We Need To Talk About Upload Speeds

Opinion: Australia is home to some incredible high-tech businesses, and Aussies can access some technologically amazing services — take video on demand, for example — with the quality of internet that we already have. Our download speeds, on the world stage, are okay. In the long and ongoing and convoluted and annoying argument about the National Broadband Network and about our country-wide internet, though, we’re all getting caught up talking about downloads, and it’s uploads that really matter.

Fibre optics image via Shutterstock

Australian Bureau of Statistics Internet Activity data released earlier this week shows that Australians are on the brink of downloading an entire exabyte of data — one million terabytes — every three months.

Over two million Australians have access to download speeds of over 24Mbps, and a further 6.25 million can access between 8 and 24Mbps. When you’re streaming a YouTube video or Foxtel Play or getting hold of the latest episode of Game Of Thrones or a game off Steam, if you’re one of these 9-odd million users you’re doing alright. No huge complaints.

The Guardian’s Datablog takes a closer look at upload speeds in light of the recent ABS data, and what it finds is wanting. According to Ookla NetIndex, Australia’s download speeds are ahead of the world average, as in years past (although the gap is closing), but in every year since 2008 we have been trailing in upload speeds and falling increasingly behind. Where we once placed 48th in the world for uploads, we’re now 100th.

Take an anecdotal example. I was 17 when YouTube launched in 2005, and we had ADSL installed at home around that time as well. Dodgy copper between the house and the street aside, I was pretty happy with the 6Mbps downloads, and the 812Kbps uploads. (Yep, I still remember that particular line sync speed from the configuration menu of my old Billion router.) It wasn’t too bad for uploading the occasional quick 30-second video. It’s now 2014, almost a decade later, and 100 hours of high-resolution video are uploaded to YouTube every minute around the world. At home, I’m now on ADSL2+ — state of the art — and I’m getting oh, 812Kbps uploads.

My phone can shoot more megabytes worth of video data in one second than it takes me to upload to YouTube in one minute. Shooting in 4K, and then uploading that? Forget about it. If I capture one 13-megapixel photo and want to share it with a friend over email, that’s another entire minute of waiting. And the phone can capture 10 in the space of a second. This is all, to be honest, pretty silly.

My home connection’s download speed has nearly doubled to a (massive!) 13Mbps in the last 10 years, but upload speeds remain glacially slow. For the life of me, I can’t see any difference. On paper, compare the stats of ADSL1 and ADSL2+, and the upload speeds are identical. My entirely average Australian house in an entirely average Australia suburb has, when it comes to one crucial half of the internet equation, been standing still — for more than a third of the time I have been alive.

To be honest, using the ADSL in my house isn’t a feasible option for getting any kind of serious work done at Gizmodo. When you’re uploading 20-odd relatively low resolution photos for a review, or a video to YouTube, or emailing any file attachment over a couple of megabytes, it’s just not realistic to sit around and wait. In practical terms, it’s much more sensible for me to hop onto a 3G or 4G hotspot, or tether my phone, and use that much, much faster connection when I need to.

It’s pretty ridiculous that I can get superior speeds with a handheld battery-powered gadget connecting wirelessly to a tower an entire kilometre away than I can through the physical line running directly from the phone socket in the wall to a Telstra exchange down the road, isn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, I love mobile data — and I use plenty of it — but what it does best is throw into sharp relief the fact that the wired parts of Australia’s internet stretching into people’s houses haven’t exactly kept up with the times.

With the roll-out of the National Broadband Network continuing around the country, upload speeds will improve. That’s a fact. The most basic and most garden variety fibre to the node service should reach minimum download speeds of 25Mbps and, more importantly, upload speeds of 5Mbps. But the disparity between those two speeds is, when you’re talking about the internet, pretty massive.

Sure, fibre to the home can handle 100Mbps downloads and 40Mbps uploads, and sure, it’s technologically superior. It would have been nice to see FTTH rolled out more widely around the country. Even fixed wireless is a big jump from the standards of ADSL we’ve been putting up with for years now. But, for the years to come, we need to transition to a way of thinking where upload speeds are equally as important as downloads, not one fifth or one tenth or one hundredth.

What we need is for the discussion, the debate we have about the future of Australia’s internet, to take into account one key fact. Now, and increasingly more in the future, Australians are actually using their internet services for sharing video to YouTube and for emailing photos to friends and for running websites and for the thousands of other jobs that rely on and would benefit from solid, fast upload speeds. Download speeds aren’t as important as they used to be. Focus on the other half.

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