Measuring Mobile Broadband Speeds

I was using Google search on my cellphone a few days ago and I thought my connect time was sluggish. That prompted me to take a look at the download speeds on cellular networks, something I haven’t checked in a while.

There are two different companies that track and report on mobile data speeds, and the two companies report significantly different results. First is Ookla, which offers a speed test for all kinds of web connections. Their latest US speed test results represent cellphone users who took their speed test in the first half of this year. Ookla reports that US cellular download speeds have increased 19% over the last year and are now at an average of 22.69 Mbps. They report that the average upload speeds are 8.51 Mbps, an improvement of 4% over the last year. Ookla also found that rural mobile broadband speeds are 20.9% slower at urban speeds and are at an average of 17.93 Mbps.

The other company tracking mobile broadband speeds reports a different result. Akamai reports that the average cellular download speed for the whole US was 10.7 Mbps for the first quarter of 2017, less than half of the result shown by Ookla.

This is the kind of difference that can have you scratching your head. But the difference is significant since cellular companies widely brag about the higher Ookla numbers, and these are the numbers that end up being shown to regulators and policy makers.

So what are the differences between the two numbers? The Ookla numbers are the results of cellphone users who voluntarily take their speed test. The latest published numbers represent tests from 3 million cellular devices (smartphones and tablets) worldwide. The Akamai results are calculated in a totally different way. Akamai has monitoring equipment at a big percentage of the world’s internet POPs and they measure the actual achieved speeds of all web traffic that comes through these POPs. They measure the broadband being used on all of the actual connections they can see (which in the US is most of them).

So why would these results be so different and what are the actual mobile broadband speeds in the US? The Ookla results are from speed tests, which last less than a minute. So Ookla speed test measures the potential speed that a user could theoretically achieve on the web. It’s a test of the full bandwidth capability of the connection. But this is not necessarily the actual results for cellphone users for a few reasons:

  • Cellphone providers and many other ISPs often provide a burst of speeds for the first minute or two of a broadband connection. Since the vast majority of web events are short-term events this provides users with greater speeds than would be achieved if they measured the speed over a longer time interval. Even with a speed test you often can notice the speed tailing off by the end of the test – this is the ‘burst’ slowing down.
  • Many web experts have suspected that the big ISPs provide priority routing for somebody taking a speed test. This would not be hard to do since there are only a few commonly used speed test sites. If priority routing is real, then speed test results are cooked to be higher than would be achieved when connecting to other web sites.

The Akamai numbers also can’t be used without some interpretation. They are measuring achieved speeds, which means the actual connection speeds for mobile web connections. If somebody is watching a video on their cellphone, then Akamai would be measuring the speed of that connection, which is not the same as measuring the full potential speed for that same cellphone.

The two companies are measuring something totally different and the results are not comparable. But the good news is that both companies have been tracking the same things for years and so they both can see the changes in broadband speeds. They also both measure speeds around the world and are able to compare US speeds with others. But even that makes for an interesting comparison. Ookla says that US mobile speed test results are 44th in a world ranking. That implies that the mobile networks in other countries make faster connections. Akamai didn’t rank the countries, but the US is pretty far down the list. A lot of countries in Europe and Asia have faster actual connection speeds than the US, and even a few countries in Africa like Kenya and Egypt are faster than here. My conclusion from all of this is that ‘actual’ speeds are somewhere between the two numbers. But I doubt we’ll ever know. The Akamai numbers, though, represent what all cell users in aggregate are actually using, and perhaps that’s the best number.

But back to my own cellphone, which is what prompted me to investigate this. Using the Ookla speed test I showed a 13 Mbps download and 5 Mbps upload speed. There was also a troublesome 147 ms of latency, which is probably what is accounting for my slow web experience. But I also learned how subjective these speeds are. I walked around the neighborhood and got different results as I changed distances from cell towers. This was a reminder that cellular data speeds are locally specific and that the distance you are from a cell site is perhaps the most important factor in determining your speed. And that means that it’s impossible to have a meaningful talk about mobile data speeds since they vary widely within the serving area of every cell site in the world.

Regional Differences in Broadband Adoption

The latest Akamai report State of the Internet Q1 2017 contains a lot of interesting facts about broadband adoption and usage in the US and around the world. One of the things that they track is the percentage of broadband users at various data speeds. I think their tracking is the most accurate in the industry because they measure the actual speeds of connectivity, not the subscribed rate that users think they are getting. Most of the largest Internet hubs use Akamai and so they get to see huge volumes of web connections.

