Broadband Speeds Not What They Seem

Carl Weinschenk

A good deal of news has been made recently by net neutrality. Or, rather, a lot of news has been made by the demise of net neutrality.

What the issue comes down to is the amount of bandwidth a broadband user gets and under what condition that amount can be nudged up or down by the provider. It’s a vital topic and one that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), ISPs, various independent groups and the thundering herds of lawyers representing each have spent years fighting.

But here is a dirty little secret: If Level 3 is on the money, some Internet service providers are not serving up capacity based on high-minded ideas of market place freedom. They are providing poorer service in areas in which it is unlikely to hurt them. And according to Speedtest.net, some ISPs may even be cheating.


According to Level 3, ports that are utilized at 90 percent capacity become congested and drop packets. In a long blog post, the company said that it found 12 providers with congested ports among the 51 ISPs with which it peers. Half of those are common situations in which single ports become congested and, according to the company, are routinely upgraded.

The other six, one in Europe and five in the United States, are different: 

That leaves the remaining six peers with congestion on almost all of the interconnect ports between us. Congestion that is permanent, has been in place for well over a year and where our peer refuses to augment capacity. They are deliberately harming the service they deliver to their paying customers. They are not allowing us to fulfill the requests their customers make for content.

The post says that all six have “dominant or exclusive market share.” No cases exist where congestion is causing problems in a competitive market, the post said.

It seems pretty clear that there is some gamesmanship going on. In a Gigaom story, Verizon was accused of not playing fair:

Cogent and Verizon peer to each other at about ten locations and they exchange traffic through several ports. These ports typically send and receive data at speeds of around 10 gigabit per second. When the ports start to fill up (usually at 50 percent of their capacity), the internet companies add more ports. In this case, though, Verizon is allowing the ports that connect to Cogent to get crammed. “They are allowing the peer connections to degrade,” said Dave Schaeffer, chief executive officer of Cogent said in an interview. “Today some of the ports are at 100 percent capacity.”

In some cases, the ISPs may actually be lying. Last month, BGR posted a story that looked at a study by Ookla’s Speedtest.com. The bottom line: People often don’t get the speed for which they pay. While six ISPs exceed advertised speeds, including Midcontinent, Earthlink, Optimum Online, WideOpenWest, Verizon, FiOS and Charter, 20 others fell short.

The bottom line is that there is often little connection between advertised speeds and what actually is available. This most likely is a combination of purposeful mistruths and the reality that download speeds naturally are inconsistent and it is impossible to accurately gauge them, even if an ISP intends to be on the up and up.



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