Broadband services

Is the New York AG Off-Base on Broadband?

In a recent headline, NY Attorney General Eric Schneiderman invited citizens to test their Internet speeds and submit the results online as part of an ongoing probe.

The three companies that he called out specifically were Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) and Cablevision Systems Corp. (NYSE: CVC).

"New Yorkers should get the Internet speeds they pay for," said Schneiderman. Unfortunately, Schneiderman's current methodology may not be adequate for the task.

The main focus of Mr. Schneiderman's investigation appears to be throughput. He announced his office has created a new online broadband test on a site called Internethealthtest.org that will capture a customer's "throughput" -- or the speed at which customers actually access Internet content. Measuring from real end users is a great idea, but using throughput alone as a metric isn't enough. It's also important to understand Round Trip Time (RTT) and availability as major contributors to ISP performance.

Let's start with throughput and the three companies that Schneiderman cited. (Note: For throughput, larger numbers are better.)

In the 25th percentile (the 25th "lowest throughput" set of real users for each network), there seems to be a real advantage to Cablevision. However -- if you are lucky enough to be on the 95th percentile of "highest throughput" users -- clearly it would be better to be on Verizon!

The Importance of RTT (Round Trip Time)
Schneiderman is certainly not the first person to think that throughput is the most relevant factor. Over the years as an Internet community, we have been bombarded with advertising that states our ISP's "bandwidth" is the key to speed. Unfortunately this is not the case. It certainly helps, and, if offered a "faster" connection, we would all take it, but there are some fundamentals to how the Internet works that throughput doesn't cover.

One of the key metrics for evaluating different suppliers is Round Trip Time (RTT) -- the time it takes for a request to go to a server and the client to receive a response from it. Let's look at why this metric is very important when it comes to user performance across the web and how RTT and the TCP protocol actually affect the performance of a web asset or web assets.

The part of TCP we will look at here is TCP's Maximum Window Size. There are many other factors such as slow-start, re-transmit time out and window scaling that also affect performance, but Maximum Window Size is useful as an example.

The Maximum Window Size is defined as the maximum receivable data size (specified in bytes) that the client can buffer during a connection. It is usually established during the TCP hand-shaking process and will mean that the sender will limit its sending Maximum Window size to this value and only send more data once it has received an acknowledgement from the receiver -- i.e., an Ack.

Now why is this important? Well, if we can only send a certain amount of data in each round trip and then must wait for an acknowledgement, then the actual transmission time of that data over the wire becomes more important. Simply, the faster I get the acknowledgement that my data got to its destination, the faster I can send the next bit of data.

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kq4ym 1/18/2016 | 10:42:01 AM
Re: It's complicated I wonder if there was any political motivation in the Attorney General's study? Or just a little sloppy in trying to give consumers some input into the various services on a simple basis. Nevertheless, it's good that it's been pointed out how numbers can lie when you don't use all available data.
Pete Mastin 1/11/2016 | 7:08:16 PM
Re: Who watches the ISPs? Totally agree with that perspective. A Rating system that has a published methodology that people can understand if they choose to - but can use even if they dont understand the details. It could be a formula much like a baseball stat such a OBP (on base percentage) or SLG (Slugging percentage). These are both 'combined stats' that actually do a MUCH better job of predicting if a team will win. Basically OBP and SLG represent the most important elements of offense in baseball – getting on base and hitting with power. So it (could be) with measureing networks - we need a combined stat (that needs to be worked out).


mhhf1ve 1/11/2016 | 6:49:26 PM
Re: Who watches the ISPs? > Numbers are the language of science.

Don't get me wrong! Numbers are obviously important, but I was saying that the average consumer probably doesn't need to know all the technical details (not that those details shouldn't exist or be published somewhere!)... and maybe a ratings/ranking agency should boil the complicated stuff down to a qualitative review that the average joe can better understand.

