Categories
The Industry

Who Has the Fastest Broadband?

Ookla recently released a report for the second quarter that summarizes its findings on speed tests conducted throughout the US. The report was generated using the results from 85.1 million speed tests taken during the quarter at the speed test site operated by Ookla. This kind of summary is always interesting, but I’m not sure how useful the results are.

The report looks at both wireless and landline speeds. Ookla says that AT&T was the fastest of the four major wireless carriers in the first quarter, with a ‘speed score’ of 41.23, with Verizon the slowest with a speed score of 30.77. The speed score is a unique metric from Ookla that weights 90% of the download speed and 10% of the upload speed. The reported speeds also toss out the slowest and fastest speeds and concentrate on the median speed.

T-Mobile had the best average latency at 31 milliseconds with Sprint the slowest at 39 milliseconds. The most interesting wireless statistic in the report is called the ‘consistency score’. This is the measure of the percentage of the traffic from each wireless carrier that was at least 5 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. AT&T had the highest consistency score at 79.7% with Sprint at the bottom with 66.1%. This score implies that between 20% and 35% of cellular data connections were are at speeds under 5/1 Mbps.

The landline speed results used the same criteria for summarizing the results of the many speed tests. For example, Ookla used the ‘speed score’ that uses 90% of the download speed and 10% of the upload speed – and the results also throw out the slowest and fastest speeds. Verizon had the highest speed score at 117.1, with Comcast and Cox being the only two other ISPs with speed scores over 100. Charter achieved a speed score of 95, AT&T at 82.8, and CenturyLink at 36.1. The AT&T and CenturyLink scores are lower due to customers still using DSL.

Verizon had the best latency at 9 milliseconds, which is a good indication that a large percentage of their customers are using Verizon FiOS on fiber. AT&T and Sprint had the highest latency of the big ISPs at 18 and 22 milliseconds, indicating that the two companies still have a lot of customers on DSL.

The consistency score is more of a headscratcher for the landline ISPs. For example. Spectrum and Comcast had the highest consistency ratings at over 84%, meaning that only 16% of the speed tests on these companies didn’t meet the 25/3 Mbps landline target speed. However, other than perhaps a few grandfathered customers that are still being sold slow products, these companies don’t sell products that should fail that test.

This raises the question of what speed test results mean since there are factors that likely influence the results. For example, I would guess that a lot of customers take a speed test when they are experiencing a problem. I know that’s what prompts me to take speed tests. The other issue that might make Comcast or Charter test at slower than 100 Mbps download is customer WiFi connections. It’s hard to know how many people get slow readings due to poor WiFi. I again understand this issue first-hand. I have a 3-story narrow and long house. The broadband enters on the first floor at the front of the house and my office is at the top of the rear of the house, with some thick hundred-year-old walls in between. Even with an array of WiFi repeaters, the speed in my office varies between 35 and 45 Mbps download – about one-third of the speed delivered at the router. How can Ookla understand the context of a given speed test result? Maybe it doesn’t matter since all of the ISPs have customers with WiFi issues and maybe it averages out. I would think situations like mine are what drive the consistency score. These kinds of questions make it hard to make meaningful sense out of the Ookla results in the report.

Ookla also uses the median broadband speeds to rank the 100 cities with the fastest broadband and also ranks the states. As would be expected, the states in the northeast with a lot of Verizon Fios like New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island top the list as having the fastest average broadband speeds. More interesting to me is the bottom of the list. Ookla says that the states with the slowest median broadband are Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Alaska. Several other entities that rank state broadband usually put West Virginia and New Mexico at the bottom, followed by Idaho and Arkansas. Those other rankings include an assessment that there are many homes in some states with little or no broadband options at home, while a ranking using speed tests only counts home with broadband.

Overall, this is an interesting way to look at broadband. States with median download speeds under 50 Mbps (6 states) certainly have a different broadband environment than states with the median broadband speeds over 90 Mbps (11 states). But there are places in the highest-ranked states with no broadband options and places in the states with the poorest broadband that are served by fiber.

Categories
Improving Your Business

Broadband Speeds are a Local Issue

You might think that the big ISPs deliver the same broadband products everywhere. But I’ve been seeing evidence that broadband speeds are definitely a local issue. One of the products that we’ve been using to help clients assess a new market is to get a lot of people in the potential market to take speed test. We’ve mostly been using the Ookla speed test, but probably any speed test is sufficient as long as everybody in a market takes the same test.

The results of these speed tests surprised me a bit because they showed a wide variance in the products of the major ISPs. For example, I’ve seen markets where Comcast is delivering a little more download speed than they are advertising. But I also saw tests results from a Comcast market where the speeds were about 20% less than advertised. I’ve seen the same thing with AT&T where there are markets that get only half of the advertised speeds and other markets where they were mostly delivering what they are promising. I’m not sure if there is any better demonstration that speeds are a local issue than by seeing that the big ISPs don’t deliver the same speeds in every market.

There is a long list of reasons that can account for the differences in speeds. A big one is the age and quality of the network cables. Older telco copper and older coaxial cables can cause a lot of problems with quality. The size of customer nodes is always an issue. If everything else is equal, a cable company node serving 100 customers is going to have better broadband speeds than one serving 200 customers.

The other big issue that affects customer performance is what I call network choke points. A chokepoint is any place in a broadband network that restricts the flow of data to and from customers. There can be a choke point directly within a neighborhood if the nodes are too large. There can be a chokepoint between a node and the core network if the electronics for the connection are undersized. There can be a chokepoint on local network rings if they don’t provide enough bandwidth. There can be electronics chokepoints at a headend if a router or other major piece of electronics is overwhelmed. And finally, there can be an overall chokepoint in a network if the data pipe going to the Internet is too small.

Chokepoints don’t have to always be a problem. Many chokepoints only appear during the busiest hours of usage on the network, but don’t impede data speeds when data traffic volumes are smaller. And this means that chokepoints are often hyper-local. They might affect one neighborhood but not the one next door, and only at some times of the day. I’m guessing that the slowest results I saw in the big ISP speed tests were during the peak evening hours.

These chokepoints obviously don’t only affect the large ISPs and plenty of smaller ISP networks have chokepoints. I’ve seen numerous network chokepoints appear in recent years due to the explosive growth of the use of broadband. A network that may have been functioning perfectly a few years ago will develop chokepoints as the amount of total bandwidth on networks overwhelm some portion of a network.

ISPs often are challenged to keep up with the upgrades needed to avoid chokepoints, because generally the only ways to relieve chokepoints is to replace cables or to upgrade electronics, which can be expensive. Smaller ISPs often don’t have the immediate capital available to fix chokepoints as they appear. The big ISPs tend to ignore chokepoints as they appear and to make large fork-lift upgrades periodically instead of making the constant small upgrades needed to keep the network working perfectly.

I always advice my clients to keep a running list of all of their chokepoints. With good network engineering and monitoring practices a company can see chokepoints coming long before they materialize and hopefully can plan to make the needed upgrades before they degrade the customer experience.