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A call for open standards for broadband performance testing

One expert thinks broadband testing should open up for better collaboration.

By , Network World
February 18, 2014 08:35 AM ET

Network World - With AT&T announcing its sponsored data initiative, a federal appeals court ruling that the FCC can no longer protect net neutrality, and Comcast announcing a $45 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable, business and consumers alike need accurate information on broadband performance more than ever.

Data is the one tool that customers have to identify when ISPs might be impeding performance based on business disputes with content providers.

For example, an article published at Gigaom earlier this month cites data provided by Measurement Lab (called M-Lab for short), a consortium formed in 2009 by Google, the Open Technology Institute, PlanetLab Consortium, and academic researchers from across the country that contributes to the FCC’s annual Measuring Broadband America report. The data referenced in the Gigaom article shows a steep decline in throughput speeds for Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and AT&T from early 2013 through December. By comparison, three other ISPs – Cox Communications, Cablevision Systems, and Charter Communications – showed no decline over the same period.

However, M-Lab’s data doesn’t quite square with that from other broadband testing services. The Gigaom article claims a source confirmed that SamKnows, a company that provides routers to consumers that track broadband speeds and whose data also contributes to the FCC’s report, was not spotting the same trends. The same goes for Ookla, the company behind the popular website.

Thomas Gideon, the technology director at the Open Technology Institute, addresses these kinds of discrepancies between different broadband tests by pointing to M-Lab’s broad testing method and its overall openness. M-Lab’s network diagnostic test utilizes the Web 100 instrumentation package, and it generates roughly a half a terabyte per day, Gideon says. This data is collected from 12 different experiments run on networks that were volunteered for testing. All the raw data is open for review so others in the industry can contribute.

“All of this openness is so that, like with a drug trial with any kind of exploratory research, somebody else can take all of those inputs and ask good, insightful questions about our results, can advance that working collaboration, can use that data to try to see what insights it might provide on other aspects of the network that are measured by the NDT tool,” Gideon says.

As for the differences between M-Lab’s data and that of other providers, Gideon says its tests capture a broad set of data from a point that reflects end users’ network experience.

“We’re looking at the total state of the network as we find it, and looking for those organic findings as well, so we have our servers situated where they are so they’re very similar to the source’s choice that a content delivery network makes in terms of setting up its caching infrastructure or a content provider might make,” Gideon says. “So it’s a little closer to the sorts of paths that are likely to be involved when you’re dealing with this question of customer experience.”

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