AT&T's "unlimited" plan with U-verse/Dish subscription is the kind of thing that makes me skeptical that wireless carriers are going to provide any more competition for internet services.... 
Pete Mastin 1/11/2016 | 6:26:49 PM
Re: Who watches the ISPs? Yes - Did you see that AT&T came out with another 'unlimited' plan today. I need to go look at the details but it looks like its only available as a bundle. http://www.engadget.com/2016/01/11/att-unlimited-data-plan-directv-u-verse/

With regard to 'throwing more numbers' I have to respectfully disagree. Numbers are the language of science. Its how we measure things. Its how humans have progressed. Without number we would not be chatting asyncronosly through the lightreading chat board. That being said - the numbers have to be meaningful. And thats really the point of the article - to find the meaningful numbers and stop touting (or regulating) based on meaningless numbers. 

With regard to wireless providing an anwer I certinaly am not in the know abou Google's or Facebooks plans - but I find it intriging that Google aquired a couple of companies providing urban wireless and combined them to create Intersection.com - go check out their NYCLink project to get a feel for what they are doing with wireless in the urban space. Very exciting stuff! 


mhhf1ve 1/11/2016 | 6:12:29 PM
Re: Who watches the ISPs? Thanks for replying, Pete.

Sure. As others have said, it's complicated to get all the factors -- and then to have them made all understandable to the general public..? Not easy at all. People just know that they don't like waiting for videos to load or that "unlimited" data comes with a cap. 

Throwing more numbers at people probably isn't the answer. But it's still unclear who is the right entity to police or regulate or inform consumers... Should it really be the FCC? The FTC? 

I doubt wireless providers are going to be the ones with more competition. Maybe if Google and/or Facebook roll out autonomous planes beaming LTE coverage to the US (and not just the southern hemisphere)... 
Pete Mastin 1/11/2016 | 5:54:49 PM
Re: Who watches the ISPs? Hi mhhf1ve,

To be 100% clear my point was not that we should not monitor the ISPs for false advertising (if it is found they did so). My point is that the metrics that BOTH sides are using are flawed. For reasons stated in the article - you cannot measure the value of an ISP using just a single metric like throughput. What we need is a better understanding of what constitutes good performance on the Internet - and then use that standard to evaluate -  both what is advertised as well as what actually gets delivered. 

With regard to lack of competition - I agree its a probem. One of the readers below also mentioned it and my opinion is that perhaps wireless providers will eventually provide that much needed competition. As of now, wireless performance is far behind the wireline provierd (both Rural and Urban) but innovation in the wireless industry may eventually get us there. Thanks for reading. 
mhhf1ve 1/11/2016 | 4:40:26 PM
Who watches the ISPs? If consumers (and NY political appointees) aren't suited for watching out for inconsistencies between what's advertised and delivered by ISPs, who should? The FCC? Consumer Reports? 

In the end, what corrective measures can consumers take if they aren't getting what they're paying for? OR... what can consumers do if ISPs change their terms so that whatever the give is what customers will have to take...? 

Not exactly a lot of competition out there.
Pete Mastin 1/6/2016 | 4:27:06 PM
Re: It's complicated Thanks Dan - like I said - very nice article and your right - you made the exact point I was tring to make here about TCP/IP windows and the limitations on performance. I hope someome up there at the AG (and the ISP's) are reading. 


Duh! 1/6/2016 | 4:03:51 PM
Re: It's complicated Calling that list of bullet points "Ten Commandments" was my editor's idea. I didn't push back, but figured it might come back to bite me.

For most practical purposes, the real benefit of "Gigabit" is the fact that serialization delay becomes insignificant relative to prop delay at roughly Gigabit line rates. End users are likely to perceive a difference in throughput between, say, 40 Mb/s DSL and G(E)PON capped at 40 Mb/s. They would be unlikely perceive a difference between that and uncapped G(E)PON. As least as long as Speedtest is the killer app for Gigabit.
Pete Mastin 1/6/2016 | 2:30:34 PM
Re: It's complicated Agree with your assessment Duh! Its somewhat the fault of the ISPs that need a simple metric they can market with - but its also the fault of the tech community that has not come up with an enlightend (combined) metric that makes sense. 

I went and read your article - quite good. I had to laugh at the 2nd commandment: 

"2) Any modern FTTH network can truthfully be advertised as a gigabit network even if subscribers are rate capped."

That is a bit of the problem here no? :) 

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