Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. You want to upload your stuff to Dropbox, but it’s taking hours, days, or if you’re trying to archive a lot of data, even weeks. Why does it take so long?

The answer is quite simple, it’s your connection. You were probably thrilled at first with your broadband connection. You could download files and movies in a few minutes, larger files take longer but it’s no big deal because you can still watch streaming movies, listen to music, view sporting events, and it all seems plenty fast enough.

But not so much with uploading stuff. If you try to share video files, or back up virtual machines, archive music, movies, or even photos to the cloud, you find out quickly that it can be a long, tedious wait.

Upload Speeds: The Number ISPs Don’t Brag About

Upload speed is very important. It has a noticeable affect on overall speed, and if you’re trying to upload a bunch of stuff to your cloud folders, it can really bog your connection down.

You’re probably well aware of your download speed because your ISP boldly advertises it, usually leaving your upload speed to the finer print.

Here are some of Time Warner’s Internet packages. Note how the download speeds are in large type and bolded, while the upload speeds are discretely mentioned below it.

Or, they might not make upload speeds immediately apparent at all.

Here’s a look at a couple of Comcast’s offerings. If you click “Learn More”, they’ll tell you what your upload speeds could be with each tier, but the big number here are download speeds.

By contrast, fiber ISPs don’t have this problem. Verizon FIOS for example, advertises their upload speeds alongside download speeds.

Unfortunately, fiber isn’t widespread or available in many places; most Internet customers are going to have to rely on the big, more notorious ISPs: Comcast, Time Warner, and AT&T.

How Fast is Your Connection

If you’re unsure what your connection speed is, you should test it.

Results are displayed according to three metrics, latency (ping), download throughput and, of course, upload, which is the number we’re most interested in.

What is Latency?

Aside from the obvious download/upload numbers, there’s latency, which is measured in milliseconds (ms). Latency should be lower than higher.

It might be easier to think of latency as response time, but the determining factor with regard to latency is length. How far away is the server you’re trying to communicate with? In the following screenshot, we see the server we’ve pinged is about 100 miles away or 161 kilometers, which is a 362 km roundtrip.

Light travels at 300,000 km per second. So, if our connection were perfect, we could see a a 1.8 ms ping time (362/200,000). Obviously, it isn’t a perfect connection, and it takes quite a bit longer (but 38 ms isn’t terrible).

A more extreme example – we ping a server in Sydney, Australia over 8000 miles away, or a 26,876 km round-trip. Because of the distance and the finite speed of light, even with a perfect connection, it would still take 134.4 ms. So, you can have all the bandwidth in the world but you can’t escape physics.

In our test, it takes 243 ms, which is unacceptably long. That’s because on its trip halfway around the world, our data has to hop from server to server.

Even a short trip to a more local server is going to have to go through several hops before it it gets there and back, which is why it takes 38 ms to ping a server only 100 miles away.

Thus, latency is going to affect the overall speed of your connection. High latency simply means that it will take longer for a packet of data to make a round trip from your computer to the remote server and then return to you. Unfortunately, there’s not too much you an really do about latency, and it can make even fast connections feel slow.

Psssst … Don’t Forget Your Overhead!

Another thing you can’t really control is overhead. What is overhead? It’s kind of complicated, but basically, you never get all the bandwidth available because a portion of it is lost for things like turning your data into packets, addressing it, dealing with collisions, basic inefficiencies in networking technologies, and other factors.

So no matter what your connection speed is, you always have to give up a portion of that to overhead. How much you give up to overhead will depend on the those above-mentioned factors but ideally it should be around 10 percent.

How Long Does it Take Your Connection to Upload Data?

Many cloud services now offer a terabyte or more of storage – Dropbox, OneDrive, Google Drive, and so on.

A terabyte is a considerable amount of capacity, comparing well to desktop computer hard drives, and far outpacing tablets and phones. Therefore it’s a great place to keep your stuff and access it from almost anywhere, or use it to offload data you want to archive but not keep on local storage.

Thus, we calculated the time it would take to upload 1GB, 100GB, and 1000GB (or 1TB) of data using common upload speeds: 1Mbps, 2Mbps, 5Mbps, 10Mbps, 20Mbps, and finally, just for kicks 1000Mbps (1Gbps), which are the speeds Google Fiber advertises.

1 GB 100 GB 1000 GB
1Mbps 2.5 hrs 10 days 99 days
2Mbps 1.25 hrs 5 days 50 days
5Mbps 28 min 2 days 20.3 days
10Mbps 14 min 1 day 10.2 days
20Mbps 7 min 12 hrs 5.1 days
1000Mbps 8 sec 15 min 2.5 hrs

Our calculations are rounded to the nearest minute and include 10 percent connection overhead. Keep in mind that if your overhead is more than 10 percent, then your transmission times will be even greater than the data presented in our table.

If You Want Higher Upload Speeds, Prepare to Pay Up!

It’s pretty clear from the results that upload speeds don’t really start to become usable until they hit 20Mbps. Uploading a terabyte in less than a week isn’t that bad. Sadly, to get 20Mbps, at least from a cable Internet provider (Comcast, the worst one of all), is going to set you back almost $115/month!

$115 doesn’t really seem reasonable for monthly home Internet service. We’re disinclined to spend more than $50/month on Internet, and what you can get for that much isn’t terribly jaw dropping (2Mbps to 5Mbps).

So, for the time being, you’re stuck with what Internet providers offer and charge for it. Obviously, if you have access to fiber, try to go with that but understand that, too, is going to cost more (though arguably a far better value).

When all is said and done, however, regardless of how much you can afford, pay closer attention to that all-important upload number because it can actually affect how fast your connection feels almost as much as your download speed.

We’d like to hear now from you. Do you have slower upload speeds? Are you stuck in the gray area between fast enough and dial-up? Our discussion forum is open and we’d like to hear your feedback.

Profile Photo for Matt Klein Matt Klein
Matt Klein has nearly two decades of technical writing experience. He's covered Windows, Android, macOS, Microsoft Office, and everything in between. He's even written a book, The How-To Geek Guide to Windows 8.
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