Internet access, it’s all about speed, right?

Decisions, decisions

As consumers we rely on product information in order to inform our everyday purchasing decisions. And it is unusual for us to rely on one single product attribute on which to base those decisions. When purchasing a car, for example, most of us would not rely solely on the top speed a car can achieve. It's more likely that we would also consider other factors such as price, fuel efficiency, size, and functionality, across different makes and models, before making our decision. Realising that while speed might be an attractive attribute, it's unlikely we would ever get a chance to put it fully to the test anyway, at least not without problems with the law!

Unfortunately, there is an over-reliance on speed when it comes to purchasing Internet access services. The Internet is now an integral part of our daily lives and as consumers of Internet services one of our primary needs is a fast and reliable broadband connection. When purchasing an Internet access service, the less technically knowledgeable among us (which is most of us!) predominantly make our purchasing decision based on two criteria: speed and price. Unfortunately, our expectations on speed are seldom met, as the results of the European Commission's recent study on fixed broadband performance shows with Europeans consumers receiving, on average, only 74% of the advertised headline speeds for which they have paid.

Winning and retaining retail Internet access customers is a competitive game and requires significant marketing spend. Internet Access Service Providers (ISPs) go to great lengths to 'outdo' each other using advertising campaigns that proclaim greater speeds than those offered by competitors. Choosing between different market offerings is often confusing and even frustrating. There is no common set of measurement parameters that would allow us to make objective comparisons. We therefore tend to rely on headline advertised speeds. If we think the price is reasonable for the speed then we say ‘yes’ and hope for the best. This is not an ideal scenario when it comes to such an important purchasing decision and consumers are often left with services that are either not fit for purpose or do not meet their own unique requirements adequately. This information gap needs to be addressed by policy makers. The European Commission's further studies on broadband performance will certainly provide some welcome data, but more can still be done.

In Europe, the legislative framework is already in place to address the information gap

Indeed, the EU has already made provisions to allow National Regulatory Authorities (NRAs) to take steps to address this issue. Article 22 of the Universal Service Directive requires Member States to "ensure that national regulatory authorities are ... able to require undertakings ... to publish comparable, adequate and up-to-date information for end-users on the quality of their services ...".

Article 22 also states that “regulatory authorities may specify ... the quality of service parameters to be measured” and that "authorities are able to set minimum quality of service requirements".

Facilitating comparability of available Internet access services is a very important action for NRAs in order to fulfill the requirements of the Directive.

Quality is king

Consumers require consistent and predictable end-to-end levels of service quality from Internet access services. There is no doubt that publicly available, easily comparable and comprehensive, information on Quality of Service (QoS) would contribute to more informed decision-making. A common approach to advertising Internet access offerings is needed and the focus should be on overall quality of service and reliability with headline speed being just one of a number of measurable parameters.

The time is right for policy guidelines

At its 6th meeting in Budapest in April, the CEPT/ECC Working Group on Numbering and Networks (WG NaN) adopted ECC Report 195 on 'A Minimum Set of Quality of Service Parameters and Measurement Methods for Retail Internet Access Services'. This report was developed by WG NaN’s Project Team on Technical Regulatory Issues (PT TRIS).

The main objective of this ECC Report is to provide guidelines to NRAs on the practical application of the EU’s regulations on QoS in order to allow comparisons, not only based on price and advertised maximum speed but also on the performance of the connection. This report summarises current practices by Member States and recommends converging actions towards a more consistent and harmonised approach in the future. Possible parameters, measurement configurations and other aspects are discussed.

The report defines a minimum set of technical QoS parameters (consisting of “actual minimum and average values of transmission speed” and “average values of delay, delay variation, packet loss ratio and packet error ratio”) that should be used and, to the extent possible, harmonised between CEPT countries. The report also proposes various QoS evaluation and measurement methods to assess the minimum set and recommends that relevant information should be published in a central source using a standard format to allow consumers to access information easily to compare the different market offerings.

With reference to previous experiences by Member States, this minimum set of standardised parameters is selected to become the baseline for evaluating QoS. The measurement configurations to be considered can be divided into 'in-net' measurements and 'over-the-top' measurements. The in-net measurements cover the area of influence of ISPs, while over-the-top measurements are more closely related to the end user’s environment. In addition, complementary measurement methods mirroring the perception of the end user are presented.

The report not only identifies the parameters and their values to be measured but also gives guidance on how and where (in the network) they should be measured. These are essential guidelines for ensuring comparable information on the quality of Internet access services. The presentation, form and observed values must then be presented in a standardised way so that the information is accessible to all.

In addition to the minimum set of technical parameters identified, NRAs are free to observe and evaluate more technical and/or administrative parameters as they see fit. Measurements of access to IXPs (Internet Exchange Points) are the most pragmatic and most widely used approaches to evaluating QoS at present. This ensures a fair comparison between the different ISP networks. A good indicator of the performance experienced by the end user can also be achieved using end-to-end/over-the-top measurements such as speed test tools.

Intensifying competition and service innovation requires an environment where consumers are well informed and confident in the choices they make. This report should make a significant contribution towards achieving these high level regulatory goals.

The Report is now available on the ECO Document Database here.

Freddie McBride
ECO Numbering and Networks Expert

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