The latest Broadband Insights Report from Ookla shows broadband statistics for the end of the third quarter of 2022.
The average household used 495.5 gigabits of broadband per month in the quarter. That is the combination of 474.2 gigabytes of download and 32.3 gigabytes of upload.
What Ookla calls power users continues to climb. 13.7% of homes used more than 1 terabyte per month. 2.1% of all households use more than 2.1 terabytes.
The speeds of household broadband subscriptions continue to migrate to faster speeds. A lot of this is ISPs arbitrarily giving consumers faster speeds. But there are also a lot of folks opting to buy faster speeds. Only 13.1% of homes are now subscribed to speeds under 100 Mbps. 15.4 Percent of homes are subscribing to gigabit or faster broadband speeds.
Under 50 Mbps
50 – 99 Mbps
100 – 199 Mbps
200 – 499 Mbps
500 – 999 Mbps
I always wonder when I see one of these monthly reports where the current quarter fits into broadband trends. The following chart shows the average household usage by quarter reported by Ookla since the beginning of 2019.
This chart shows a clear pattern. It shows that broadband usage is strongest in the fourth quarter of each year. The usage dips a bit for the next several quarters each year. This trend was confounded by the pandemic when the first quarter usage spiked over the end of 2019. But from that point forward, the expected trend continued.
But the overall trend is clear, and usage is growing over time. Home broadband usage spiked during the pandemic when 2020 usage was more than 40% higher than in 2019. Usage then grew by 11% from 2020 to 2021 and grew by 14% from 2021 until 2022. Household broadband usage has grown 80% from the third quarter of 2019 until 3Q of this year.
I regularly run across articles that ask which major ISP is the fastest. Most of these articles get their speed data from Ookla, which publishes comparative median broadband speeds for mobile and landline ISPs each quarter, like in this report for the second quarter of 2022.
Americans love a horse race – we like to rank things, and articles that rank ISPs grab readers. But we have to take articles based upon the Ookla rankings with a grain of salt. Ookla doesn’t make any claims about its numbers – it just presents the data.
There are a few things to note about the Ookla numbers. First, the results come from the many speed tests reported to Ookla. We know that a significant number of speed tests aren’t perfect due to issues at the customer end, such as an old WiFi router or taking the speed test at the far end of the house away from the WiFi router. Most importantly, Ookla reports median speeds – meaning half of all speed tests for a given ISP are faster, and half are slower than the value shown. Median speeds don’t seem to be a great metric for comparing ISPs.
Here are the median speeds for the second quarter from Ookla for the largest landline ISPs.
What do these numbers tell us (and not tell us)?
The results are only from customers who took speed tests. I have to think that customers who have blazingly fast Internet don’t take a speed test as often as customers who are seeing sluggish performance. Summarizing the speeds for only those who take a speed test is very different than measuring the average speed being delivered to all customers by an ISP.
One of the factors that likely has a big impact on the median speed is the mix of broadband speed products offered by each ISP. An ISP that sells a lot of 50 Mbps or 100 Mbps download products is likely to have a lower median speed than an ISP that has a minimum speed of 200 Mbps. The numbers above include ISPs with widely different speed products and prices.
This list only includes the largest ISPs. Smaller ISPs that offer fast products, like Ting, Sonic, US Internet, and many others, would blow away these median speeds.
I saw two articles that declared that Cox is now the fastest ISP in the country. Is it really? Just two quarters ago, at the end of 2021, Verizon had a median download speed of 201 while Cox was at 172. This variability from quarter to quarter is a good indication that you can’t make any serious judgment about an ISP based on median speeds. I can’t imagine that Verizon got slower – there was just a different mix of Verizon customers who took the Ookla speed test in the fourth quarter and the second quarter.
It’s interesting that none of the median upload speeds for cable companies is at the proposed 20 Mbps definition of broadband being considered by the FCC. This suggests more than half of all customers of the cable companies have upload speeds of less than 20 Mbps – and it’s likely that far more than half don’t achieve the 20 Mbps upload threshold. Is Cox really the fastest ISP when it doesn’t seem to meet the FCC’s proposed definition of broadband?
