To paraphrase George Costanza, the message boards were angry today, my friend. True, theyre almost always angry when the topic turns to consumer broadband. But lately, the usual complaints about bad tech support and service outages are being edged out by rants of a different sort: people want faster upload speed, and they want it now.
Cable companies have been aggressively upgrading their cable modem services to provide 2- and 3-megabit-per-second downloads, and some DSL providers have doubled their standard rates to 1.5 megabits per second, but upstream increases have been incremental. Meanwhile, demand for upload bandwidth is growing as more and more people telecommute, file-share, play online games, run personal Web servers, and send media-rich e-mail attachments. The recent surge of interest in voice-over IP (VoIP) telephony will only add to the load. More and more people who work from home are running up against the upload limits, says Lisa Pierce, an analyst at Forrester Research.
Although no one is refusing the 3-megabit-per-second downloads, the advantage isn’t as dramatic as might be expected. Due to piracy concerns, theres just not that much high-bandwidth content available on the Web, and high-quality video may be a long-time coming from a cable industry that wants to protect its core video business. Whats more, the maximum rates are often reduced by peak-hour congestion, and Internet service providers have become more and more vigilant in enforcing bandwidth-consumption caps. In other words, youre likely to run into the 3-megabit-per-second cap about as often as hitting 120 miles per hour on the freeway.
Users bump up against upload limits far more frequently. Some providers, such as Verizon DSL and Time Warner Cable, have recently upgraded their customers to 384-kilobit-per-second uplinks. But most broadband users are limited to 256 kilobits per second, and millions still chug along at 90 to 128 kilobits per second.
Then start piling on the applications: Voice over IP, for example, requires 40 to 90 kilobits per second per call. For a VoIP conversation in which both parties are simultaneously accessing the Internet over a shared, home-networked connection, even a typical 200 kilobits per second back channel may not suffice. If you cant perform data access at the same time [as using VoIP] then theres no real advantage to using it, says Pierce.
VoIP calls won’t be able to fully exploit greater bandwidth, however, unless the codecs are redesigned to do so. If voice quality is seen as an obstacle to customer adoption of VoIP, cable providers deploying VoIP may need to boost their uplink speeds accordingly. The technology is ready when they are: last month, ShoreTel introduced the first IP phone to include a 16-bit codec that can exploit up to 256 kilobits per second per channel for better voice quality.
The uploading problem is only going to grow worse, says Matt Davis, an analyst with the Yankee Group. As we move into more interactivity with online gaming and videoconferencing, upstream bandwidth is going to be more important, he says.