The madness of broadband speed tests

The broadband industry has falsely sold its customers on “speed”, so unsurprisingly “speed tests” have become an insane and destructive benchmark.

The madness of broadband speed tests

Just don’t break the wings off as you board!

As a child, I would go to bed, and sometimes the garage door would swing open before I went to sleep. My father had come home early from the late shift, where he was a Licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineer for British Airways. I would wait for him eagerly, and he would come upstairs, still smelling of kerosene and Swarfega, With me lying in bed, he would tell me tales of his work, and stories about the world.

Funnily enough, he never told me about British Airways breaking the wings off its aircraft. You see, he was involved in major maintenance checks on Boeing 747s. He joined BOAC in 1970, and stayed with the company for 34 years until retirement. Not once did he even hint at any desire for destructive testing for aircraft.

Now, when a manufacturer makes a brand new airplane type, it does test them to destruction. Here’s a picture I shamelessly nicked showing the Airbus A350 wing flex test.

The madness of broadband speed tests 2

I can assure you, they don’t do this in the British Airways hangars TBJ and TBK at Hatton Cross maintenance base at Heathrow. Instead they have non-destructive testing using ultrasound and X-rays to look for cracks and defects.

So what’s this all got to do with broadband? Well, we’re doing the equivalent of asking the customers to break the wings off every time they board. And even worse, our own engineers have adopted destructive testing over non-destructive testing!

Because marketing departments at ISPs refuse to define what experience that actually intend to deliver (and what is unreasonable to expect), the network engineers are left with a single and simple marketing requirement: “make it better than it was”.

When you probe them on what this means, they shrug and tell you “well, we’re selling all our products on peak speed, so we try to make the speed tests better”.

This, my friends, is bonkers.

The first problem is that the end users are conducting a denial-of-service attack on themselves and their neighbours. A speed test deliberately saturates the network, placing it under maximum possible stress.

The second problem is that ISPs themselves have adopted speed tests internally, so they are driving mad levels of cost carrying useless traffic designed to over-stress their network elements.

Then to top it all, regulators are encouraging speed tests as a key metric, deploying huge numbers of boxes hammering the broadband infrastructure even in its most fragile peak hour. The proportion of traffic coming from speed tests is non-trivial.

So what’s the alternative? Easy! Instead of destructive testing, do non-destructive testing.

We know how to X-ray a network, and the results are rather revealing. If you use the right metrics you can also model the performance limits of any application from the measurements you take. Even a speed test! So you don’t need to snap the wings off your broadband service every time you use it after all.

I think I’ll tell my daughters at their next bedtime. It’s good life guidance. Although I can imagine my 14 year old dismissing it as another embarrassing fatherly gesture and uninteresting piece of parental advice. Sometimes it takes a while to appreciate our inherited wisdom.


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