It’s clear that the measurements for CenturyLink include DSL. I’ve seen individual speed test results from CenturyLink Fiber customers that show symmetrical speeds – and far faster speeds than these numbers. By comparison, it looks like the Frontier, AT&T, and Verizon speeds are for fiber customers and don’t include DSL.
I like ranking as much as anybody, but I am unable to draw too many conclusions from the Ookla numbers. Perhaps the most you can say is that both fiber and cable companies are delivering decent download speeds – at least to the top 50% of customers. But these numbers are another example of the paltry upload speeds being delivered by the cable companies. I can’t pick the fastest ISP from this table – if I was forced to choose, I’d say Verizon. But that’s a pretty weak pick using median speeds. All of these ISPs offer a gigabit download product, and from that perspective, they are all the fastest – except for the ISPs not on this list that now offer a residential 10 Gbps broadband product.
It’s always interesting to see broadband speed comparisons between different parts of the world, the country, and technologies. There is no more interesting report for a broadband nerd than the speed test results reported by Ookla. The company compiles the results of speed tests from all around the world and the country and provides some interesting results.
Any analysis of speed tests comes with some big caveats. There are plenty of individual cases where a speed test result is slow due to issues at the user end. My house is a great example. My wife gets 3 – 4 times faster broadband in her office located with the incoming broadband modem than does my office upstairs at the far end of a long house. The difference in our speed tests results is related to our WiFi network and not to our ISP.
But ISP data speeds are also variable. I look at speed test results regularly, and I see a variance of several magnitudes during a day or a week. My ISP is Charter, and there are obviously things happening in the City which cause the Charter network to slow down at times. Because of the wide range of speeds I see at my house, it’s impossible for anybody to use a single number to define my broadband speed. I’m sure Charter would define my broadband speed to be the fastest speed we can get, but there are times when we see only a fraction of that number.
With that warning, the Ookla speed test results are still interesting because these same factors affect all ISPs – meaning that a comparison between ISPs should be fairly instructive.
In looking at the median download speeds of the major landline ISPs, Verizon is the fastest at 184 Mbps, followed closely by Comcast at 179 Mbps and Cox at 174 Mbps. The other major ISPs tracked by Ookla are Charter at 166 Mbps, AT&T at 141 Mbps, and CenturyLink at 41 Mbps. It’s obvious that the AT&T and CenturyLink speeds are held lower because of DSL. Note that median means that half of customers are faster than these speeds and half are slower. These numbers are not average speeds.
One of the more interesting things reported by Ookla is a consistency score. Ookla defines consistency as the percentage of traffic that provides a consistent quality of service, and where a customer connection produces expected minimum levels of both upload and download speeds. Comcast, Charter, and Verizon all have roughly identical consistency rates of 89% to 90%. Cox is at 84%, AT&T at 80%, and CenturyLink at 57%.
Ookla also ranked states by the median download speeds. Topping the list at 195 Mbps is New Jersey, with New York next at 179 Mbps. The next fastest states are Rhode Island, Maryland, Delaware, and Massachusetts – all states that have significant Verizon FiOS. The two states with the lowest median broadband speeds are Wyoming at 70 Mbps and Montana at 74 Mbps, followed by New Mexico, Alaska, Vermont, Idaho, and Arkansas. There are a dozen major U.S. cities with median broadband speeds over 200 Mbps. Topping the list is Jersey City, NJ (216 Mbps) and Raleigh, NC (214 Mbps).
Median upload speeds tell a different story. The leaders are four states with Verizon FiOS: Maryland (38 Mbps), New Jersey (36 Mbps), Rhode Island (34 Mbps), and Virginia (32 Mbps). But next is North Dakota at 32 Mbps and Iowa at 27 Mbps. For download speeds, those two states come in 39th and 42nd. The states with the worst median upload speeds are Arizona (10 Mbps), Montana (11 Mbps), Wyoming (11 Mbps), and Maine (12 Mbps).
