In a busy week, Jeremy Phan might do 10 photo shoots for various business clients, each typically taking about five or six hours and resulting in two to five gigabytes worth of images. But that’s only half the job.
After processing the photos at home, he spends a seemingly interminable period watching a status bar on his computer inch forward as he uploads his work to clients, many of whom are looking to add virtual tours of their offices to their web sites and Google Street View.
Phan has a fast internet connection for downloading in his Toronto condo, but he’s stuck in the slow lane when it comes to the other direction. His $80-a-month internet plan gives him a four-megabit-per-second upload speed – just a 10th of the download speed – and anything higher would cost significantly more.
He has considered switching to the other provider available in his building, but that wouldn’t save him much time or money.
Such is life in Canada, where upload connections are among the worst in the developed world.
“Upload speeds are so frustratingly slow that oftentimes, it's quicker for me to copy the files onto a USB stick and drive it over to clients,” he says.
For the most part, consumers choose their internet plans based on download speed, price and data allowance, paying little attention to upload capabilities.
But with sharing, the social web and entrepreneurialism exploding, getting things up onto the internet is becoming just as important as downloading email, music and movies. Applications such as video conferencing, home security monitoring, online gaming and cloud-based file storage — all of which depend on fast and reliable upstream connections — are rapidly moving from early adopters to the mainstream.
But with an average upload speed of 5.67 Mbps, Canada ranks 53rd in the world and below the global average of 7.6 Mbps, according to the Net Index from Montana-based speed-testing firm Ookla. That’s in stark contrast to world leaders Hong Kong and South Korea, where internet users see average speeds closer to 61 and 45 Mbps, respectively.
Canada also rates below the G8 average of 8.8 Mbps and is being outperformed by several developing nations, with upload speeds in Manitoba and British Columbia comparable to those in Honduras and Iraq, respectively.
The poor showing is partly due to the fact that fast upload speeds are not available in some parts of the country. In Winnipeg, for example, many customers of Manitoba Telecom Services are stuck with a maximum of 5 Mbps. The same goes for northern Canada, where Northwestel is the main provider.
Where faster uploads are available, they usually cost a lot. For anything over 10 Mbps, major internet providers such as Rogers in Ontario, Shaw in western Canada and Eastlink in the Maritimes are charging anywhere between $120 and $253. So, while many consumers do have access to better speeds, relatively few choose to pay extra for them.
Experts say the situation is reflective of the larger competitive dynamic in telecommunications service in Canada. Most markets are being serviced by one big phone company and one big cable provider. Smaller independent ISPs such as Teksavvy and Telnet operate as alternatives in many places, but the speeds they offer are often limited by the big network owners they connect to. The big companies therefore have little incentive to ratchet up speeds.
“They’ve used the drip-drop approach where they steadily offer more, often at pricing that’s difficult to compare with some of the competition,” says Michael Geist, the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa. “They’ve been reluctant to open up the tap fully and offer up to consumers what the technology is capable of.”
Part of the problem lies in how telecommunications services have historically been sold in Canada. Many new innovations – think BlackBerry – have generally been aimed at businesses first, with mainstream consumers eventually following along. Better and faster internet connections have followed the pattern, with businesses paying more for them initially.
[Business] are “in the minority and they need it and are willing to pay, so it sets the market price,” says Bill Sandiford, president of Telnet and the Canadian Network Operators Consortium, which represents a group of independent ISPs.
The service providers say they have simply been matching supply with demand. Rogers, for one, says upstream usage accounts for only 13 per cent of total traffic on its network. The company expects overall internet usage will continue to increase significantly by 40 per cent year over year, so better upload speeds will inevitably follow.
“In the past couple of years, we have tripled or quadrupled the upload speeds for our most popular tiers,” says Rob Goodman, senior director of internet product management at Rogers.
Phone companies have also been upgrading their networks with faster fibre, meaning they’re increasingly able to offer better uploading. Bell, for example, is offering 10 Mbps uploads in Ontario starting at $56. In Manitoba, MTS has rolled out its FiON network to 14 communities so far, providing access to upload speeds of up to 30 Mbps, although that service is priced at $280 a month.
"MTS offers a variety of high-speed internet plans, tailored to suit individual customer needs,” says spokesman Craig Lawrence.
Things are slightly better on the wireless side. With an average upload speed of 5 Mbps on Ookla’s Net Index, which tracks millions of wired and wireless speed tests around the globe, Canada ranks 14th in the world. However, with usage limits typically capped at just a few gigabytes per month, wireless connections aren’t suitable for many of the heftier upload-intensive applications.
Critics don’t believe that following along with existing demand is good enough in an increasingly digital society. By constraining upload speeds, providers may in fact be discouraging certain types of online activities.
Jamie Granek offers network and security services such as internet-connected home cameras, alarms and intercoms to both businesses and individuals through his Toronto-based company Freebird Solutions. A potential customer in Vancouver recently considered setting up a cloud-based system that would allow employees to work from home, but ultimately decided against it because of the high cost of the necessary upload connections.
“Having the ability to access your own information and resources on your own network is a key function of the network today,” Granek says.
“You can’t really separate the download from the upload anymore.”