The differences between uploads and downloads

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Wednesday, 9 October, 2019

Download speeds are often the single most important factor when consumers choose a new broadband provider.

On our website, we publish average download speeds ahead of other important consumer factors, such as cost or new subscriber incentives.

Rapid downloads are vital. They reduce latency in online gaming, minimise buffering during media streaming and ensure webpages display promptly.

However, that’s only one side of the story.

What goes down…

Every time a device makes a request for information over the internet, this instruction has to be uploaded to the servers responsible for distributing content.

Devices are constantly sending updates and requests, to ensure web servers know what’s being asked of them or requested next.

Clicking Like buttons, posting social media updates, hitting “buy now” or “play” …all these actions have to be sent before the recipient server is able to respond.

Then there are two-way conversations (video calls, for instance), where data is sent and received in roughly equal measure as both parties watch and listen to the other.

Even online gaming involves a constant stream of input commands being sent to the server, as each player’s instructions are actioned.

Yet it’s easy to forget internet connectivity requires both uploads and downloads in order for anything to happen.

So what are the differences, and why do internet service providers only focus on download speeds?

An unequal relationship

The biggest difference between uploads and downloads is that we rely on the latter more than the former.

Although every internet-based activity involves two-way communications, most information passing along our phone line or broadband cable is being sent to us, rather than from us.

That’s because we tend to be consumers, not suppliers.

We’re more likely to download YouTube videos than we are to create and upload our own vlogs. Similarly, private individuals generally receive more emails than they distribute.

As a result, almost all domestic internet connections are asymmetric – most of their bandwidth is set aside for downloads.

It’s not uncommon for download speeds to be ten or even twenty times faster than uploads, simply because activities like streaming media revolve around the former.

Given the UK’s limited connectivity (and to minimise technical issues such as packet loss), ISPs prioritise download speeds – as their marketing literature clearly demonstrates.

And in the main, they’re right to ensure uploads and downloads aren’t equivalent.

How do I check my own line imbalance?

To check the disparity in your own broadband connection, visit a broadband speed check website and run an internet speed test.

On a 15Mbps connection, a download speed of 14Mbps would typically be matched with an upload speed of under 1Mbps.

Even the fastest fibre optic connections will top out at around 20Mbps.

Can I do anything to improve upload performance?

You can’t change the download bias on your internet connection.

However, these recommendations may help:

  • Hardwire devices. WiFi slows connection speeds even further, so use an Ethernet cable or Powerline adaptor wherever possible
  • Run antivirus scans. Malware often slows device connections. Run a full antivirus scan on key devices, particularly malware-prone desktop and laptop computers
  • Take competing devices offline. If uploads are taking too long, ensure secondary devices (smart fridges, virtual assistants, etc) aren’t unnecessarily consuming bandwidth
  • Delete unnecessary files. Temporary internet files, cookies and unused apps could all be consuming upload bandwidth without bringing any significant benefits
  • Get into the habit of scheduling uploads overnight – backing up data to the cloud, updating smartphone operating systems, and so forth.
Neil Cumins author picture

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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!

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