Ookla also ranks broadband speeds by country. The fastest are Singapore (198 Mbps), Chile (197 Mbps), Thailand (188 Mbps), and Denmark (170 Mbps). The U.S. has moved up this chart over the last few years, and is now eighth at 151 Mbps.
The report also looks at cellular speeds. The median download speeds for March 2022 are T-Mobile (118 Mbps), Verizon (63 Mbps), and AT&T (56 Mbps). Ookla also reports 5G speeds (meaning using the new frequency bands for each company) as T-Mobile (191 Mbps), Verizon (107 Mbps), and AT&T (68 Mbps). Ookla says that T-Mobile 5G is available for 65% of connections, AT&T for 49% of connections, and Verizon for 28% of connections.
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.
A lot of attention is being paid to the broadband gap between urban and rural America. There are a lot of different estimates of the number of rural homes and businesses that don’t have broadband. At the low end of the scale are the FCC estimates that come from the overstated FCC broadband maps that are derived from overstated 477 data from ISPs. States and counties have made estimates of broadband coverage which invariably show more places without broadband than the FCC data. What everybody agrees on is that there are still a lot of rural places with poor broadband, be that number 18 million or 30 million people or 50 million – there is a definite urban versus rural broadband gap.
The FCC has been publicly touting that they are solving the gap by funding programs that bring broadband to places that don’t have it. The upcoming $20 billion RDOF grants will make a dent in the places without broadband, although the 6-year required construction buildout that doesn’t start until next year will feel glacial to places that desperately need broadband today. We’ll have to wait for the reverse auction to see how many millions of homes eventually get broadband from this program – at best it’s likely to only help a fraction of those with no broadband. Unless Congress acts, there isn’t going to be a solution for the many millions that are not going to be covered by FCC programs.
There is another broadband gap that is not getting the press coverage. The average speed of broadband is growing rapidly. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai took credit for this growth in a recent tweet and claimed faster speeds are due to the end of net neutrality and to ending broadband regulation: “Two years ago today, some Washington politicians promised you that the Internet would slow down. What’s happened since? Average U.S. fixed broadband speeds are UP over 76% according to Ookla. It [repealing net neutrality] wasn’t the end of the Internet as we know it—not even close.”
I’m not sure what Ookla numbers he’s referring to. In the Ookla Speedtest Global Index, the company says that the average fixed broadband speed in the US climbed from 111.69 Mbps to 134.77 Mbps during 2019 – an impressive 21% increase. This matches with recently announced statistics from OpenVault that says that average speeds in the US increased from 103 Mbps to 128 Mbps for the year ending in the third quarter of 2019 – a growth rate of 24%.
I’m not that sure any of the speed increase is due to FCC actions. Faster speeds come from several sources. Most of the increase comes from the big cable companies unilaterally increasing broadband speed in urban markets to as much as 200 Mbps. Since the big cable companies serve two-third of the broadband market, any changes they make in speeds immediately affects the average. The urban speeds are further increased by the continued migration of urban customers from DSL to cable modem. There is also an increase in customers buying gigabit broadband, which according to OpenVault is now 2.8% of all broadband customers – nearly doubling in 2019. Finally, there is a small increase due to some rural markets getting broadband upgrades – but the rural customers added to the market are too small to make much of an impact on the national average. I guess I’d like Chairman Pai to be more specific, because I don’t see an FCC fingerprint on these industry trends.
It’s great that broadband speeds are improving. Anybody who has been paying attention saw this coming, since average speeds having been growing at a rate of over 20% annually for several decades. What Chairman Pai and most others have missed is that these speed increases come almost entirely from urban customers. The speed gap between urban and rural America is widening rapidly as urban speeds climb.
