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Internet speed is not a subjective measurement

This is precisely the kind of collusion that leads to people being stuck with the same old shifty service providers. We said “shifty.” With an ‘F.’

The Longmont Compass, a local news source for Longmont, CO residents, pointed out that the fastest Internet service provider (ISP) in the region up and vanished.

Rather than a hard luck tale of an ambitious service provider whose reach exceeded its grasp, though, the truth is a much nastier.

NextLight Municipal Broadband is very much alive and well. Anyone researching local Internet options to find the fastest option in Longmont, though, might never know it. Despite the fact that they are just that: The fastest option in town. By a wide margin.

It matters to Ting Internet for obvious reasons.

In one of our earliest Ting Internet moves, we acquired a local ISP in Charlottesville, VA. By virtue, we ranked second in the list for the state of Virginia. Since the acquisition, we’ve been investing in the network and have boosted overall local average speeds by offering gigabit fiber access to more and more households and businesses. Rather than closing the gap, though, we’ve disappeared, according to Speedtest.net.

If you’ve ever researched Internet speeds, you’ve almost certainly landed on the connection speed test site Speedtest.net, which is owned by Ookla. It has been a go-to source for Internet speed information. These recent changes to the way ISPs are ranked (please read on) mean the results are so heavily weighted toward the conglomerates as to be effectively useless for anyone looking to make an informed choice. They benefit no one but the big, nationwide providers.

What happened?

Ookla is, as the author of the Longmont Compass article rightly points out, a private entity whose ultimate purpose is to make money. That’s cool. It’s also an information source that has become an authority and that presents itself as independent. That and the making money part are exceptionally hard to balance. At present, they’re not doing a very good job of it.

The real issue here is not that a private enterprise is trying to make money. It’s that Internet connection speed in megabits per second (Mbps) is a pure measurement. A connection is either fast or it’s not. It’s not subjective. Speedtest.net is not presenting this information, this raw measurement, fairly or accurately.

“If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.” So said the noted British economist Ronald Coase. It’s exactly what’s happening here.

From the awards and ranking methodology explanation on Speedtest.net:

“For a given location – either nationwide or a given state or city – we aim to include only ISPs or mobile networks that provide service for a significant number of customers in that geographic area… to be included in a given geographic area, an ISP or mobile network must meet a minimum threshold based on the number of unique devices testing each day over a six month period.”

Even established independent local ISPs (AKA the only thing that seems to stand between customers and a total conglomerate oligopoly) have virtually no chance of ranking.

Further:

“While many ISPs offer various service tiers, our aim is to show who is fastest by showing the top performance achieved by each ISP. To do so, we calculate the 90th percentile download performance, or Top 10%, for each ISP’s Speedtest results.”

In other words, not only are these ranking exclusionary, they’re also not at all representative of what an average person can actually expect.

Free market principles might fix it: If the information you’re providing is incorrect, you’re not a very reliable information source after all. Much less “The Global Standard in Internet Metrics.”

It’s never that simple though. More likely, a lot of people who think they’re doing their due diligence before choosing a service provider will get a bum steer.

In short, it just kinda sucks.

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