Last week I introduced the muddy waters of broadband speed tests. What muddies the issue is that there is not a standardised methodology for speed test services and therefore, the results gathered are open to selective interpretation.

Speed tests are important to RSPs because it is an easily understood concept for consumers to base purchase decisions on. And so speed becomes a major selling point for RSPs.
A speedtest is important to consumers because it a gives us a measure of the quality of our broadband service and because it tells us if we are getting what we have paid for.

Speed tests are important to Retail Service Providers (RSPs) because it is an easily understood concept for consumers to base purchase decisions on. And so speed becomes a major selling point for RSPs.

For example, current advertising for UFB fibre broadband builds an expectation for download speeds of 100 or 30 Mbps. Copper-based VDSL (Very High bit rate DSL) service is promoted as offering speeds of 15 to 70 Mbps.

These speeds are rarely, and in some cases never, achieved.

Recognising this, most RSPs will, in the small print, qualify the promoted speed with something like ”up to 30Mbps ” or “…we’ll give you the fastest broadband service possible at your house”.

This practice is justified on the basis that the actual speed achieved is a consequence of many technical things. When RSPs give reasons why you will not get the speeds promoted, they focus on the things that you have control over – the age of your house wiring and computer.

Wireless connections.  Note the Vodafone-supplied 'gateway' device has a slower protocol ('g'), lower signal strength (-50 dB) and lower bandwidth (20 MHz) than the Wireless network device ('InfoNet_JA')

Wireless connections. Note the Vodafone-supplied ‘gateway’ device has a slower protocol (‘g’), lower signal strength (-50 dB) and lower bandwidth (20 MHz) than the Wireless network device (‘InfoNet_JA’)

The RSPs will also blame your router and WiFi access equipments for slow speeds. What they choose to ignore is that for many of us, the router is supplied by the RSP as a sign-up incentive (“get a free WiFi router when you sign up for a 12 month term”).

For copper-based ADSL services they will talk about the distance between your house and the exchange or local cabinet. It is true that the copper distance of your connection is the main factor limiting your speed. But this is something outside of your control and because the impact of copper distance is readily calculable, it is something that RSPs ought not fudge.

RSPs will also talk about the number of people using broadband at any one time, affecting the speed you see. Again, network congestion is a major determinate of actual broadband speeds. And again, it is something outside of your control but at least partially within the control of the RSP.

Even in the fibre world, external factors are blamed for speeds that are less than the headline rate. Telecom says “… speeds are affected by various factors including NZ and overseas networks, your modem and computer technology, internal home wiring and other environmental factors.”

This is all true but it muddies the waters because it ignores the things that the RSP itself controls.

Such as the design contention ratio of its network which affects congestion. Such as network design elements that optimise network performance, for example the location of cabinets. Such as peering arrangements which is about how the RSP’s network interfaces to the Internet.

From all this, we can see that the actual broadband speeds we experience are a consequence of many complex matters.

Vodafone-Speedtest-resultThis makes it hard for RSPs in a highly competitive market to sell complex services to non-technical consumers.

To help consumers better understand the issues, the government initiated the development of a regulation framework in September 2012. At the same time, industry representative body the Telecommunications Carriers Forum (TCF) had established a working party to do much the same thing.

The TCF’s Broadband Product Disclosure Code comes in to force on Saturday 1st March. Despite being in development for over 12 months, the TCF’s Code covers only fixed-line broadband plans and crucially, does not include the planned component covering broadband speed testing.

Next week, I will look closely at the new Code and whether it achieves its disclosure goals.