reality, it would be far slower due to line congestion, the effects of WiFi, less efficient software on the recipient device, and so forth.
The same is true for uploads. If your maximum upload speed is 8Mbps, you’ll need a minute to upload a 60MB file in perfect conditions – in reality, it might take 10 times longer.
Ofcom conducted a major survey in 2016 that found the typical upload speeds for an “up to 50Mbps” cable service are just 3Mbps.
They concluded the UK had an average upload speed of 3.7Mbps, increasing to 4.3Mbps in urban areas but falling to 1.6Mbps in rural regions.
In truth, anything over 1Mbps will be sufficient for sending emails and ensuring web browsers can communicate with host servers.
However, you’ll notice this sluggish performance if you’re trying to send an email with a couple of JPG attachments, or chat to your cousin in Australia via FaceTime.