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Spotlight: Days of Speed

What was the internet industry like in its early days? How did download speed become single metric to dominate broadband marketing? Are the days of speed finally coming to an end? Find out in the latest edition of Spotlight magazine.

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You’ve got internet

“Plane tickets are ordered. Now, let’s look up dinosaurs. What do you think? Compton’s Encyclopedia or National Geographic?”

The script for this 1995 AOL television ad feels almost prehistoric in itself. But aside from the clunky acting, the 90s haircuts and the huge CRT monitor sat on the desk, there’s something else remarkable about those early internet ads: they don’t mention speed.

The primitive days of dial-up internet were all about what you could do online rather than how fast you could do it. And there’s good reason for that: dial-up internet was dismally slow. The advert might show pages loading as soon as the guy behind the desk clicks an icon, but anyone who was online in those 56k modem days will remember even text- heavy pages being literally drawn on the screen in front of them, as data dribbled down the telephone line.

By the turn of the millennium, everything was changing. Broadband was in its infancy, and not only did that mean that you didn’t need to kick someone off the telephone line before you could go online, it delivered a step-change in speeds. Your new broadband connection would be 10 or 20 times faster than what went before. Speed was suddenly everything.

AOL’s early ads didn’t mention speed at all

It was the start of an era in which broadband advertising became almost exclusively fixated on download speed. An era during which SamKnows was created to show there’s much more to broadband performance than raw throughput. Here, we look back at how the broadband industry became addicted to speed, with insight from SamKnows founder Sam Crawford and industry insiders.

It could take 30 seconds or a minute to load an important web page that you were interested in. It was just painful from a user’s standpoint.

The numbers game

It’s easy to forget now – at a time when people have gigabit connections they struggle to saturate – just how slow the early internet connections were.

Speed was the “primary pain point of trying to use the internet,” said Jason Livingood, a vice president at Comcast. He’s been with the company for 25 years, and was part of the initial team deploying “high-speed internet” in the mid-1990s.

“If you think of dial-up at the time, it was really bad,” he said. “It could take maybe 30 seconds or a minute to load an important web page that you were interested in. It was just painful from a user’s standpoint. You’re just sitting there. You click on the link and you’re waiting for it to slowly render the page.”

Then broadband arrived and the change was seismic. “When ADSL first came along in the early 2000s, the headline speeds were 10 times faster,” said SamKnows founder Sam Crawford. “It didn’t feel 10 times faster; it felt 100 times faster.”

Even small downloads took ages on dial-up

Livingood recalls it was a “revelation” when customers saw pages loading so quickly on broadband, and every boost in download speed in those early days delivered game-changing improvements. For example, ADSL connections quickly shifted from 512Kbits/ sec to 2Mbits/sec to 8Mbits/sec – a huge leap in performance every time. “And so this became the big selling point for ISPs,” said Livingood. “Everybody was competing on speed and competing for customers on speed.”

Everybody was competing on speed and competing for customers on speed.

Buying the fastest

ISPs were laser-focused on delivering the fastest download speeds because that’s what consumers were demanding, according to Jason Livingood. “We had many customers back then, in those first few years of broadband, tell us that they chose the neighbourhood that they’d live in based upon whether or not they could get our service, whether they could get broadband,” he said.

That meant that many of the other factors that can impact the quality and reliability of a broadband connection were pushed to one side. “The difference between, say, having 100Mbits/sec and 1.5Mbits/ sec is just so tremendous that it overshadows all of those other potential metrics or QE variables,” said Livingood. “For many years, there was such a high return on delivering more [download] capacity that some of those other things mattered a lot less.”

Livingood cites the example of DNS lookup times. “The quality of experience improvement that you’d get for moving to, say, 10Mbits/sec up to 100Mbits/sec or 500Mbits/sec or a gig was tremendous compared to a DNS query response time. You might be talking about a few milliseconds one way or the other, and that isn’t really that noticeable to the end user.”

Sam Crawford agrees that the number one priority for customers in those early days of broadband was getting faster download speeds. “Speed was a very easy thing to quantify because people remembered how bad it was before, so why wouldn’t you want it even faster again?”

Home-buying decisions were based on broadband

However, once speeds reached a certain point, other factors became more important to the user experience, even if most consumers didn’t know what those factors were. “Latency becomes a dominating factor after a certain point,” said Sam. “It wouldn’t have made a difference whether you were on a 10Mbits/sec connection or a 100Mbits/sec connection, eBay would load at the same speed on average.”

Speed was a very easy thing to quantify because people remembered how bad it was before.

SamKnows is born

It was with a growing sense of frustration that the broadband providers were focused on download speeds above all else that Sam Crawford set up SamKnows. He wanted to show consumers, the industry and regulators, that there were many other factors that were playing a big part in the customer’s broadband experience. Indeed, that first ‘beta’ report that SamKnows produced in the summer of 2008 didn’t cover raw download throughput until near the end of the 45-page document.

“The vast majority of the report focused on latency, packet loss, DNS, web browsing and a couple of other metrics,” said Sam. “We intentionally left download speed until the end. It was the last metric that we published, purely because we wanted to get across that – even back in 2008 – we didn’t believe it was the most important metric. That situation is still true 14 years later, and I think the market is finally starting to come around to the same idea that speed isn’t the only thing that matters these days.”

