Many Internet users do not appreciate the nuanced difference between download speed, upload speed and bandwidth. This is perhaps never been more apparent than during the coronavirus lockdowns.
Understanding Internet Speed
Many people who had to start working or attending school from home thought they had fast Internet only to experience problems video conferencing and uploading large files. Internet connections are measured in how much data they can transfer in a second. The metric often used is megabits of data per second or Mbps. Often, when an internet service provider markets its services, it promotes the speed at which it can deliver data to your residence or business. But data goes in two directions.
Download speed refers to how many megabits per second you can download from a server. This data can include video and audio streams, images, emails and so forth. You may not think of this way, but when you watch a movie on Netflix or listen to a song on Spotify, you are downloading a file.
The FCC classifies broadband Internet as having at least a 25 Mbps download speed, and that speed is good enough for most activities—at least when one activity is happening at a time. But if you live in a household with multiple people using multiple devices, you may need a lot more than the minimum.
Upload speed indicates how many megabits per second you can send to a server. Most activities require two-way communication, but many, such as our Netflix, Dish TV or Flex TV and Spotify examples, require very little. Even sending your average text email or playing a video game does not require that much. But when you video conference or upload large files, the demand on your upload capabilities goes way up. The FCC classifies broadband Internet as having at least a 3 Mbps download speed.
Many people confuse bandwidth with their download speed, but that is not the case. Speed refers to the maximum rate at which you can transfer data. Bandwidth refers to the maximum amount of data that the connection can handle at any moment. There is certainly a relationship between bandwidth and speed, and it is, for instance, possible to use too much upload speed and thus cripple the connection overall.
Download vs. Upload Speed
Most ISPs offer plans with much greater download speeds than upload speeds, and that is because that is what the average user has historically needed. It is not unusual, for instance, to have hundreds of Mbps download but only 10s of Mbps upload or even less. Recognizing that the modern user needs more up, many ISPs have begun to add more across most of their plans. They have also begun to offer plans specifically geared toward people who video conference and upload large files.
Why Upload Is Slow and Download Fast
There is no fundamental reason why uploads are slow and downloads are fast. It is for the reason just discussed. This is what the average user has historically needed, and therefore, this is where the ISPs have allocated their resources. Even with many more people working from home, the average user still uses a lot more download speed than he or she does upload. If you need more, however, and have broadband Internet, the good news is that your ISP can probably meet your needs.