Notion of bandwidth spedometers for DSL, cable sparks controversy

Notion of bandwidth spedometers for DSL, cable sparks controversy

Is the advertised high-speed Internet access you’re paying for actually what you’re receiving? Two weeks ago, the simple issue of whether DSL and high-speed cable providers should supply bandwidth speedometers to customers got many people talking nationwide, writes adjunct Northwestern professor James Carlini.
Since this topic was suggested, quite a bit of feedback rolled in on a DSL Reports discussion thread. “Are they delivering what they are charging for with these various broadband products?” “What speed are you really running at on your PC? Have you ever checked?” “Are you getting a half T-1 for a full T-1 price?”
Comments from various people on the thread ranged from very observant to very lame. One comment captured at least some type of everyday analogy that needs to be applied to this situation:

Back in the day, purveyors of audio equipment would tout their rigs with all sorts of misleading measurements. They would tell you, for instance, that their amplifier was capable of 200 watts per channel MPP (music peak power) or that the output was “x” watts IPP (instantaneous peak power).
The point is that the MPP and IPP power figures were unsustainable output spikes that could only even be approached in rare circumstances. It turns out that a power output rated in RMS (root mean square) terms is the actual, sustainable output level. As I recall, the FTC cracked down on these phony rating schemes some years ago.

Perhaps the FCC should be cracking down on all the carriers that claim to provide one speed but actually deliver another. To me, that does not sound impossible and should be part of their overall responsibility to ensure that average consumers are getting what they purchased. The FCC should also crack down on false or misleading advertising.
You would be surprised at some of the people who thought this is silly or not relevant to have a speed indicator.
There were even some people who said it’s took bad if you can’t figure it out yourself. My reply to that comment was: “I don’t need to be a master electrician to plug in a toaster. Why should I have to know all these ‘techie issues’ to use the network?” If everything is always so good, having a network speedometer in the upper right-hand corner would be a testament to the quality of the carrier’s connection.
Just like dates on milk and beer and meters on electricity and natural gas, what’s the big deal with a network speedometer? It’s just a quality control device that shows what you’re getting. People who say it can’t be done must walk around in life accepting whatever is thrown to them. No wonder other countries are starting to question our global leadership.
Is AT&T delivering?
One of the subtitles in the March 22 editorial asked if Comcast is delivering. Some feedback on DSL Reports as well as to me personally also highlighted that AT&T may not be delivering what it promises:

I live in the San Francisco Bay area and had the same problem with AT&T. I was blamed for my router, blamed for having spyware and blamed for almost everything in the world before they came out not two but three times to check my lines. The technician said my lines are clean, I’m within 500 feet of the central office and he didn’t understand the problem.
I said there’s only a problem from 3 p.m. to midnight. It’s very fast at 7 a.m. I was on two congested routers before I decided to pay another ISP (DSLExtreme) my money. I’ve had no problems whatsoever since then. If I didn’t have a choice in ISPs, my only resource would be the local public utilities commission. This [network speedometer] is needed very badly.

Another reader wrote:

AT&T will call you on the telephone and ask if you would like to double the speed of your DSL for $5. In every case of checking for friends, though, I never see an increase in speed.
AT&T knows that most people don’t check or don’t know how to check the download and upload speed of the connection. They increase the price and the customers think they got a great deal. Most of my friends are too far from the central office to get the higher speed but AT&T doesn’t tell them that!

Now that is what I’m talking about. Are you getting the upgrade you just purchased? Some writers brought up other good observations and questioned those who said the small print defined the speeds as “up to” the advertised rate and a best effort would be made to get to them:

Every provider sells it service with the provison that the speeds advertised are “up to” a certain speed. No where do they guarantee a speed test will hit the maximum advertised rate. What’s the point of forcing ISPs to provide users the measured speeds throughout the day?
There should be a way to monitor the ISPs to see if they are giving you the speeds you purchase. If they cannot provide you with the advertised speeds, they should change their advertisement to reflect only what they can provide. If they find it’s because of distance or other issues, they should adjust their pricing to reflect what your speed actually is rather than what they think it can be.
Is “best effort” a license to misrepresent the capability of the network? If not, why object to measuring the actual performance? There can be a fine line between “best effort” and “no effort”. This measurement would increase the visibility of that line a little.

‘Read the contract, watch out for Carlini’
As one writer pointed out:

Yes, they hype the connection [speed], but the fine print says up to a certain speed. Note the phrase “up to”. In ideal conditions, you can get up to [the advertised rate], which usually includes all the hidden handshaking and overhead costs.
While that fast-food hamburger you see on the ad [won’t look like that in reality], it’s not false advertising. It’s creative advertising. Yes, there was a court case on it once upon a time.
While it would be nice if they could monitor the speeds, enforce the advertised big print and make the fine print illegal, I think that professor needs to get out of the ivory tower and look at reality.

Unfortunately, the title “professor” must have some negative connotation or perceived pragmatic weakness to some as they were quick to point that out when criticizing the idea of network speedometers. Maybe it’s just jealousy from those who never finished a degree. Maybe I should just drop that from my byline.
To give a more “realistic perspective” to my comments, maybe I should use my expert witness title instead if that presumes more occupational pragmatism and Darth Vader-like authority.
As to “reality,” nothing is more sobering than to be in a lawsuit, to be deposed and to testify in a court room. It doesn’t matter what degrees or certificates you have when you’re there. You either win the case or you don’t. Based on the comments on that thread, no one had that level of experience nor that level of “reality” as this person thought I needed to have.
More talk than action
In summarizing the e-mails, I was surprised how many people were satisfied with accepting the explanations of the carriers and the reasons for not being accountable on network speeds. Maybe that’s because so many people have set the bar so low for themselves that they don’t care to set the bar high for network services.
Best practices? That sounds like more corporate smoke than reality to me. You have to give the carriers credit, though. They have really tried to paint a picture that “this is the best we can do and we don’t even guarantee it”. I think they can do a lot better. If carrier can’t do any better, why do they fear if others come in to take over what they can’t do any better? Why do they want protective legislation?
Maybe with the big merger of Lucent and Alcatel they can come up with an easy way to superimpose a network speedometer onto your PC monitor. If we are to make this the “fourth utility” and all that other rhetoric everyone likes to throw around, let’s see some real deliverables in making it simple.
Carlinism: Just as one course in first aid doesn’t make you a brain surgeon, one certificate in technology or networking doesn’t make you an expert.

James Carlini is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University. He is also president of Carlini & Associates. Carlini can be reached at or 773-370-1888. Copyright 2006 Jim Carlini.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.