Why are upload speeds always slower than download speeds?

Why are upload speeds always slower than download speeds?

Friday, 21 December, 2018

When the World Wide Web was first unveiled in 1991, some fairly universal assumptions were made about its future operations.

It was assumed every piece of internet data would be distributed using the same HyperText Transfer Protocol.

It was assumed dial-up modems would remain the standard for data transference, with websites designed to download and display quickly.

And it was assumed people would passively consume online information, rather than actively supplying it.

As a result of this latter assumption, internet service providers biased connection speeds in favour of downloads.

In fact, they still do.

That’s despite rapid growth in two-way communications like video calling and online gaming, where data is constantly being sent as well as received.

ISPs rightly argue we’re more likely to download content from YouTube than we are to upload it.

But that’s not the whole story.

What sort of difference are we talking about?

Any broadband speed test will reveal a far superior download speed (measured in megabits per second, or Mbps) compared to uploads.

According to industry data, transfer speeds remain biased towards downloads by over two to one.

In other words, it’ll take you in excess of two minutes to upload a file you’d expect to download inside 60 seconds.

Faster connections often tip the scales further, since upload speeds are rarely a key factor in attracting new customers.

Some download speeds can be dozens of times faster than upload speeds on the same line.

Why are uploads so much slower?

The main reason for persisting with asymmetric connections involves our limited telecommunications infrastructure.

Given infinite bandwidth, there’d be no need to prioritise traffic in one direction.

But bandwidth isn’t infinite. In many households, it’s barely capable of supporting streaming media services and internet-enabled smart devices.

How should I tackle disappointing upload speeds?

Well, you can’t adjust the download bias, which is regulated by your ISP.

Scheduling large uploads for quiet periods might help – backing up smartphone data to the cloud overnight, for instance.

However, this isn’t going to minimise latency while playing FIFA 19 on a Saturday morning.

These are our tips for improving upload performance:

  • Hardwire devices. An Ethernet cable will always outperform a WiFi connection, so consider plugging games consoles and smart TVs directly into your broadband router
  • Ask your ISP whether a line upgrade is possible. ISPs occasionally sign customers up on cut-price introductory deals, with slower connections than the line is capable of
  • Reboot devices and update firmware. Broadband router performance may drop over time. Rebooting and updating its firmware might accelerate download and upload speeds alike
  • Turn off non-essential devices. IoT gadgets are notorious for constantly uploading data, and these low-priority web-enabled devices could be consuming precious bandwidth
  • Perform device maintenance. Malware hinders connection speeds, and Temporary Files data does, too. Hardware housekeeping might improve upload performance.
Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!