Probably the most interesting statistic in the report from a US perspective is that the average broadband connection speed for the whole US has grown to 18.7 Mbps. This is up 8.8% over the last quarter of 2016 and is up 22% from a year ago. This increase was enough to move the US up to tenth place in the world in terms of average connectivity speed. The worldwide connectivity speed is 7.2 Mbps, but that comes with the caveat that it doesn’t include some parts of the world and also doesn’t include the billions who don’t yet have any broadband available.

What I find most interesting in the connectivity data is how disparate broadband is in different parts of the US. For the first time there are places in the US with average connectivity speeds greater than the FCC definition of broadband – the District of Columbia at 28.1 Mbps and Delaware at 25.2 Mbps. Contrast this with Idaho with an average connectivity speed of 12 Mbps, which is less than half of the speeds for the fastest states. Perhaps the most useful statistics in the report is the percentage of connections in each state that meet various speed thresholds:

4 Mbps Adoption. Akamai says that Delaware leads in this category with 98% of connections exceeding a speed of 4 Mbps, with Rhode Island close behind at 97%. Contrast this to the bottom of the list where West Virginia has only 77% of connections exceeding 4 Mbps and Arkansas the next lowest at 81%.

10 Mbps Adoption Rate. Delaware also leads this category with 86% of the broadband connections from the state exceeding 10 Mbps, again just ahead of Rhode Island with 85%. But at the bottom of this list are Idaho at 45%, and Arkansas and New Mexico at 47%.

15 Mbps Adoption Rate. Rhode Island leads this category with 66% of broadband connections exceeding 15 Mbps. At the bottom of this list was Idaho with only 23% of connections exceeding 15 Mbps.

25 Mbps Adoption Rate. The District of Columbia tops this list with 38% of connections exceeding 25 Mbps, with Delaware second at 33%. At the bottom of the list is Idaho where only 7.5% of connections exceeded 25 Mbps, with New Mexico the next lowest at 7.9%.

Since these are the actual speeds of Internet connections one can conjecture there are a number of reasons that contribute to the differences across various states, such as:

  • Availability of fast broadband. The states with the fastest broadband rates happen to be those where a significant percentage of the population has both fiber (Verizon FiOS) and cable modem broadband available. By contrast the states near the bottom of the list tend to have far fewer communities with fiber, and even many communities without cable systems.
  • Affordability. Numerous surveys have shown that affordability is still a major factor for homes being able to afford the broadband connection they want.
  • Choice. Even in places where there is fast broadband available, many households choose slower broadband speeds due to lack of perceived need.
  • Geography. Terrain plays a role as well. In working with rural communities across the country I see that in the Plains states with wide-open expanses of land that there has been a proliferation of rural homes served by point-to-multipoint wireless networks that are delivering speeds of 10 – 50 Mbps. But this technology is of far less value in places like West Virginia with hilly and wooded terrain.

One thing this report shows is that the disparity between the top and the bottom states on these various lists is widening. In places where fast broadband is available, the statistics show that a lot of people are upgrading to faster speeds. But in states near the bottom of the list where the broadband networks are the least robust the same upward migrations to faster speeds is not possible due to the lack of options. One would think that most of the country would look like Delaware in terms of broadband adoption rates if broadband was available to everybody. But the difference in technologies and infrastructure limits households from buying the broadband speeds they want.

The other thing to remember about these statistics is that they are only measuring the speeds for actual broadband connections, and so obviously exclude the millions of households in the country that still don’t have a reasonable broadband alternative. If those households were weighted into these statistics then states with large rural areas with no broadband would sink down the list.

What’s the Real Speed of Bandwidth in the US?

Polk County SignRecently there were two very different reports published about the speed of broadband in the US. Comparing these two figures tells us some interesting things about the politics of broadband.

The first report was the most recent quarterly report from Akamai. They rated the US as 16th globally with average landline broadband download speeds at 12.6 Mbps. This number is up 10% from the previous year’s average speed of 11.5 Mbps. Akamai derives their speeds from looking at millions of actual downloads around the world.

At about the same time the FCC released its latest report on broadband and they said that the average download speed in the US for September 2014 is now 31 Mbps, almost triple the 10 Mbps reported in March of 2011. That’s a huge disparity with the FCC’s numbers at almost 2.5 times higher than what was measured by Akamai. How can the numbers be that far apart?

Akamai is measuring the actual download speed of millions of transactions on the Internet. This is how fast things are actually downloading and, because of the huge number of transactions that they look at, the number should be very accurate.

The FCC on the other hand is using a very odd measuring technique. First, they rely on speeds that come from 5,000 homes in the US that have volunteered to have their speeds measured. It’s pretty obvious in looking at the FCC results that these homes are not a random sample. I would suspect they aren’t measuring too many homes with dial-up, for example. If their sample is not random, then the results of the FCC tests cannot be multiplied out to accurately represent the whole country. That is one of the basic precepts of statistical sampling.

