Commentary: “Real broadband speeds” calls are barking up the wrong tree

December 28th, 2010 | by Alfred Siew

When companies try to hide information about their products and services from consumers, it’s a black and white case: let’s hammer them to be more transparent.

Unfortunately, recent calls for Singapore’s telecom operators to declare an “average” surfing speed or “minimum guaranteed speed” are as misguided as they are unhelpful in solving the biggest problems users face here – a lack of content and inconsistent links to overseas sites.

Trust me when I say I’m just as frustrated a broadband user as the next here, but many of these calls come from a lack of understanding about how the Internet works, and what really plagues the average user at home. Rather than get to the root of the problem, they obfuscate the situation and muddle things.

First of all, the government regulator here already publishes real upload and download speeds, known as throughput, on its website, so folks asking for more transparency should really first have a look at that and see what’s missing and what should be included.

And to explain broadband speeds, it helps to look at another Singapore obsession: cars.

Even if you buy an Audi R8 supercar capable of 300kmh or 400kmh,  you still travel on the same roads here as the average Kia or Toyota driver, which means you suffer from the same jams on the expressways here during peak-hour traffic. Result: 30km/h or less on busy roads.

Does that mean that Audi should thus sell its cars with a “minimum guaranteed speed” of 30km/h on its brochures instead of the 300km/h that the engine is capable of? Would it be deceiving drivers who readily fork out several times the cost of a Toyota or Kia?

If that seems absurd, then the current calls for so-called “real” broadband speeds like “average surfing speed” or “minimum guaranteed speed” in telcos’ advertisements do not make sense either.

Just like Audi cannot guarantee how fast you can drive your car over different roads, your telco cannot guarantee a promised average or minimum speed to every single site its users surf to because they do not own every single site on the Net and cannot buy a speedy link to all sites.

The main reason why many sites, say, a Tudou.com or Download.com, is slow is because many of these overseas sites do not deliver their content at such high speeds that we enjoy over our broadband connection.

Even if you have a 100Mbps fibre optic broadband service, it won’t do any good if the max that the website you are downloading the file from offers just 300Kbps to each user, depending on the load that the server allows. What can your Singapore broadband operator do about that? Not much, unless it gets the content or website provider to locate its data in Singapore.

Another point that has been raised is that telcos are not being upfront about download speeds. But really, are they not? The most important content – anti-virus updates, driver updates and even Windows updates – are now available at much faster speeds than a few years ago, and often close to the speeds promised on paper.

Don’t believe that? Try downloading a game from the EA Singapore website, or a site that has “mirrored” or “cached” its content here, such as AMD and Nvidia, whose drivers are downloaded all the time by users here.

I subscribe to a 16Mbps StarHub link, which gives me as much as 1.4MB per second for such links. That’s roughly 11.2Mbps – close enough to the 16Mbps that StarHub promises, considering I still have several other apps running in the background.

There are many things I don’t like about my StarHub connection – like slow links during peak hours, but more on that later – yet, I won’t be so fast to say StarHub or indeed any service provider in Singapore is not “coming clean” or “deceiving” customers.

That’s because they do deliver near the top speed when the content is available to the speedy network here. The problem, as always with a small market like Singapore, has been local content, and while it is trickling in, there are still thousands of websites that are slow to our users here.

Blaming SingTel and StarHub is just an easy way to find a scapegoat without looking at the bigger problem, which is getting more content providers to base or cache their contents here via content distributors such as Akamai.

This is not to say the IDA (Infocomm Development Authority) should be lenient towards the telcos, or that nothing should be done. On the contrary, the IDA should be more stringent, but in asking for transparency, it should ask for the right details, not a halfway-house solution.

Let’s stop for a moment and ask what is this transparency that we are demanding for. Should telcos advertise an “average” speed based on where its users surf to each month, considering that this changes because users surf to different places offering varying download speeds each month?

Does this not confuse users looking for a guide to how fast a service is? Think about the car analogy again: imagine going to the Audi showroom and finding that this month, the car is capable of only an average 30km/h, while last week it was 50km/h. The hardware is still the same, and it can really run at a top speed of 300km/h, but hey, people want “real” speeds.

If that sounds absurd, then you’ve understood where this recent speed debate is going. It’s barking up the wrong tree.

Top speeds should remain as a guide to what is on offer. And if the IDA, which first threw up this question last month by asking if it should make telcos reveal “real” speeds, really wants to improve broadband speeds here, it should look at things in detail, and not to grab some populist headlines in the newspapers, at the expense of the telcos it regulates.

Here’s how.

Instead of a meaningless figure, the IDA should get telcos to show how fast they link up to, say, the top 10 sites that users here go to. If these throughput tests are run by IDA, they should give a transparent, unbiased view of which telco is giving users the best bang for buck.

Let the market do its work here. When telcos find that users are being slowed down when they access, say, Tudou.com or their World of Warcraft server, they will have to either expand their overseas bandwidth or somehow strike a deal with the content providers to base their content here, to keep users happy.

Make it mandatory for every telco to publish this chart of how fast it performs against a competitor in its advertisements, and you will get many Internet engineers at SingTel and StarHub pulling their socks up in no time.

The whole point is in making sure the consumer gets the “real speed” that a service provider offers. It’s not about a confusing “average” or “minimum guaranteed speed”, but a snapshot of what a telco actually offers every month to the top online destinations that users go to.

Just like on the roads, no one can guarantee you a promised speed on the Net. But you can make choices based on experience. If you are serious in studying how fast a broadband service really is, just follow its published speeds over a few months and you’ll get the information to make a better buying decision.

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