What Does Upload & Download Speed Difference Mean?

By David Dunning

In 2010, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) upwardly revised its definition of high-speed, or broadband, Internet access as an actual, rather than advertised, speed of 4 megabits per second (Mbps) in the downstream direction and 1 Mbps in the upstream direction. Nevertheless, consumers may not be aware of the difference between the download and upload speeds of their own connection and what this means for their day-to-day use of the Internet.

Download Speed

The downstream, or download, speed of an Internet connection describes the rate at which data is transferred from the Internet to a user's computer. Broadband services for residential customers -- asymmetrical digital subscriber line (ADSL), cable and satellite -- typically provide faster download than upload speeds. This is because typical residential Internet users receive much more data, in the form of Web pages, movies, music and so on, than they send.

Upload Speed

The upstream, or upload, speed of an Internet connection, on the other hand, describes the rate at which data is transferred from in the opposite direction -- from a user's computer to the Internet. Upload speed is typically less of a priority than download speed to the average residential Internet user, but a fast upload speed is useful for tasks such as making video calls and uploading photographs to online albums or social networking sites.


Internet service providers typically quote the maximum, theoretical download speed of the connection they provide in their sales literature. Consumers should be aware that this is a theoretical maximum and factors such as distance from a telephone exchange, contention for the available bandwidth and, in the case of satellite Internet, weather conditions can significantly reduce data transfer rates in both directions. Typical maximum download speeds, as advertised, are 16 Mbps for satellite, 24 Mbps for ADSL and 1 Gbps for fiber optic. A typical ADSL connection, advertised with a maximum download speed of up to 24 Mbps is more likely to deliver between 3 Mbps and 9 Mbps.


The original ADSL standard, ADSL1, specifies a maximum download speed of up to 8 Mbps, but, at a little over 3 miles from a telephone exchange, the maximum download speed is limited to just 1 Mbps. By the same token, the maximum theoretical upload speed for such a connection is likely to be in the region of 448 kilobits per second (Kbps) decreases with distance from the telephone exchange. Typically, the more consumers are prepared to pay for Internet connections, the higher the speeds they receive, in both directions. One of the goals of the FCC is to achieve 100 million homes in the United States with a download speed of 100 Mbps and an upload speed of 50 Mbps at an affordable price.