Setting the Right Goals for Grants

Most past federal broadband grant programs had very specific goals. For example, the USDA Community Connect grants that have been around for many years target grants to the poorest parts of the country – the awards are weighted towards communities with the highest levels of poverty. For any grant program to be effective the goals of the program need to be clearly defined, and then the award process needs to be aligned with those goals.

The FCC needs to define the goals of the upcoming $20.4 billion grant program. It the goals are poorly defined then the resulting grant awards are likely to be all over the board in terms of effectiveness. What are the ideal goals for a grant program of this magnitude?

The first goal to be decided is the scope of the coverage – will the goal be to bring somewhat better broadband to as many households as possible, or will it be to bring a long-term broadband solution to a smaller number of households? If the goal is to serve the most households possible, then the grants are going to favor lower-cost technologies and the grants will likely go to the wireless providers and satellite providers – as we saw happen in the recent CAF II reverse auction.

If the grants are aimed at a more permanent solution, then the grants will favor fiber. Perhaps the grants could also go towards anybody willing to extend a cable hybrid-fiber coaxial network into rural areas – but no other technology can be considered as a permanent solution.

There are huge consequences for choosing the first option of serving as many households as possible. These new grants are mostly going to be awarded in the geographic areas covered by the original CAF II program. That program awarded over $11 billion to the big telcos to beef up broadband to speeds of at least 10/1 Mbps. Now, before that program is even finished the FCC is talking about overbuilding those same areas with another $20 billion grant program. If this grant program is used to upgrade homes to fixed wireless, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to understand that in ten years from now we’ll be talking about overbuilding these areas again with fiber. It would be incredibly wasteful to use multiple rounds of grants to upgrade the same geographic areas several times.

The other big issue for these grants to deal with is defining which parts of the country are eligible for the grants. What should be the criteria to decide which homes can be upgraded?

If the test is going to be related to existing speeds, the FCC is going to have to deal with the existing broadband coverage maps that everybody in the industry knows to be badly flawed. The FCC is talking about tackling a new mapping effort – but it’s highly likely that the new maps will just swap old mapping errors for new mapping errors. The reality on the ground is that it’s virtually impossible to map the real speeds on copper or fixed wireless networks. In real life, two rural neighbors can have drastically different speeds due to something as simple as being on different copper pairs. It’s impossible to accurately map DSL or wireless broadband coverage.

To make matters even worse, the current Re-Connect grants are saddled with a rule that says that no more than 10% of grant-covered homes can have existing broadband of more than 10/1 Mbps. Layering that kind of rule on top of terrible maps creates an environment where an ISP is largely unable to define a believable grant footprint.

The FCC must figure out some way to rectify the mapping problem. One of the easiest ways is what I call the technology test – anybody that wants to overbuild copper with fiber should automatically be eligible without trying to figure out the current speeds on the copper. Perhaps the easiest rule could be that any place where there is telco copper and no cable company network should be grant-eligible for fiber overbuilders.

Assuming the grants won’t all go to fiber, then there has to be an alternate way for an ISP or a community to challenge poor maps. Perhaps the FCC needs to provide a realistic time frame to allow local governments to demonstrate the actual speeds in an area, much like what was done in the recent Mobility II grant process.

This blog is part of a series on Designing the Ideal Federal Grant Program.

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.

Speed Tests

cheetah-993774Netflix just came out with a new speed test at fast.com which is intended to measure the download speed of Internet connections to determine if they are good enough to stream Netflix. The test only measures the speeds between a user and the Netflix servers. This is different than most other speed tests on the web that also look at upload speeds and latency.

This raises the question of how good speed tests are in general. How accurate are they and what do they really tell a user? There are a number of different speed tests to be found on the web. Over the years I have used the ones at speedtest.net (Ookla), dslreports.com, speed.io, the BandWidthPlace and TestMySpeed.

Probably the first thing to understand about speed tests is that they are only testing the speed of a ping between the user and the test site routers and are not necessarily indicative of the speeds for other web activities like downloading files, making a VoIP phone call or streaming Netflix. Each of those activities involves a different type of streaming and the speed test might not accurately report what a user most wants to know.

Every speed test uses a different algorithm to measure speed. For example, the algorithm for speedtest.net operated by Ookla discards the fastest 10% and the slowest 30% of the results obtained. In doing so they might be masking exactly what drove someone to take the speed test, such as not being able to hold a connection to a VoIP call. Ookla also multithreads, meaning that they open multiple paths between a user and the test site and then average the results together. This could easily mask congestion problems a user might be having with the local network.

Another big problem with any speed test is that it measures the connection between a customer device and the speed test site. This means that the customer parts of the network like the home WiFi network are included in the results. A lot of ISPs I know now claim that poor in-home WiFi accounts for the majority of the speed issue problems reported by customers. So a slow speed test doesn’t always mean that the ISP has a slow connection.

The speed of an Internet connection for any prolonged task changes from second to second. Some of the speed tests like Netflix Ookla show these fluctuations during the test. There are numerous issues for changing speeds largely having to do with network congestion at various points in the network. If one of your neighbors makes a big download demand during your speed test you are likely to see a dip in bandwidth. And this same network contention can happen at any one of numerous different parts of the network.

The bottom line is that speed tests are not much more than an indicator of how your network is performing. If you test your speed regularly then a slow speed test result can be an indicator that something is wrong. But if you only check it once in a while, then any one speed test only tells you about the minute that you took the test and not a whole lot more. It’s not yet time to call your ISP after a single speed test.

There have been rumors around the industry that the big ISPs fudge on the common speed tests. It would be relatively easy for them to do this by giving priority routing to anybody using one of the speed test web sites. I have no idea if they do this, but it would help to explain those times when a speed test tells me I have a fast connection and low latency and yet can’t seem to get things to work.

I think the whole purpose of the Netflix speed test is to put pressure on ISPs that can’t deliver a Netflix-capable connection. I don’t know how much good that will do because such connections are likely going to be on old DSL and other technologies where the ISP already knows the speeds are slow.