This urban / rural speed gap is important to recognize because urban customers are finding ways to use the faster broadband. Consider the many uses of broadband in urban areas that are out of reach for a rural household. We routinely back-up data files into cloud storage. Our computers, cellphones, cars, TVs and numerous devices routinely and automatically download updates and upload data into the cloud. We use cloud-based security cameras that we can access when away from home. When we walk into our homes our cellphones automatically start using our home broadband. We are free to work from home, even if it’s only to log into a corporate WAN in the evening. Our kids routinely do online homework and practically all of the communications between schools, students, and parents is online. We now use a huge amount of machine-to-machine data that has nothing to do with video and entertainment.
People living without good broadband can’t do any of these things. In just the last week CCG interviewed several rural residents that tell a different story than that list above. Parents drive an hour so kids can use library broadband for schoolwork. Rural businesses can’t maintain a quality signal on satellite broadband to be able to take credit card payments. Residents frantically try to shut off automatically updating software to avoid going over their data caps. I could fill a week of blogs with the horror stories about rural broadband.
If we look back even just seven or eight years ago, the urban versus rural speed gap didn’t feel so wide. When the average urban home got speeds of 25 Mbps there wasn’t such a giant gap with rural residents because urban residents didn’t use broadband as extensively as they do today. But urban speeds are getting faster and faster while the broadband for too many rural homes has stayed stagnant – where it even exists. To quote a rural resident that we spoke to last week, rural people with poor broadband now feel like they aren’t part of the 21st century.
I’ve written many times about the absurdity of using the FCC mapping data for identifying areas with or without broadband. I’ve lately been looking at the FCC mapping data in West Virginia and New Mexico – two of the states with the worst broadband coverage in the country – and the FCC maps are atrocious. I see counties where the claimed broadband coverage in the FCC maps is wrong for more than half of the geographic area.
Unfortunately, the FCC is about to award $20.4 billion in RDOF grants later this year based solely on these dreadful maps. Luckily, there are other grant programs that allow grant applicants to challenge the FCC data. This includes the USDA ReConnect grants and many of the state grant programs.
One of the few ways to challenge the FCC maps is with speed tests. Anybody undertaking such a challenge needs to be aware that the incumbent telcos might challenge your speed test results, and unfortunately, some of their criticisms will be right. This means that anybody challenging the FCC maps has to take some steps to maximize the effectiveness of speed tests. Here are a few aspects of administering speed tests that should be considered.
A speed test needs to distinguish between cellular and landline connections. Rural folks with no broadband connection or those using cellular for home broadband are going to take the test with their cellphone. While such results are interesting, cellular speed tests can’t be mixed into a challenge of landline broadband coverage.
Everybody needs to use the identical speed test because each speed test measures speed using a different algorithm. Never use a speed test from the incumbents – it might be baked to show too good results.
A challenge can be most effective if it can get feedback from folks with no broadband available at their home. You need to somehow solicit and include results from folks that can’t take the speed tests.
You also should be aware a speed test sometimes doesn’t work for somebody with really slow broadband or high latency. We recently sat on the phone with somebody using satellite broadband and they couldn’t get the speed test to complete, even after many attempts.
The biggest challenge is in mapping the results. If you map the results so precisely that the results can be overlaid on individual homes on Google Earth, then you have provided an incumbent ISP the chance to challenge the test results. They can likely identify homes where they aren’t the ISP, or homes that have broadband that meets the FCC speed thresholds, meaning that slow speed test results might be due to poor WiFi or some other reason. Ultra-precise mapping might also violate the privacy of the people taking the speed test, This is an issue that many state speed test programs have wrestled with – some of them take such care to mask the precise location of the data that their final product can’t be used to challenge the FCC maps. For example, if speed test results are summarized by Census blocks then the results incorporate the same kinds of problems that are included in the FCC maps. Probably the best approach is to embed the final results in a pdf that is of low enough resolution to not identify individual homes.
