Full Disclosure: Broadband Speed That'll Send YouAre you getting enough upstream bandwidth for today's Internet?
Contributing Editor Stephen Manes is cohost of PC World's Digital Duo, a weekly series broadcast on public TV stations throughout the country.
Illustration by John Cuneo
Providers generally tout downstream bandwidth numbers--the speeds (typically characterized as "blazing") you can expect (at 2:00 in the morning, anyway) when you download data from the Internet. Upstream speeds--what you obtain when you send data to the Net--don't get nearly as much publicity, mainly because the numbers tend to be significantly lower and correspondingly less sexy. If you can trumpet a "blazing" 4-megabits-per-second speed in one direction, why even mention that your service delivers only a measly 384 kilobits per second the other way?
For a long time, few folks cared. In the past, when most Web activity consisted of downloading pages and checking e-mail, upstream bandwidth didn't much matter except to people who happened to be running a server. But now upstream is starting to matter a lot.
I realized this recently when I began testing products that let you send TV up the wire from your house to the Internet and watch it anywhere you have a Net connection. One of these products, Sony's Net AV, demands a rate of more than 300 kbps upstream--and at the time, when upgrading my Comcast cable connection to 384 kbps cost an extra $10 a month, I didn't have it; shortly thereafter, a service upgrade delivered that speed for the standard price, or double for the $10 premium.
Place-shifting TV is only one reason you might want more upstream bandwidth. If you've ever spent time waiting while a bunch of 7-megapixel photos uploaded to an online printing service or twiddling your thumbs while using an online backup service, you'll understand the benefits of swimming upstream faster. If one family member is uploading big PowerPoint files to the corporate server while someone else is having a video chat and yet another user is sitting in a hotel halfway around the world, sucking TV from the home Media Center PC over a service such as Orb, the flow of traditional upstream bandwidth may begin to feel like a trickle.
To see what kind of bandwidth you get now, use the tests at BroadbandReports.com. Providers sometimes upgrade current customers free of charge; but to increase your upstream oomph, you may have to shop around and compare. Qwest's basic DSL service, for example, offers 256 kbps down and up. But whether you pay Qwest extra for 1.5-mbps downstream service or even more for 3 mbps, your upstream rate will max out at 896 kbps.
If you do upgrade, test the new service once it has been installed, to make sure that you're getting what you pay for. Although in most cases broadband service providers won't guarantee a specific minimum data transfer speed, you shouldn't pay a premium for what you don't get--whether upstream or down.