Ups and downs of consumer broadband

Consumers increasingly are frustrated with caps on upload speeds. But providers say demand is still too meager to put upload capacities on par with download speeds.

Sharing videos and pictures across the Internet should be a snap for Ron Gonzalez and his five siblings, who are scattered across California, Arizona and Colorado. Unfortunately, it's not.

Instead of posting photos and video of his 7-year-old son directly to a Web site, Gonzalez saves them to DVDs and sends them by mail.

"With the 256-kilobits-per-second upload I get with my service, it would take all day to upload my pictures and video," he said. "We all chat using IM (instant messaging). But forget about sending pictures--it takes too long."

Gonzalez is one of millions of Americans sharing content over the Net. And he is one of a growing number of people who complain that their broadband service isn't providing enough upload capacity for them to send rich content over their connections. While downloading music from iTunes or pictures from Snapfish takes only seconds, posting pictures to a Web site or sending video clips to loved ones can be like watching paint dry.


What's new:
Upload speeds for consumer broadband have historically been much slower than download speeds, prompting some broadband users to complain that upload capacities haven't kept pace with their needs.

Bottom line:
Broadband providers say current demand for faster upload capacity isn't significant. But there are indications that could change in the near future, especially as more and more mainstream customers use the Internet to send large files such as photos and videos.

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Over the past year, cable and DSL broadband providers alike have touted their increased download speeds, but little has been made of upload speeds. Two providers, Verizon Communications and Cablevision, do offer relatively fast upload services in many of their markets--and upload speeds elsewhere have increased modestly over time--but some users complain that the speeds still haven't kept pace with their needs.

Analysts and broadband providers argue that this is only a small subset of their customer base and that most users are satisfied with the upload speeds offered.

"We don't receive complaints from customers of our standard service when it comes to upload speeds," said Glenn Lock, data service product manager for Adelphia. "Gaming customers who want the biggest and best service are demanding higher speeds, but they tend to be ahead of the mainstream curve."

Gamers tend to be early technology adopters who are typically willing to pay a premium for their high-speed service, he added. As a result, broadband providers have created special packages to cater to them.

Still, there is evidence that demand for faster upload speeds will continue to grow, in large part because it is starting to come from more mainstream broadband users.

"We are starting to see even our average customers wanting higher upload speeds," said Sharon Cohen-Hagar, a spokeswoman for Verizon. "They're finding these higher speeds an advantage for everyday use, especially things like sending photos and videos to family and friends."

As more people subscribe to broadband services, their use of the Internet is changing, say researchers with the Pew Internet and American Life Project. There's growing evidence that people are using the Internet more interactively to swap and share files that include rich forms of media such as music, video and photos. In a May 2005 Pew Internet survey, 27 percent of Internet users said they have shared files stored on their computers' hard drive.

"I think that's a compelling indicator that people are getting more active in sharing files," said John Horrigan, director of research at the Pew Internet and American Life Project. "I believe this trend will continue to grow as more people get broadband. One they have that connection, they want to start doing more things with it."

Broadband has also become a vital tool for a growing number of telecommuters. Download speeds that surpass the 1.5mbps speeds offered with traditional leased access lines called T1 connections (which are used in many offices), make it simple for workers to download files from headquarters while they're at home.

But unlike T1 lines, which are symmetrical, meaning they provide the same speeds for downloads that they provide for uploads, broadband connections are asymmetrical, with download speeds typically far higher than those for uploading. This means that uploading files back onto the company's server can be grueling.

"When I'm trying to send large files for work over the company's VPN (virtual private network), upload speeds are important," said Sushim Mandal, an Intel engineer outside of Portland, Ore., and a Comcast customer. "The download and upload speeds don't have to be symmetrical, but I'd like to see uploads of higher than 2mbps."

Broadband service providers have not completely ignored

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