Another reason for the difference is that the FCC is basically looking at speed tests and not at actual downloads. Speed tests measure the highest speed that can be achieved to a specific test site created for that purpose. The FCC further says that their sample shows customers’ actual speeds are not much different than subscribed speeds. But my recent experience is that this disparity still widely exists. For example, in helping a western city look at broadband issues, we recently asked citizens there to take the Ookla speed test and report to us the results of the speed tests along with the speed they are paying for. The results were eye-opening with about 80% of customers seeing speed test results much slower than what they were subscribing to. In some cases the results were drastically different with households that subscribe to 100 Mbps services seeing actual speeds under 20 Mbps.

Another difference between the two sets of numbers is the little-understood fact that you can’t download anything faster than what the Internet is sending you. Somebody with a gigabit fiber connection from Google is going to see the same download speed from watching a Netflix HD movie as somebody on a 20 Mbps cable modem connection. Netflix doesn’t care what connection you have and sends the same stream to everybody, as does a lot of the Internet. Akamai is measuring this real speed and not the theoretical speed from speed tests.

The problem with the FCC’s method from a mathematical perspective the FCC’s method will skew the average towards the faster speeds in the sample. In a very simple example, if you sampled one gigabit customer and nine dial-up customers you would say that the average data speed was a little over 100 Mbps. While that would be true for those ten people, that is obviously not a number that has any practical relevance.

What is troubling is that the FCC makes policy decisions based upon the results of these tests. For instance, they routinely publish the percentage of homes that now meet their new 25 Mbps download standard to be considered as broadband. On the surface there is nothing wrong with what the FCC is doing, and for those 5,000 customers the reported speeds really is the average for that group. The problem is that those results show a different Internet than is really out there. For example, the FCC just also declared that 39% of the homes in the country can’t get real broadband at all. If the FCC is going to report an average speed for the whole country, those homes ought to be represented somehow in the the average.

There might be help on the way since the FCC is finally starting to require large ISPs to tell their customers the truth about their networks, including actual download speeds. There are new reporting formats circulating now at the FCC that the ISPs are going to have to provide to every customer.

There is one promising take away from the FCC numbers which is that the large ISPs are increasing customer speeds. 2016 promises to be a year when many households will see a boost in speeds. I know Comcast just recently upgraded my speed, with no announcement, and my 50 Mbps cable modem now seems to regularly be getting 88 Mbps download. Almost every big cable companies has announced initiatives to increase customer speeds this year, across the board.

But this difference in speed reports does remind us that you always have to dig a little deeper when you see a statistic like average download speeds. There are different ways of measuring speeds and the FCC way of measuring speeds is suspect in several ways. What they published is not an untrue number for the way they measured it – but the number is just not relevant when talking about the US broadband experience.

Video and Broadband Speeds

slow-downAkamai has released their latest quarterly report on the state of broadband around the world. Akamai runs network monitoring software for large ISPs and the Internet backbone providers and they get a peek inside actual broadband speeds achieved by end users.

Overall the worldwide Internet keeps getting faster each year. The average speeds achieved by end users was 5.1 Mbps download in the third quarter of 2015, up 14% from the year before. Topping that list was South Korea at 20.5 Mbps followed by Sweden at 17.4 Mbps and Norway at 16.4 Mbps. The US placed 16th globally with an average speed of 12.6 Mbps, up 9.4% from a year ago.

Akamai says that only about 15% of the connection in the world are ready for 4K video which they estimate will require about a 15 Mbps connection. That’s not a totally accurate figure, but rather an average speed for a 4K video connection. Like with all video, the speeds required for any given video clip varies by how much the picture changes, with high action video requiring more bandwidth than low-action scenes.

And so a house that had exactly a 15 Mbps connection could watch some 4K video, but they might not be able to watch a very high-action film. Further, this measurement ignores the fact that these days homes have an additional need for bandwidth for a host of other uses that range from emails, programs and apps that talk to the cloud and a host of other things that happen in the background. It’s more realistic to think that a home is going to need something closer to 20 Mbps if they are going to want to reliably watch 4K video while accommodating other normal uses of bandwidth.

One of the most interesting statistics of the survey is that the number of homes that get at least 15 Mbps rose to 15% from only 5.2% a year earlier. It’s obvious that ISPs are selling more higher bandwidth connections.

There was a recent announcement that is going to have a big impact on the ability of people to watch quality video. Netflix announced that it is rolling out a new technology that is going to maximize the quality of video to each user experience. It is going to offer what it thinks is the best bit rate based upon the content being viewed and the viewer’s video stream. Again, this goes back to the fact that there is a significant difference between a high-action movie and one that just has people sitting and talking.

