Difference Between Download and Upload Speeds

Cindy F. Cape

Download speed refers to how fast you receive information over the internet, whereas upload speed refers to how fast you send it. You need to download data from a website or server when you browse the internet or stream video. You also need to upload to request or send data, whether you’re browsing the web, playing video games, participating in Zoom calls, or doing a variety of other things online.

The speed at which you can download and upload data is partially determined by your bandwidth, or how much information you can potentially receive every second. Bandwidth is measured in megabits per second (Mbps) and depends on the internet plan you have from your internet service provider (ISP).

Verizon uses the analogy of a bathtub to illustrate the difference between internet bandwidth and internet speed. “If the bathtub faucet has a wide opening, more water can flow at a faster rate than if the pipe was narrower,” it explains. “Think of the water as the bandwidth and the rate at which the water flows as the speed.”

Generally, the more bandwidth you have for downloading and uploading, the faster your internet speed will be. This guide explains more about download and upload speeds, why they matter, how internet speed is measured, and how much speed you need for various online activities.

Download speed refers to how fast you receive information over the internet, whereas upload speed refers to how fast you send it.

What Is Download Speed?

Your download speed refers to how quickly you receive text, images, music, video, and other data online. Most online activity involves downloading, including viewing web pages, streaming video, and gaming.

Your ISP and data plan partially determine your download speed. Other factors include the quality of your electronic equipment like your desktop computer, modem, router, laptop, or tablet. Depending on the type of internet service you have, the demands on the ISP’s network at any given time – i.e. the number of people using it – can also affect your download speed. Download speed can also vary depending on your type of connection – cable, fiber, satellite, DSL, or cellular.

What Is Upload Speed?

Upload speed refers to “how quickly you send data from your device to the internet,” according to Ookla, an internet data firm known for its website that checks internet speeds. Upload speed also partially depends on your internet plan. Ookla adds that “a fast upload speed is helpful when sending large files via email, or in using video chat to talk to someone else online (since you have to send your video feed to them).”

Upload speed is typically much slower than download speed. Most types of internet connections like cable and DSL are designed to maximize download speed, as this is what people need much of the time for surfing the internet, streaming video, etc. One of the advantages of fiber internet is that download and upload speeds are about equally fast. If you need to upload large files on a regular basis, consider a fiber internet service like Verizon Fios.

Why Download and Upload Speeds Matter

Download and upload speeds matter because they greatly affect the quality of your online experiences. You don’t want your Zoom calls to freeze or your video to glitch while you’re watching Netflix, Amazon Prime, or another streaming service. All of your internet-connected devices – home security systems, security cameras, smart washers, dryers, refrigerators, and more – are also uploading and downloading data at the same time, which underscores the need for speed.

Bandwidth has become even more important as more people have spent time on their home networks for work, school, shopping, and entertainment during the COVID-19 pandemic. People who paid little attention to internet speeds are now becoming more aware of the “digital divide,” which disadvantages people who can’t afford the monthly cost of high–speed internet and those who live in rural areas without access to broadband.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made these gaps even more apparent, as citizens around the world have come to depend on high-quality internet access for everything from education to work to telehealth,” says Nick Feamster, a professor and director of the Center for Data and Computing at the University of Chicago in a blog post. “Mitigating the ‘digital divide’ is critical for reducing inequities, and a big part of that problem involves gathering reliable, accurate data about the speed, reliability, and quality of residential broadband Internet connectivity.”

Download and upload speeds matter because they greatly affect the quality of your online experiences.

How Internet Speed Is Measured

Internet speeds are generally measured based on “throughput,” or how much data is actually being transferred at a given time. This can vary based on your equipment, how many users are on the network, and other factors. Websites like speedtest.net and fast.com can give you a snapshot of your upload and download throughput. Throughput is different from bandwidth, which is the maximum amount of data your internet connection can potentially deliver.

What is a Good Internet Speed?

For streaming video, download speeds of at least 5 Mbps are needed for high definition and 25 Mbps for 4K Ultra HD, according to Netflix. Zoom recommends speeds of 2-3 Mbps for participating in video calls and webinars. If you’re an online gamer, you’ll want at least 20 Mbps for fast-paced games with immersive graphics like Overwatch or Fortnite, according to Xfinity.

Any interactive service, including online gaming and Zoom calls, will need good upload as well as download speed to avoid lag. Posting images or videos to social media also benefits from decent upload speed. Experts say that 5 or more Mbps upload speed is sufficient for most purposes.

These are minimum speeds, and more bandwidth from high-speed internet will usually give you a smoother experience. Demands for general web browsing might be less, but many websites and social media applications with embedded videos will load faster with additional bandwidth. See our guide What is a Good Internet Speed for more information. Note, however, that higher speeds will allow you to reach any data cap set by your ISP faster

Factors That Affect Internet Speed

ISPs generally offer a variety of speeds for subscribers, with broadband packages ranging from 50 Mbps to ultra-fast “gigabit” options at 1,000 Mbps. Whatever plan you choose, your speed will vary based on several factors other than your internet connection, including your equipment and the number of connected devices. If you’re using Wi-Fi, speeds can be affected by your modem and router’s capacity, obstacles like walls and doors, and the distance from your router. You might also get interference from electrical appliances or your neighbor’s Wi-Fi.

Even a fast connection can be less than optimal if you experience “latency,” or a delay in the time it takes to deliver bits of data to their destination, according to SAS Global Communications, an IT services firm. Latency is measured in milliseconds, but it can be noticeable in some situations, especially multiplayer online gaming. Latency and related “packet loss” can be affected by distance and the various routing and switching needed to move data across the global internet. If you have a VPN, that will also cause more latency. Satellite internet, while available in most places, is notorious for high latency.

Your internet speed will vary based on a variety of factors, including your equipment, the number of connected devices, and your router’s location and capacity if you’re using Wi-Fi.

How to Check Your Internet Speed

Several websites allow you to get a snapshot of your download speed and upload speed by conducting a speed test. These include Ookla’s speedtest.net, and fast.com, which is operated by Netflix. Google partners with the nonprofit M-Lab, and that speed test will often be featured at the top of Google search results. But be aware that internet speed test results can vary due to factors cited above. As a result, they may not always be a true reflection of the quality of your ISP’s connection.

How to Increase Your Internet Speed

Sometimes, a few simple tricks can increase your internet speed. AT&T points out that rebooting or restarting your modem, router, and other equipment can sometimes clear system errors and give you a better connection. Bringing your device closer to your router or moving the router to a different location may also help. A Wi-Fi extender may help if you have a large home. If a device can use an ethernet cable, this will provide a faster, more reliable connection than Wi-Fi. AT&T also recommends regular updates of your software and “firmware” for devices and disconnecting or turning off devices when you don’t need them.

Learn More

For more information on subjects related to ISPs and internet speeds, see the following guides.

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