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It's time we talk about your upload speeds

The information highway isn't a one-way street. If your upload speeds are stalling your video conferences, find out why your speeds are slow and what you can do about it.

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You know your upload speed is poor if your Zoom meetings stall or freeze.

Sarah Tew/CNET

There's a reason most internet providers promote a plan's download speeds while treating upload speeds as an afterthought. Downloading dominates what we use the internet for, from streaming TV and music to viewing this webpage. Consequently, internet providers prioritize download speeds, often leaving customers with upload speeds that are significantly lower. 

So what's up with upload speeds? Are they as inconsequential as some providers would suggest, or do they play a bigger role in our connected lives than they get credit for? I'll explain why your upload speeds are important, why they may be slow and how you can improve them.

Read moreWhich internet speed test should you use to test your connection at home?

Importance of upload speeds amid the pandemic

The pandemic brought about an unprecedented number of people learning and working from home, for better or worse. Along the way, our home office setups and equipment have evolved, but our internet connections remain the cornerstone of our ability to safely learn, work and connect with others. While download speeds are still the champion of our internet service, upload speeds are increasingly important as we continue to adapt to what may be the new normal.

What are upload speeds used for?

Upload speed determines how fast you can send, or upload, data from your computer or device to the internet. This includes uploading files, such as pictures and videos to social media or homework assignments, but upload speeds are also essential to video conferencing, VOIP calling and online gaming.

Similar to how download speeds affect picture and sound quality when streaming a show on your TV, your upload speeds affect how others see and hear you on the other end of your video conference or online game. Slow or unstable upload speeds are often the cause of awkward frozen screens and broken audio when using apps like Skype or Zoom. 

How much upload speed do you need to avoid being the cause of interrupted meetings or class discussions? What's considered a good upload speed can vary depending on a number of factors, including how many users and connected devices you have in your home.

What's a good upload speed?

When using a wired connection on a single device, upload speeds of 5Mbps or higher are generally considered "good" as they will support most activities that require uploading data, including video calls in HD quality and gaming online. If you primarily use Wi-Fi or foresee using upload bandwidth on multiple devices at once, aim for upload speeds of 10Mbps or higher.

Minimum requirements for calling and video conferencing

The FCC considers any upload speed of 3Mbps or higher as "broadband." However, the FCC set this speed threshold (along with its broadband download speed of 25Mbps) back in 2015 and has since received bipartisan congressional pressure to raise the bar on what is officially considered broadband

Still, the FCC standard of 3Mbps is enough on paper, albeit not by much, to meet most of the minimum requirements for applications such as Skype and Zoom. Skype recommends a minimum of 100Kbps for calling and 512Kbps for group video chats of seven or more people. Zoom is a bit more demanding, requiring a minimum of 600Kbps for 1:1 video calling and 3.8Mbps for 1080p HD video group calling.

Keep in mind that these are the minimum requirements and you're likely to benefit from much faster speeds, so it's a good idea to know what your speeds are and what can affect them.

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Why are my upload speeds so slow?

A good speed test will give you an idea of what your upload speeds are. Of course, if you've been experiencing excessive lagging and freezing when on video calls, you might not need to run a speed test to know your upload speeds are not up to par with your needs.

If your upload speeds fall below your needs or expectations, there are a number of factors that can contribute to slow speeds. 

That's just what you get

The main culprit of slow upload speeds, especially when compared to your download speeds, is the internet plan itself. Plans from most internet service providers, with the exception of fiber service, typically come with max upload speeds around a tenth or less of their advertised download speeds. If you sign up for an internet plan with max download speeds of 50Mbps, you can likely expect peak upload speeds of 5Mbps or less. 

Most cable internet providers, including Cox, Spectrum and Xfinity, have max upload speeds of 30 to 35Mbps, even though gigabit download speeds are often available. The same goes for most DSL and satellite internet services; upload speeds are far lower than the advertised download speeds. 

How to fix it: The best thing you can do is find out what the available max upload speeds are with a particular provider or plan before signing up. This may involve talking to a customer service representative since many providers do not display upload speeds on their sites, either because they don't deem them important or because they are embarrassingly slow compared to download speeds.

If you already have internet service, you may want to consider upgrading to a faster plan. You'll likely not only get faster upload speeds but also a nice boost in download speeds. Switching providers is also an option, especially if fiber optic service from providers such as AT&T, CenturyLink, Google Fiber (yes, it's still a thing) or Verizon Fios are available. Fiber technology supports the bandwidth required for symmetrical or near-symmetrical download and upload speeds. So if you sign up for a 200Mbps plan, you can expect download and upload speeds of around 200Mbps over a wired connection.

Wi-Fi is always slower

Wi-Fi is an alternative to a wired connection, not its own separate internet service. If you use a Wi-Fi connection, expect download and upload speeds to be half or less than your plan's max advertised speeds, which are intended for a wired connection. 

Range and obstructions can be issues when using Wi-Fi as well. The farther you move away from your router, or if you move to a different room or floor, the lower your upload speeds are likely to be. 

How to fix it: Using a wired Ethernet connection will almost always give you a faster, more reliable connection. Try using a wired connection if you need fast, stable upload speeds for an important meeting or school project.

A wired connection isn't always practical and Wi-Fi is much more convenient, so there will often be times when Wi-Fi is your only option. There are a number of ways to improve your Wi-Fi connection, such as elevating your router or repositioning the antennas.

An equipment upgrade is also an effective way to improve your Wi-Fi speeds. If you're not sure where to start with purchasing a new router, see our list of the best Wi-Fi routers. And for better whole-home Wi-Fi connectivity, consider upgrading to a dual-band mesh router system.

Multiple upload tasks are active at the same time

There's only so much bandwidth available. When you have multiple video conferences going at once, they may all be competing with one another, bringing down everyone's available upload speeds. While simultaneous meetings or class participation can be unavoidable, try to stagger meetings and limit the number of connected devices whenever possible. 

How to fix it: Aside from strategically scheduling meeting times to accommodate everyone in your household, make sure your router is set to broadcast 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands. There's likely to be less clutter on your 5GHz band, allowing for better connection quality and faster upload speeds. 

Additionally, upgrading your internet plan or provider to one with faster max upload speeds will help ensure there is enough to go around.

You've reached your monthly data cap 

Believe it or not, uploading files and participating in video calls contribute to your monthly data usage just the same as downloading files or streaming TV. Depending on your provider, exceeding your data limit can result in throttled speeds for the remainder of your billing cycle. 

This is likely to only be an issue if you have satellite internet. HughesNet and Viasat will drastically reduce speeds once a customer has surpassed their monthly data allowance. Select DSL and cable internet providers may also have data caps, but most will charge an overage fee instead of throttling your speeds. 

How you can fix it: If you have a monthly data cap, it's best to monitor your activity throughout the billing cycle to avoid going over. Most providers have an app and/or website that lets you keep track of your data usage.

HughesNet customers can purchase additional data in 3, 5, 10 or 25GB blocks, which will restore their speeds until the next billing cycle or the extra data is used. Viasat does not offer additional data packets for purchase, but Viasat plans are likely to come with more data that similarly priced HughesNet plans.

Of course, your best option is to choose a provider with no data cap, or at least one that won't throttle your speeds for going over your limit. You'll still want to keep an eye on your data usage, however, as excessive data use could violate your service term agreement, which may result in service interruption.

Looking for more ways to improve your internet connection? Visit the CNET internet hub page for more articles featuring all things related to your home internet service.