Who killed speed?
From the earliest days of SamKnows, since the very first report the company put out, the company has insisted that speed isn’t everything. Fifteen years on, the broadband industry seems to have reached the same conclusion.
“We’ve been patiently waiting for everyone to share our vision,” said Alex Salter, CEO of SamKnows.
But what has download speed been replaced by in the minds of broadband consumers? What do they want from their suppliers that they’re not getting? How will the industry adapt to meet the needs of future customers, if speed isn’t the be-all and end-all?
Here, leading industry executives and SamKnows’ own experts will lay out their vision for what comes next in the broadband industry.
Moving past speed
Much has changed in the 15 years since SamKnows first started measuring broadband performance, not least the amount of available bandwidth. One inescapable reason for speed becoming less critical to the majority of consumers is that there’s an awful lot more of it on tap. To the point where those on fibre connections can barely tell the difference between one tier of service and the next.
“You get to some point of diminishing returns where, after maybe 500Mbits/sec or one or two gigabits per second, it probably matters less how much speed you deliver to an individual device in the home,” said Jason Livingood, a vice president at Comcast.
Alex Salter says that speed is rarely mentioned among consumers who have access to fibre. “If you go to the different countries where we work – Australia, Canada, the United States, Europe, Saudi Arabia, other placed in the Middle East – everyone is marketing speed.
“But consumers have moved away from that; they’re less concerned about speed.
“If you attend a focus group where consumers are asked why they might move from one ISP to another, speed just doesn’t come up anymore. They’re not willing to upgrade for faster products – they don’t see the benefit in that. We all understand that once you get to a certain speed there’s limited benefit in going faster and faster.”
Consumers aren’t willing to upgrade for faster products – they don’t see the benefit in that.
What consumers care about
Second, the pandemic concentrated everyone’s focus on application performance. Consumers simply weren’t concerned about their headline download speed – they cared about whether they could join a Teams meeting without the video stream glitching; they cared about whether their children could attend online lessons; they cared about whether they could unwind in the evening by watching an Ultra HD movie on Disney+. Application performance was – and still is – king.
For SamKnows, measuring real-world application performance has been its mission for the past decade or more. “The whole industry has been built around speed, and only recently moved to looking at latency when running a speed test,” said Alex Salter.
Most speed tests ping a test server and “infer lots of things around performance,” said Salter, but “if you want to know how well Netflix is performing, you need to test Netflix – and not just send a ping to Netflix; you need to see how the Netflix CDN works.”
Unlike any of its rivals, SamKnows devises specific tests for each application or game that it tests. It doesn’t rely on guesswork.
“I think that consumers actually have become way more focused on application performance, and the industry is catching up,” he added. “Certainly, from our point of view, the majority of insights that we’re giving to people now are around application performance. Speed is less interesting to consumers.”
Yet, currently, there’s very little ISP marketing around specific application performance, even though SamKnows’ research and work with regulators worldwide often reports significant differences in such performance from ISP to ISP. Alex Salter thinks providers are missing a trick by not demonstrating to customers that they can deliver industry- leading performance in the apps that matter most to them.
“If I’m a gamer, I don’t play every game,” he said. “If I’m a streamer, I don’t use every single streaming platform. What I really want my ISP to perform well for are the applications that I care about. So you might have someone that uses Microsoft Teams and they might like League of Legends and they might use Amazon Prime – those are the applications that they’re going to care about. We have tests for all of these applications; but actually when I want my ISP to communicate with me, I want them to talk about the applications that matter to me.”
Speed: diminishing returns
The increased download speed of a 1Gbit/sec (1,000Mbits/sec) connection only matters if the application you’re using is downloading large files. Latency and reliability are far more important to many applications.
Video conferencing applications such as Zoom or Google Meet will use a tiny percentage of that 1Gbit/sec: Google claims maximum of 3.2Mbits/sec per participant, with Zoom using up to 3.8Mbits/sec. Once you’re above the threshold, it doesn’t matter if you’re on 350Mbits/sec or 1Gbit/sec – the biggest factor is the latency and the stability of the connection, and there’s very little difference on fast connections.
It doesn't help much with regular internet browsing, either. When you browse a website, you download tens or hundreds of small files from various locations. Most of those files are so small, your connection doesn’t get the chance to reach full speed.
Our CDN test shows that these ultra-small files will rarely be downloaded faster than 15Mbits/sec on these faster lines. That’s only 1.5% of a gigabit connection! What matters far more is your ISP’s route to the CDN provider. The top graph shows the difference in CDN download speeds for a 1Gbit/sec connection to various providers.
None of these speeds are above 15Mbits/sec, but there’s huge variation between providers, thanks to the difference in routing and latency.
The graph at the bottom shows the difference in the time it takes to start the download from one of these providers (Akamai) for 350Mbits/sec, 500Mbits/ sec, and 1Gbit/sec. As you’ll see, the connection with the slower speed is actually the quickest to start the download.
The need for reliability
If the speed of the connection has become less important for consumers, it’s the opposite for the speed at which broadband is beamed around the home. Home Wi-Fi has become the biggest broadband bottleneck, with consumers still struggling to get a reliable connection in every corner of their home – or their extended home, now that many people are working from home offices in gardens, converted garages and the like.
That problem becomes particularly acute at peak times, when multiple people in the home may be streaming HD content or online gaming, which requires low latency. A fibre connection will often have more than enough bandwidth to cope with that demand, but the home router can be overwhelmed by the multiple demands being placed on it.
Comcast’s Jason Livingood believes broadband providers will put an increased focus on the reliability of Wi-Fi equipment in years to come. “It becomes about not just the speed you deliver to the home, but to how many devices at the same time,” he said.