There is one other way to map broadband coverage. An experienced field technician or engineer can drive around an area and can identify every broadband asset in the field. They can precisely identify where the cable TV networks end, down to the house. They can identify field DSLAMs that generate DSL signals out of rural cabinets – and they can often precisely identify the flavor of DSL and know the maximum speed capability of a given unit. They can identify the location and height of wireless transmitters and can map out the likely coverage areas. This kind of effort is most effective at identifying where there is no broadband, A good technician can make a decent map of the likely maximum broadband speeds available in a given area – something that is rarely achieved on most rural networks. This kind of challenge could be expensive and time-consuming, and I’ve never seen a challenge done this way. But I know engineers and technicians capable of making highly accurate maps.
Communities can tackle speed tests – they can get households to take the same speed test, such as the speed test from Ookla, and then match and map the results using GIS data. This can be a lot of work. Mapping can also be provided by many telecom engineering companies. One of the lowest-costs solutions is a speed test by Neo Partners that administers the speed test and overlays the speed test results automatically on Google maps.
Even if you aren’t challenging a grant, communities ought to consider speed tests to better understand the broadband in their community. As an example, I worked for a city where the speed tests showed that one neighborhood had far slower speeds than the rest of the city – something the city hadn’t known before the speed test. We’ve done speed tests that showed that the incumbent was delivering more than the advertised speed – again, something worth knowing.
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.
PC Magazine has been rating ISPs in terms of speed for a number of years. They develop their rankings based upon speed tests taken at their own speed test site. They had about 124,000 speed tests taken that led to this year’s rankings. The scoring for each ISP is a composite number based 80% on the download speed and 20% of upload speeds. To be included in the rankings an ISP needed to have 100 customers or more take the speed test.
You always have to take these kinds of rankings with a grain of salt for several reasons. For example speeds don’t only measure the ISP but also the customer. The time of day can affect the speed test, but probably the type of connection affects it the greatest. We know these days that a lot of people are using out-of-date or poorly located WiFi routers that affect the speeds at their computer.
Measured speeds vary between the different speed tests. In writing this blog I took four different speed tests just to see how they compare. I took the one at the PC Magazine site and it showed my speeds at 27.5 Mbps down / 5.8 Mbps up. I then used Ookla which showed 47.9 Mbps down / 5.8 Mbps up. The Speakeasy speed test showed 17.6 Mbps down and 5.8 Mbps up. Finally, I took the test from Charter Spectrum, my ISP, which showed 31.8 Mbps down / 5.9 Mbps up. That’s a pretty startling set of different speeds measured just minutes apart – and which demonstrates why speed test results are not a great measure of actual speeds. I look at these results and I have no idea what speed I actually am receiving. However, with that said, one would hope that any given speed test would probably be somewhat consistent in measuring the difference between ISPs.
The results of the speed test ‘contest’ are done for different categories of ISPs. For years the winner of the annual speed test for the large incumbents has been Verizon FiOS. However, in this year’s test they fell to third in their group. Leading that category now is Hotwire Communications which largely provides broadband to multi-tenant buildings, with a score of 91.3. Second was Suddenlink at 49.1 with Verizon, Comcast and Cox and closely behind. The lowest in the top 10 was Wow! at a score of 26.7.
Another interesting category is the competitive overbuilders and ISPs. This group is led by Google Fiber with a score of 324.5. EPB Communications, the municipal network in Chattanooga, is second at 136.1. Also in the top 10 are companies like Grande Communications, Sonic.net, RCN, and Comporium.
PC Magazine also ranks ISPs by region and it’s interesting to see how the speeds for a company like Comcast varies in different parts of the country.
Results are also ranked by state. I find some of the numbers on this list startling. For instance, Texas tops the list with a score of 100.3. Next is South Dakota at 80.3 and Vermont at 70.6. If anything this goes to show that the rankings are not any kind of actual random sample – it’s impossible to think that this represents the true composite speeds of all of the people living in those states. The results of this contest also differs from results shown by others like Ookla that looks at millions of actual connection speeds at Internet POPs. Consider Texas. Certainly there are fast broadband speeds in Austin due to Google Fiber where all of the competitors have picked up their game. There are rural parts of the state with fiber networks built by telcos and cooperatives. But a lot of the state looks much like anywhere else and there are a lot of people on DSL or using something less than the top speeds from the cable companies.
