Gigabit broadband gives me tomorrow’s internet today

At one point there were five AT&T trucks and technicians at my house installing fiber-optic broadband. It’s been smooth sailing since then.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

I just upgraded to gigabit broadband at home. But being able to download a 2GB episode of “Game of Thrones” in 16 seconds isn’t what gets me excited.

It’s the ability to upload data at 1 gigabit per second — not just download it — that helped me decide to cancel Comcast and sign up for AT&T Fiber. Downstream data rates are important, but fast upstream speed is what’s going to power the next transformation of home broadband.

If you’re shopping for broadband, the odds are good that internet service providers will rank their speed tiers by download speed. To make abstractions like 100 Mbps per second real, they’ll tell you how long it’ll take to download a movie in full HD resolution (hence my above example). What they won’t tell you is how long it’ll take to upload your video to YouTube or how good your Skype call with grandma will look.

It’s no surprise they don’t highlight these upload speeds, because they’re not very flattering. Network operators have a finite amount of bits they can shuttle around every second, and downloading generally is more important and data-intensive than uploading. So they allocate more of their capacity to downstream data transfer to your home, not upstream data transfer from your home to the internet.

But upload speeds matter. Being able to send data fast is important to videoconferencing, uploading photos, online gaming, collaborating with coworkers and more. Eventually, it could transform the internet again, perhaps the same way it changed when high-speed download speeds helped YouTube trigger the video streaming revolution.

Faster backup

For an example of how fast upload speeds change broadband, look at online backup service Backblaze, which charges $5 per month to keep a copy of your PC’s data. On Thursday, it announced a new version of its backup software that should triple or quadruple most customer’s backup speeds. If you have a fast upstream connection, that means you can send files up to its servers at 100 Mbps. Backblaze’s own chief technology officer has maxed out at 200 Mbps, though he’s an exceptional case.

AT&T promises 940 megabits per second with its gigabit fiber-optic service. For the most part it delivers -- though Wi-Fi is slower than a cable connection.
AT&T promises 940 megabits per second with its gigabit fiber-optic service. For the most part it delivers — though Wi-Fi is slower than a cable connection.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

I’ve been a Backblaze customer for years, and this kind of performance changes the game. For $60 a year they offer unlimited storage, but when I got started, with a slow upstream connection, it took months for all of my data to trickle its way to Backblaze. No way was I going to ditch the backup hard drive in my office.

But at 100 Mbps, you can pump 50 gigabytes per hour into the cloud. That means my current 2-terabyte backup would be finished in less than a day. It’s much faster to update an existing backup, of course, because only new or changed data must be sent, but it’s common for me to come back from a day trip with 10GB or 20GB of photos and video.

No, I’m not going to dump my physical backup drive, because I like to protect my data with multiple methods. But fast upstream data rates make online backup more feasible for people who otherwise wouldn’t bother. Online backup is a lifesaver if you’re the victim of flood, fire or burglary, plus the ability to access files if you’re away from your home computer.

With AT&T Fiber, Backblaze backup speeds increased dramatically to 101 Mbps — and that was before release of a new version of the software tuned better for high-speed links.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Other perks

Lots of other services today benefit from good upstream speeds:

  • Videoconferencing, whether you’re telecommuting or chatting with friends and family.
  • Online file sync with services like Dropbox liberate your data from individual hardware devices.
  • Google Photos can automatically back up older photos and videos so you don’t max out your phone storage.
  • Home security cameras can stream data so you can check on your house while you’re at work or on vacation.
  • It’s way faster to upload videos to YouTube, photos to Flickr, music tracks to SoundCloud, and your photo and video catalog to Adobe Systems’ Lightroom PC-mobile-cloud synchronization service.

None of these are impossible with today’s broadband, but all of them work better with gigabit speeds. Before moving to AT&T Fiber, I paid for a premium tier on Comcast’s Xfinity service not because I needed the 200 Mbps download rates, but because I wanted the commensurate 20 Mbps upload rate.

I ponied up for AT&T’s top-tier gigabit rate (actually 940 Mbps when you read the fine print), which costs $70 a month and goes to $80 after the first year. For 100 Mbps, it’s $50, increasing to $70, but I wanted to see what the top-of-the-line speed would get me.

In my speed testing, AT&T delivers the goods. But it’s not magic. Lots of things go faster, like YouTube uploads that take only a few seconds. The internet has abundant bottlenecks, though, so I still wait for data more often than I’d like. On top of that, Wi-Fi cuts down the maximum speed by two thirds, and websites require more and more time to execute complex programming instructions. Overall, though, I’m satisfied, and I expect things will improve as more online services adapt to ultra-high-speed connections.

I’m lucky to have gigabit speeds at home, but it’s becoming more common. AT&T can reach 5.5 million homes and small businesses today with its fiber-optic service, but plans to expand to at least 12.5 million by mid-2019.

Revolution?

The bigger question is what changes will come in the long run as upload speeds improve. There is an unpredictable “build it and they will come” factor.

Google had the presence of mind to acquire YouTube in 2006 and stands to profit likewise from tomorrow’s services. So it makes sense that the company would try to kick things into gear with its Google Fiber service, which promises gigabit upload and download speeds.

But the company is pretty vague about what it thinks will emerge when our upload speeds surge.

 

AT&T Fiber can boast of high upload speeds, but in this promotional mailing, it only mentions download speeds.AT&T Fiber can boast of high upload speeds, but in this promotional mailing, it only mentions download speeds.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

“We believe technology paves the way for innovation,” Google said of its Google Fiber project, which arguably kicked off this gigabit broadband push. “We’ve seen businesses in many industries — from architecture to medicine to film and music — take advantage of faster upload speeds to work collaboratively and expand their reach. And of course, it’s also great for less serious endeavors like gaming or keeping your YouTube channel up to date.”

For me, it was the supposedly slow-moving incumbent, not the Silicon Valley disruptor, that delivered my gigabit speeds.

AT&T expects changes with better upstream speeds. “We are seeing people producing more content than ever and pushing that content to the cloud, over social networks, engaging in video conferencing, online gaming, and more,” the company said in a statement.

It’s possible more radical changes will come. Faster upload speeds make telecommuting more feasible. It’s easier to access company data and chat with teleconferencing technology, so maybe more people will skip rush-hour commutes or cross-country flights.

The bigger difference will be that our digital selves will move to the cloud. Take a photo of your dog, and nearly instantly it’ll be stored on Facebook, Google, Dropbox, iCloud or some other online service. Your phone becomes an extension of the internet.

Security and privacy concerns mean it’s not always wise to send data over networks and store it in central servers. But the benefits of cloud computing are immense when it comes to protecting against theft, granting fast access to a massive video and music library, and synchronizing our phones, TVs, laptops, smart speakers, smartwatches and tablets.

It’s the future, so you better get used to it.

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