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November 22, 2006

Hope for Internet Quality (and Neutrality) Measurement

Fellow My Way blogger Eric Hernaez recently posted the important news that Cisco and Brix are proposing an extension to the SIP standard which allows devices to be put in a loopback mode in order to measure the quality of their connection to an Internet service.  Standards are usually pretty dull stuff but this proposal could be a very big deal – even if the IETF, to which it was submitted, takes its usual forever to adopt it.

Although Cisco and Brix propose the extension in order to give VoIP, real time text, and video over IP providers a way to diagnose customer problems, the potential is much greater than just these very worthwhile applications.  This technology, if widely deployed, can be the answer to two vexing problems: 1) how do consumers cut through the hype to compare the quality of broadband providers; and 2) how do we know if ISPs are violating the principals of network neutrality (these principals are not enshrined in any law or regulation), perhaps to advantage their own applications over those provided by competitors.

As Eric points out:

“The Cisco collaboration is a major coup for Brix. With the industry leader adopting this method of link testing, it will become a de facto standard whatever happens in the IETF. I would be surprised if other ATA vendors [nb. besides Cisco] did not quickly fall in line. Look for softclients and web-based tools to implement the draft in the near future.”

The devices which implement SIP are in almost every home or office which uses VoIP.  SIP is built into routers which have VoIP capability and into cheap little VoIP boxes called ATAs (what connects your phone to the Internet if you have a service like Vonage).  SIP devices are literally everywhere and spreading.  SIP is also implemented as software in many IP-based VoIP applications.  A new generation of mobile phones uses SIP when connected to a WiFi hotspot.

An article in last Saturday’s NY Times says:

“Determining the speeds consumers are actually getting is tough to measure. Cable speeds can vary if many people in one neighborhood are online at the same time, like after dinner. Access over phone lines can be slower if the customer is far from the switching office, where the Internet signal originates.”

The article also says:

“In many cases, consumer advocates and industry analysts said, customers do not get the maximum promised speed, or anywhere near it, from their cable and digital subscriber line connections. Instead, the phrase ‘up to’ refers to speeds attainable under ideal conditions, like when a D.S.L. user is near the phone company’s central switching office.”

Both of these assertions are true.  There are many other factors which also affect the bandwidth (aka speed), latency, and jitter experienced by a particular user at a particular place.  Up until now (despite the valiant efforts of some online connection test sites) it’s been impractical to gather enough comparable data to assign grades to the various providers of broadband service.

OK.  Fast forward.  Now we’ve got millions of devices distributed throughout the country and the world which can cooperate in automated measurement of bandwidth, latency, and jitter between themselves and some host service somewhere. Let’s assume that the owners of these devices (you and me and all our friends) consent to have a trusted organization put the devices in feedback mode every once in a while for a few seconds for the purpose of gathering some data.

The cure for lots of variables is lots of data points.  What is almost impossible to judge anecdotally becomes very tractable to measurement if it’s measured enough times in enough places.  “Individual performance may vary” but it will become very easy to know which broadband providers perform how well where and doing what.  It’ll be much easier to know if you want to buy your broadband access from the cableco, telco, or the new WISP (wireless ISP) down the street.  When someone advertises “speeds up to..”, it’ll be possible to know how often that speed or 95% of it is actually obtained.  With enough data we can distinguish between websites which are slow to respond and networks which are slow to deliver the response.  Most packets traverse multiple networks; millions of triangulations on packet delivery performed by millions of devices should show which networks slow packets down or lose them and which speed them on their way.

I proposed a citizen journalism project which started with the development of software which could be run by millions of volunteers to determine both network performance and possible violations of Internet Neutrality.  Maybe software developed to this new SIP extension fills the bill.  I’ll be interested to learn more.

If it does do all I hope and if this capability ends up standard in routers and ATAs, it solves at least part of the development problem and much of the distribution problem for the citizen journalism exercise.  For technical reasons, it is much better to run the monitoring software on a router connected directly to the broadband provider’s modem than on a PC – especially if that PC has a WiFi connection.

SIP updates can often be accomplished by a firmware download so it’s conceivable that this capability can be added to existing routers and ATAs in a routine maintenance release or upgrade (note:  I haven’t done the technical work to know whether there may be some obstacle to this).  It’s also possible that SIP capability will be added to non-VoIP routers and devices specifically to enable this loopback capability.

We may be able to compare networks AND look for non-neutral network connections sooner than I thought.

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