“Those devices are almost entirely connected over Wi-Fi, so what is that wireless LAN experience like? How good are the radios? Is it mesh Wi-Fi? Do those mesh access points use Wi-Fi backhaul or Ethernet backhaul? What’s the reliability like? How consistent is that speed at off-peak and peak times? All these other things start to matter. I don’t think that speed becomes irrelevant; it’s still important. But we have these other factors that are rising in importance, and so
if you fast forward five years from now, I suspect that a lot of ISP marketing will shift away from just speed, speed, speed all the time, to speed across many devices and reliability.”
A lot of ISP marketing will shift from just speed, speed, speed all of the time.
Livingood says expectations have already shifted in a number of countries, with consumers no longer believing that the ISP’s job ends at delivering a connection to the home – they “expect help from the ISP in ensuring that the [home] network is functioning well”.
That means not only supplementing or replacing the home router with extenders or mesh access points, but delivering greater intelligence into home networking, too.
“Are there certain devices that you want to prioritise on the wireless LAN, such as my PC for video conferences at work versus my son’s gaming console, for example, or applying parental controls, or putting my IoT devices in an untrusted VLAN. Those are some of the services that are emerging,” said Livingood.
This focus on Wi-Fi performance around the home has seen an increasing number of companies embed SamKnows software in their products, including Amazon eero, Linksys and many of the own-brand routers supplied by broadband providers. “Most of the leading manufacturers have integrated the SamKnows Agent and we’re seeing those firms release fantastic Wi-Fi products,” said Alex Salter.
“Consumers need those because hybrid working has become a permanent thing and you need to have good internet coverage throughout your home. This isn’t something where the ISPs or even the [router] manufacturers are leading the market – consumers are leading the need for fantastic home Wi-Fi.”
Defining broadband’s future
So, aside from an increased focus on in-home Wi-Fi, where does the broadband industry go now? How does it market products to consumers? Does speed even matter at all, or does broadband become like any other utility – such as electricity or water – in that it’s just there, with as much of it as you can possibly need?
Comcast’s Jason Livingood thinks we’ve not yet reached the stage where broadband is a pure commodity. “There isn’t a task that I’m doing in my home where I expect to finish more quickly if I get more [electrical] power or less power,” he said. “It’s not like I can cook my food more quickly with more power to my electric stove top.”
“But if I think about broadband and using the internet, I’m very sensitised to how quickly I’m able to load a web page or skip forward in a video, or what my responsiveness in a video game might look like. So, I do think that’s a key difference and will remain so for the foreseeable future.”
However, Livingood does believe that the pure focus on speed will fade, to be replaced by a variety of other factors that are increasingly important to consumers. “I think that we’re going to see a big shift away from simply marketing speed or capacity to all of these other factors that I believe consumers will begin to value more highly.
“I think that you’ll see speed remain a key factor in marketing broadband, and in consumers’ interest in terms of who they choose as their broadband operator. But I think you’ll see other things such as working latency, performance, reliability, the consistency of that speed delivery... at peak versus off-peak and so on,” he added.
Livingood also believes that security and end-user protection will become points of differentiation for broadband providers, including “things that can be built into the network to protect them [consumers] against malware, phishing, ransomware and those sorts of threats.”
Focus on the individual
Alex Salter believes that tailoring broadband packages to individual consumers, rather than leaving them to work out which of an increasingly meaningless set of speed tiers they fit into, is key for the broadband industry.
“I don’t want to be spoken to as a group, I want to be spoken to as an individual, and that’s very true of what’s happening in the ISP market,” he said. “We see this with companies, where they send out a generic memo to their staff saying everyone come back to the office [after the pandemic]. People reject that – they don’t want to be spoken to as a generic group; they want to be spoken to as individuals and they want people to consider their individual needs. I want an ISP to understand what I’m using my connection for and what I think is important.”
To help broadband providers identify what’s important to their customers, SamKnows will continue to test the applications that are most used in homes across the world. But Alex Salter admits he can’t predict what those critical applications will be in the future.
With people routinely working out of back bedrooms or garden offices, ensuring that the Wi-Fi reaches every room of the house at a decent speed has become a responsibility that some broadband providers have attempted to tackle.
Sophie Gordon thinks that’s a good start. “The fact that we’re now talking about 5G backup reflects the fact that people want a reliable, consistent connection,” she said. “Wi-Fi guarantees really speak to the fact that people are now using broadband all around the home and they want that experience to travel with them as they move around the household. So, yes, I absolutely think we need to start focusing on these different aspects of broadband.”
I want an ISP to understand what I’m using my connection for and what I think is important.
“The reality is that we don’t know what we’re going to be measuring in two or three years’ time, because the applications that we’ll be measuring may not have even been released yet,” he said.
“That’s the challenge for any company doing what we do. We have to consistently innovate to keep up with the market, and that’s the reason we’re not focused on speed testing. We are the company that defines speed testing globally and a
lot of the regulation around the world is based on our methodology. But the market moves on, consumers need to move on, and so here we’re now defining how applications should be tested.”
And with 30m homes worldwide reporting into SamKnows’ platform, Alex believes that data could have a huge impact –not only for broadband providers but for the wider internet community. “When I look at the data we’re collecting, we have perfect visibility – and our ISP customers do as well – of internet performance in real- time,” he said.
“So if you’re a company with homeworkers, or an application with visitors from around the world, you can see everyone’s quality of experience. You can see that in real-time. That means no productivity problems for your team, applications that work faultlessly, and, perhaps most importantly of all, it would give us a shot at eliminating broadband inequality.”
“This presents an opportunity to have a real value-add – not just for our customers, but to society as a whole.”
This presents an opportunity to have a real value-add – not just for our customers, but to society as a whole.