What Does Upload Speed Mean?

by Rick Leander

Even experienced computer users often confuse the terms upload and download. It can be hard to tell which computer is up. To help remember, think of the Internet service provider and Web servers as the cloud. Uploads go up to the cloud, or Web servers. Downloads come down to your notebook or desktop computer. Upload speed indicates the number of bits per second sent from your computer to a Web server and these numbers are usually significantly slower than those promoted by Internet service providers.

Browsing on the Web

From the start, the World Wide Web was designed as a way to consume information. Content was presented as pages with links to other sites. You open a browser like Internet Explorer or Chrome and your home page appears. You read the latest news, check email or watch a video. In each case, the browser sends a short message to a Web server, and then the content gets downloaded to your browser. Little data goes up the line, far more data comes from the server to your computer.


In technical terms, data sent from a Web server to your computer is known as a download. Content, like a Web page or video stream, gets assembled by the Web server and then gets sent over the line to your computer. Along the way, the stream gets broken up into a number of packets, each sent individually over the line, then, once all of the packets get delivered to your computer, the operating system reassembles the data and the browser displays a Web page or video. Since this is the most common use of the Internet by consumers, the process is highly optimized and service providers deliver Web downloads at higher speeds than uploads.


Internet uploads essentially reverse the download process. A message or file gets sent from your computer to a server designed to receive data. The most common example of this process comes when you send an email. The message gets uploaded to a mail server then routed to the recipient. As the Web evolved, consumers more often became content producers, uploading more data. Services like DropBox and Google Drive enable you to upload files so they can be saved and shared with associates. Online backup services like Carbonite enable computers to upload their drives to backup sites to keep their data safe. Others upload videos to sites like YouTube so you can watch stupid cat tricks.

Upload Speed

Despite of the increase in Web uploads, consumers still spend the majority of their time downloading content. Internet service providers still optimize their services for consumption and the speeds promoted on mailers and television ads list download speeds. Upload speeds are often significantly slower. Typical advertised speeds range from 10 to 25 megabits per second, but upload speeds top out at 5Mbps and sometimes may be less than 1Mbps, as of this publication. Carefully read the terms of service to compare upload speeds before choosing an Internet service provider.

About the Author

Rick Leander lives in the Denver area and has written about software development since 1998. He is the author of “Building Application Servers” and is co-author of “Professional J2EE EAI." Leander is a professional software developer and has a Masters of Arts in computer information systems from Webster University.

Photo Credits

  • photo_camera Stock Xchng