But there is one thing this type of study shows very well. It shows that over the years that the cable companies are getting significantly faster. Verizon FiOS used to be far faster than the cable companies and now lies in the middle of a pack with many of them.
This test is clearly not a statistically valid sample. And as I showed above with my results from various speed tests the results are not likely even very accurate. But ISPs care about these kinds of tests because it can give them bragging rights if they are near the top of one of the charts. And, regardless of the flaws, one would think the same shortcomings of this particular test are similar across the board, which means it does provide a decent comparison between ISPs. That is further validated by the fact the results of this exercise are pretty consistent from year to year.
Netflix 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.
Consider the following map of US broadband. This map was compiled by Gizmodo using data on broadband usage gathered by Ookla. This is a rather different map than the official US Broadband Map that is generated by the FCC. The official map uses data that is self-reported by the carriers. However, this map has been created by sampling and pinging actual Internet connections. Ookla owns speedtest.net and tests millions of connections from all across the country and at all times of the day.
This map is at a fairly high level and is shown per congressional district. But more detailed maps are available at the state and County level.
This map shows that there is a wide disparity of broadband speeds around the country. One surprising finding to me is that the average Internet connection is now at 18.2 Mbps download. The map then goes on to show those areas that are faster than average in blues and slower than average in reds. The 18.2 Mbps number is faster than I expected and goes to show that carriers around the country have been increasing speeds. This is certainly faster than the speeds that have been reported by other sources.
When you look deeper than this map at the broadband statistics you see a lot of what you would expect to see. Urban areas generally have faster broadband than rural areas. And the Verizon FiOS areas have much faster broadband than other parts of the country.
And this map shows some areas with fast broadband that might surprise people. For example, North and South Dakota have faster than average broadband. This is because the states are largely served by independent telephone companies that have built fiber into small towns and rural areas. And central Washington has some of the fastest broadband in the country thanks to several municipal networks that have built fiber-to-the-home.
One thing the map doesn’t show, at this high level, is that there are pockets of fast Internet scattered in many places. There are FTTH networks built in many small towns but these towns are not large enough to skew the data for the larger congressional districts shown on this map.
One state with high broadband is Florida, where I live. I have speeds available up to 104 Mbps from Comcast. The map for Florida shows what the cable companies are capable of and it’s a shame they have not improved their networks in more places to be this fast.
Ookla reports that the fastest town in the US is Ephrata, Washington with an average download speed of 85.5 Mbps. Second is Kansas City at 49.9 mbps. One would assume that with gigabit service that Kansas City will become the fastest place as more people are added to Google’s fiber.
One thing the map shows, is that an awfully lot of the country is below the average. Ookla reports that the slowest places are Chinla and Fort Defiance in Arizona which both have an average speed of less than 1.5 Mbps. These towns are within the Apache reservation and many native American towns are woefully underserved. The map shows large swaths of poorly served areas like West Virginia and Kentucky in Appalachia, like north Texas and Oklahoma, like Wyoming and Montana, and Maine.
I know at my house I have a 50 Mbps cable modem service and to me it feels just right. It allows us to watch multiple streaming videos while also working and using computers for on-line gaming. I just moved from a place where my speeds would bounce between 10 Mbps and 20 Mbps and I can see a big difference. In my line of work I talk to people all of the time in rural areas who are still stuck with only dial-up or satellite as their broadband options. I know I could not do my job from such areas. These areas probably are not even showing up on this map because people who have connections that slow are probably not doing speed tests very often. They know they are slow.
The good news to me from this map is that the average speed in the US is up to 18 Mbps. But the bad news is that there are so many large areas left without good broadband. We still have a lot of work to do.