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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 the need for faster upload speeds. For example, SBC Communications announced in August 2004 that it had raised its upload speeds to 256kbps from 128kbps on its basic service and to 416kbps from 384kbps for its premium service. And it has raised upload speeds on its basic service yet again to 384kbps.

But for the most part, broadband providers have not raised upload speeds at the same rate that they have increased download speeds. For example, when Comcast recently boosted its download speeds from 4mbps to 6mbps for its basic service and 6mbps to 8mbps for its premium service, it kept the upload speeds the same: 384kbps for the basic service, 768kbps for the premium.

"We pay close attention to the needs of our customers," said Jeanne Russo, a spokeswoman for Comcast. "We think we have hit the sweet spot in terms of our upload speeds. But we will continue to pay close attention to what our customers want."

While most major broadband providers today offer at least one service option with download speeds exceeding 1mbps, only two--Cablevision and Verizon--offer upload speeds over 1mbps throughout most of their service regions.

"I resent the fact that they sell fast upload speeds only as part of business packages."
--Ron Gonzalez,
broadband customer

Cablevision offers 1mbps uploads with 10mbps downloads for a standalone price of $49.95. A representative confirmed that Cablevision, which serves the New York City suburbs, is testing a 20mbps download and 2mbps upload service.

Verizon, which competes with Cablevision in some markets, recently upgraded its DSL service. It now offers 3mbps downloads with 1.5mbps uploads for qualified customers for $29.99 per month. Since DSL speeds degrade over longer distances, customers must live within a certain distance of Verizon's central office to get the upgraded speeds. Subscribers to Verizon DSL must also purchase local telephone access from Verizon to get the service.

Verizon is also offering faster download and upload speeds with its new fiber-based service, called Fios, which is currently being built in several states throughout the carrier's local phone territory. The lowest-tier Fios service offers a 5mbps download/2mbps upload combination for $39.95 per month. The service, which uses fiber directly connected into people's homes, can also offer up to 30mbps downloads and 5mbps uploads for $199 per month.

Verizon's aggressive service offering has prompted competitors to raise speeds on their services in certain regions. Adelphia and Cox Communications have each announced that they're increasing upload speeds to 2mbps in targeted markets. Adelphia offers a 16mbps down/2mbps up service in Northern Virginia. And Cox offers 5mbps/2mbps and 15mbps/2mbps services in Northern Virginia and Rhode Island.

But for the majority of broadband consumers, upload speeds exceeding 1mbps can be obtained only by subscribing to expensive business packages. Ron Gonzalez pays $50 per month for a 3mbps/256kbps service in Burbank, Calif., from Charter Communications. In order to get the upload speeds he needs to share video over the Net, he said he'd have to subscribe to a business service that costs more than $100 per month.

"I resent the fact that they sell fast upload speeds only as part of business packages," he said. "I've been a Charter customer for four years, and overall I'm satisfied with the service. The download speeds are great, but the pricing structure is frustrating."

The gulf between download and upload speeds isn't likely to narrow anytime soon. Engineering a symmetrical broadband network is too expensive to deploy and maintain, said Glenn Lock of Adelphia. Uncapping upload speeds could create a strain on the network. But most important, service providers claim that the vast majority of customers don't need that much bandwidth. Many analysts agree.

"In a perfect world, symmetrical speeds would be better," said Mike Paxton, an analyst with In-Stat/MDR. "But only a small segment of broadband users really need higher upload speeds. Until we see a ground swell of customer demand, there's no reason for service providers to change it."