Imbalance in Net Speeds Impedes Sharing

NEW YORK (AP) -- Blame the Internet's legacy systems if Jay Glatfelter falls asleep Thursday mornings. Co-host of an online audio show about “Lost,” Glatfelter must wait about 40 minutes to finish posting his program to the Internet in the hours after ABC's Wednesday night broadcast. If he were downloading it like any of his listeners do, the same file would take only a few minutes over his speedy cable modem.

“At 3 in the morning, that's really brutal,” said Glatfelter, 21, who lives in Raleigh, N.C. “It's an extra 40 minutes and you want to go to sleep.”

The information superhighway isn't truly equal in both directions. Cable and phone companies typically sell asymmetrical Internet services to households, reserving the bulk of the lanes for downloading movies and other files and leaving the shoulders at most for people to share, or upload, files with others.

The imbalance makes less sense as the Internet becomes truly interactive. Users are increasingly becoming contributors and not just consumers, sharing photos, video and in Glatfelter's case, podcasts. In a nod to the trend of user-generated content, Time magazine recently named “You” -- everyone who has contributed -- as its Person of the Year.

It's a little-known fact because advertisements for cable and DSL services generally focus on download speeds. Glatfelter, like other Internet content providers, is stuck unless he shells out hundreds of dollars a month for business-grade services that provide equal speeds upstream and downstream.

YouTube's rapid rise in 2006 -- and Google Inc.'s November purchase of the video-sharing site for $1.76 billion -- “clearly points to symmetric traffic as being important,” said John Cioffi, a Stanford engineering professor and pioneer in DSL technology.

Furthermore, people also are increasingly sharing among themselves, rather than through central servers that normally absorb the upload pressures. In recent months, Viacom Inc.'s Paramount Pictures, Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros. and other movie studios began embracing the BitTorrent file-sharing system to more economically distribute online movies.

It's only a matter of time before people will want to retrieve digital media from home while vacationing at a beach house.

Yet the ability to upload still lags -- in some cases, downloads are 10 to 15 times faster.

“The system is a hangover of the old mass media days,” said Paul Saffo, a technology analyst in Palo Alto, Calif. “Some consumers are uploading a tremendous amount of information and that's the thing the establishment just doesn't get.”

Cable and phone providers insist they are keeping up with demand, in many cases increasing both upload and download speeds, but they say they haven't had a huge clamoring for symmetry.

“Speed has not been an issue for most of our customers, or we'd hear about them,” said Mark Harrad, spokesman for Time Warner Cable.

AT&T Inc. spokesman Michael Coe said customers may indeed be sharing more files, but “the majority of their time is spent downloading. As needs change, we'll look at offerings that meet customers' needs, whether it's symmetric service or it's just higher upload speeds.”

He said AT&T tripled its upload speeds within the past two years, but downloads remain four times faster for its middle-tier DSL service. The gap is wider for higher-priced plans.

Even Verizon Communications Inc.'s superfast FiOS initiative brings download speeds 2.5 to 7.5 times faster than uploads.

The origins of the imbalance are technical. Too much uploading can interfere with download signals on DSL services, while cable TV providers must squeeze uploading within the broadcast spectrum below television's Channel 2.

But even as engineers overcome the limitations, it's unclear how much service providers will allocate to uploads. More bandwidth for sharing means less for television, video on demand and the like.

“In any kind of revenue-generating model, the consumer is willing to pay to receive something,” said John Chapman, a distinguished engineer with Cisco Systems Inc. “A lot less consumers are willing to pay for the privilege of contributing” video and other media.

Phil Leigh, senior analyst at Inside Digital Media, said cable and phone companies both see the Internet as threats to their traditional holds in video and voice.

For many Internet users, the imbalance still synchs with their needs.

YouTube visitors, for instance, view more than 100 million video clips a day but upload only 65,000. Elsewhere, the few uploads that people do send tend to be small files -- an e-mail attachment or text to a discussion board.

Furthermore, uploads aren't often time sensitive. Internet users can send photos and other items in the background, but want to watch the movie clip right away.

Americans can usually pay more if they need symmetric services, but many aren't even convinced they need high-speed service at all, said Maribel Lopez, a vice president with Forrester Research.

Sondra Lowell, 62, who uploads several video items a week to promote an independent movie she's producing in Los Angeles, only recently abandoned dial-up for a low-end DSL plan.

“I'm not doing too badly for their pricing,” she said. “It's not like I'm uploading 100 a day where I really do need the speed.”

And faster upload speeds won't always translate into performance, said Mike Baldwin, senior product manager for Symantec Corp.'s pcAnywhere remote-access software, which can generate data-heavy transfers. Other factors include computer speeds, available memory and bottlenecks elsewhere in the network, even the parts designed for symmetric traffic.

But most experts agree that demand for better upload speeds -- if not symmetric -- will only increase with time.

“We hear a lot about the dial-up wait,” said John Horrigan, associate director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. “If broadband providers aren't planning appropriately to increase uploads speed, broadband wait may be emerging in the next several years.”

Dave Burstein, editor of the industry newsletter DSL Prime, said 10 minutes of camcorder footage would take more than eight hours to send at the highest resolution. As more people buy camcorders, he said, they will grow increasingly frustrated.

Telecommuters, meanwhile, want to send PowerPoints and other files as quickly as they can to their offices, and emerging tasks like online backups, video conferencing and telemedicine will tax systems even more, experts say.

“Users every year get a little more demanding,” said Jake Soder, director of product management with broadband provider Speakeasy Inc.

Broadband options are already better in many countries outside the United States, thanks to better government incentives and fewer rural regions that are difficult to reach. There, residents have access to a wider range of symmetric services, Soder said.

Gary Bachula, a vice president with the super-speedy, next-generation Internet2 network for government agencies and universities, said users in the United States might not even realize yet what they are missing. Service providers, he said, should be nudging customers toward data-intensive applications and realize they will pay more for value.

“Cable companies have been busy trying to offer telephone services, and telephone companies are trying to duplicate the cable TV model,” Bachula said. “They should stop focusing on 20th century services and realize it's the 21st century. There are exciting new advanced services they could make money from.”

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