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Broadband connections: How Fast Does Your Data Swim Upstream?

Browsing isn't the only thing people use the Internet these days. In fact, for just about any Internet-based application other than Web browsing, the speed of your upstream connection is sometimes more important than your downstream connection.

by Joseph Moran

Quick — how fast is your broadband Internet connection?

If you responded with just one number, your answer likely refers to your connection's downstream bandwidth — that is, how fast data can travel from your ISP "down" to your PC. But it's important to realize that your upstream connection — how fast data can travel back "up" to your ISP — is increasingly important as people's use of the Internet evolves beyond simply surfing the Web.

First, a Bit of History
Back when broadband connections started to become widely available (about 10 years ago) surfing the Web was pretty much the only thing people used their connections for. Given that loading Web pages quickly was THE top priority and because the requests for those pages requires a negligible amount of bandwidth, most broadband connections were designed to provide maximum downstream performance and relatively little upstream. (In fact, my first cable modem — circa 1999 — used a lowly built-in 14.4 kbps dial-up modem as it's upstream link.)

Now fast-forward to the present day. Upstream bandwidth still almost always takes a back seat to downstream (at least, on consumer-grade connections), and Web browsing is arguably still the activity most people engage in most of the time. But browsing isn't the only thing people use the Internet for anymore — not by a long shot. The truth is that for just about any Internet-based application other than Web browsing, the speed of your upstream connection can be as important as — and in many cases, perhaps more important than — your downstream connection.

The most obvious example of this is uploading files. It doesn't matter if you're sending someone an e-mail attachment, uploading a ton of photos to an online sharing site like Flickr, or running a P2P [define] file-sharing application like BitTorrent [define], they all rely heavily (or exclusively) on the speed of your upstream connection. Want to upload your latest video creation to YouTube? Don't hold your breath — it's probably going to take a while.

Placeshifting devices are becoming more popular, and they're another major consumer of upstream bandwidth. When you log in to a Slingbox from your hotel room to catch up on your favorite TV show, your image and sound quality, frame rates, and latency depends on how much upstream bandwidth the device has available to it.

While we're on the subject of video, the same thing is true of videoconferencing software. A super-fast downstream connection doesn't much matter when the video you're receiving is coming through a bandwidth-constrained upstream connection on the other end of the link. Conversely, the quality of what the other party sees and hears from you is only as good as the speed of the your own upstream connection.

There are many other scenarios where upstream bandwidth plays an important role in application performance — VoIP software (such as Skype), online gaming with a PC or game console, even remote access utilities like Citrix's GoToMyPC or WebEx PCNow work better the more upstream bandwidth they have available to them.

But you get the idea. Most broadband connections offer upstream speeds ranging anywhere from 96 to 768 Kb /sec, but unless you're at the middle-to-high end of that range, you will likely benefit from a faster connection (you can check the performance of both sides of your connection using online speed tests such as this one.

Options Are Looking Up?
What can you do if you decide you want more upstream bandwidth? You may have options, because many ISPs now offer multiple tiers of service, and you will likely find that you can bump up both your upstream and downstream bandwidth (perhaps even double them) for about an extra $10 or $15 a month. Be sure to check the offerings of alternative ISPs in your neighborhood — if you have cable modem service, check availability of DSL, and vice-versa.

Slowly but surely ISPs are beginning to recognize the importance of upstream bandwidth (but when checking them it can't hurt to let ISPs know that upstream bandwidth is important to you). Verizon's FiOS (Fiber Optic Service) [define], for example, offers users a whopping 2 MB/sec upstream connection, which is many times what you can get with most cable modem or DSL connections (though it's only available in a handful of locales at the moment).

If a speedier upstream connection isn't available in your area (or isn't practical due to budgetary concerns) there are ways to at least make the most efficient use of what you've already got.

Case in point: D-Link's DGL-4100 and 4300 routers include QoS (Quality of Service) [define] features that will automatically prioritize the outgoing traffic on your network (giving preference to the most performance-sensitive applications like voice and video). They'll also let you set up your own custom priority lists to give top priority to the specific PC, device, or application of your choice. Hawking's HBB1 Broadband Booster (see our review) works much the same way, but it's a stand-alone device that you can install between your existing router and a cable/DSL modem.

Products like these won't make your connection any faster, but they can help ensure the most performance-sensitive activities won't get bogged down by less critical tasks such as file transfers.

The next time you need to order or upgrade broadband service, remember that although that big downstream number may seem impressive, the key to your experience may lie more in the connection's upstream performance.

Joe Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.

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