In the past Netflix only had a few standard speeds that they tried. If they were unable to get a stream through at the speed that people requested they would step the speed down to a fairly low level and hoped it worked. But for people on slow connections, this often has meant lower quality movies, but also transmission problems such pauses in the movie stream when viewing outpaced download.

The new technology is supposedly going to be a lot more dynamic. Before, if somebody asked for an HD stream then Netflix tried to send it out at 5.8 Mbps. If a customer’s ISP couldn’t handle this they were automatically downloaded to something much slower.

But now, Netflix will first set the download speed according to the content. There are low-action HD videos that might only need 4 or 4 Mbps. And so Netflix will figure out the optimum target speeds for each type of content. Further, they will use a wide range of possible step-downs in speeds rather than going directly from HD to a very slow speed.

I’ve seen this being touted in a number of articles as something that will save a lot of bandwidth for Netflix since they will not force all HD content into 5.8 Mbps streams. But those articles also see this as a savings for ISPs and I think they are wrong. I think this means that ISPs with very fast speeds will also see a bandwidth savings, but interestingly, ISPs with slow network speeds will probably see an overall increase in bandwidth demand from Netflix.

Today if an ISP offers 3 Mbps, then Netflix might send them an HD video at a third of that speed. But with this new technology Netflix is going to try to maximize the customer experience and will use up more of the available bandwidth. This technology will also make it easier for households with somewhat slow bandwidth to watch more than one video at a time and the Netflix algorithms will try to fit the content into the available data path.

For now Netflix is the only company doing this, but like with all breakthroughs you can expect the rest of the industry to catch up in a year or so. One thing is certain, and that is that web video is here to stay and ISPs are going to be under tremendous pressure to provide enough bandwidth to allow people to watch what they want online. There doesn’t seem to be any end in sight for the demand of household bandwidth.

 

The Growth of Mobile Video

ipad-review-3-new-10One trend worth noting is the explosion of mobile video, meaning on-line video that is watched on devices other than televisions or computers. Ooyala recently published a report looking at the trends in mobile video and the numbers are eye-opening.

  • In the past year mobile video watching has doubled and the rate of growth is accelerating. In February 2014 it represented 21% of all on-line video being watched and by June had grown to 27%.
  • It’s projected that by 2016 that more on-line video will be watched on mobile devices than on televisions and computers.
  • Cisco projects out further and says that mobile data could represent 69% of the world’s Internet traffic by 2018.

This has some real implications for anybody in the video business. Not only is on-line video growing rapidly with content being provided by Netflix, AmazonPrime and YouTube, but that video is being watched more and more on smartphones and tablets rather than televisions and computers.

This trend is being driven by a lot of different factors:

  • In the US this trend is partially driven by age. A recent Nielsen poll showed that Millenials are now watching 4.5 hours less of traditional TV per month than they did a year ago.
  • There is a big increase in TV Everywhere and cable operators say that about 90% of US cable subscribers now have access to TVE.
  • There has been an explosion in the number of mobile devices capable of watching video and sales of smartphones and tablets are sharply up.
  • There are now more worldwide users connected to the Internet through mobile devices than through landline connections.
  • There has also been rapid growth worldwide in both 3G and 4G mobile networks. Akamai reports that the average mobile data speed in the US is 5.5 Mbps. They also say that there are 21 countries that now have mobile speeds that average over 4 Mbps.
  • There are huge amounts of content being produced, particularly in the shorter lengths of under 30 minutes.

Viewing habits still vary by size of screen:

  • 81% of the on-line video watched on television screens is of lengths greater than 10 minutes.
  • 70% of the on-line video watched on tablets is of lengths greater than 10 minutes.
  • But smartphone users prefer shorter content and 45% of the video watched on smartphones is of 6 minutes or less. But the viewing of 30-minute+ videos on smartphones is growing rapidly

The interesting thing about mobile data is that in the US a large percentage of this traffic is being carried through WiFi using landline connections. The capped mobile data plans make it very hard for most customers in the US to watch very much data on their mobile plans without paying a big premium price. As I’ve reported in other blogs, American consumers are getting very smart about using WiFi whenever it’s available.

It’s also worth noting that video quality is increasing. Netflix and others broadcast a lot of content in high definition and are now starting to stream in ultrahigh definition 4K. The quality for shorter videos on sites like YouTube is also getting better with much more HD content. And better quality means more bandwidth demand for the network operator.

What does this all mean to network owners? My takeaways include:

  • The explosive growth of on-line video that is being watched on landline networks means a continued pressure to offer faster speeds in order to support multiple devices watching video.
  • A cable provider must offer a TV Everywhere product to stay relevant.
  • This is more mounting evidence that we are losing Millenials from traditional cable TV packages.