Indeed, that very first report highlighted how Be Unlimited – a now defunct British ISP – was suffering from an unusually high rate of DNS query failures. While all other providers at the time had a DNS failure rate of less than 1%, Be Unlimited was seeing almost 3% of DNS lookups fail, meaning customers often weren’t being served the web pages they were looking for. This kind of data simply wasn’t being published by anyone else at the time.

The first SamKnows report took the focus off speed

Even when SamKnows did focus on download speed, it did so in a more even-handed way than looking purely at raw throughput. For example, download speeds were measured as a percentage of the implied line speed. As that first report explained:

“It would be unfair to compare the performance of two ISPs directly using raw speed (in megabits per second) as the measure. Be Unlimited, for example, has a headline speed of 24Mbits/sec and will provide service only to those within a certain distance of the exchange, while BT Broadband offers up to 8Mbits/sec to anyone.

Speed was expressed as a percentage of headline speed

It would be unfair to compare the performance of two ISPs directly using raw speed.

Comparing the two side by side in terms of raw speed will almost certainly result in Be Unlimited outperforming them every time. Whilst this is still a valid metric (and one that we won’t ignore), it doesn’t tell us much about how well the connections perform relative to their maximum throughput.”

Consequently, that first paper was able to show that providers with the highest raw throughput figures were sometimes delivering the lowest percentage of their headline speed, because they were either traffic-shaping or suffering from high contention during peak hours. Again, this kind of analysis had never been published before.

According to Sam Crawford, it’s possible that some broadband providers were receiving an unfair rap before such data was published. “I think the ones that advertise very heavily on speed – and I’m not just talking about the UK here, I’m talking globally – have been able to use that [raw throughput] to paper over some reliability issues,” he said.

“Perhaps those who didn’t have the ability to deliver higher speeds have suffered. Not so much from the press necessarily... but in the minds of the public as not being thought of as good as ‘x’.”

SamKnows revealed peak-time problems for the first time

That said, as Sam points out, there’s only so much that high raw throughput can mask about an ISP’s performance. “I know lots of providers put a huge amount of effort and engineering work into ensuring not just that they can give the best speeds, but that those speeds are reliable. Delivering reliable speeds is actually an aspect of reliability itself, so you can’t have fantastic throughput and reliability with extremely high latency or extremely poor packet loss.”

Public education

Of course, it’s one thing being able to highlight the different metrics that affect overall broadband performance. It’s quite another being able to get that message through to a general public, who simply aren’t familiar with terms such as packet loss, jitter or latency.

Jason Livingood believes most customers will have a hard time understanding what those terms mean, compared to something as simple as raw speed. “They’re sort of abstracted away through a few layers of application and network stack, and a bunch of things that you know the average customer just doesn’t care about,” he said.

Sam Crawford says the regulators that SamKnows works with deserve a lot of credit for educating the public that there’s more to broadband performance than the headline speed figures. He cites the British regulator, Ofcom, as one of the pioneers of delivering more granular performance data to consumers, something that has now been adopted worldwide. “It [Ofcom] is one of the more progressive regulators,” said Sam.

“It was one of the first to adopt metrics beyond just looking at speed and latency. Ofcom has been reporting on video- streaming performance for many years now, and has some other quality-of-experience measures in there as well.”

There’s more than raw speed to consider

“With our work with the regulators and some of the ISPs, we at least try to help educate that there’s more than just speed out there,” added Sam. “It isn’t easy; I think it will take a while for it to take effect. Nevertheless, you’re already seeing signs of it, both publicly and privately. You’re starting to see adverts from broadband providers where the focus of the advertising isn’t based upon speed, but upon the reliability and the coverage of Wi-Fi within the home.

Ofcom is one of the more progressive regulators. It was one of the first to adopt metrics beyond just looking at speed and latency.

“So, they’re recognising that maybe speed isn’t a differentiator for them and maybe this is because the ISP isn’t able to offer the highest speeds... but with fibre-to- the-premises (FTTP) rolling ut pretty much everywhere over the next few years, the difference between the fastest and the next-fastest ISPs is going to be pretty small. There’s going to be vanishingly little difference between them in terms of actual usage.”

So, the days of speed may be coming to an end – ironically, because broadband speeds are becoming so fast that simply offering customers even faster connections is going to make little practical difference to their day-to-day experience. As Sam said, there are already signs of speed fatigue setting in, with customers beginning to wonder if they even need the fastest connections that are currently on offer from their provider.

What comes after speed? Find out soon

So, if not headline speed, then what are the crucial factors that consumers are looking for when it comes to picking a broadband provider? And what will they be looking for in the future? That’s what we’ll explore in the forthcoming issues of this three-part series.

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Go into greater depth with our SamKnows and industry experts

The beginning of broadband

What was the internet industry like in its early days? How did speed come to dominate broadband marketing? Comcast vice president Jason Livingood and SamKnows founder Sam Crawford share their expertise.

Podcast - Jason Livingood and Sam Crawford