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Internet speeds and what affects them


Whichever country you are in or whichever internet provider you choose, the advertised speed of the internet is never as simple as it sounds. When a car goes 70mph, it is 70mph on every road, because the speed is precise. It may spend more or less energy depending on the road surface or the incline, but the resulting speed is the same. Internet speeds are not as simple as this. They depend on a number of factors and everywhere has a limitation. So what do you need to be aware of and what questions do you need to ask?

Internet Speeds and Costs Around the World

Internet Speeds and Costs Around the World (Photo credit: dougbelshaw)

The importance of a speedy internet connection in today’s technological world is paramount to running a business. Take the internet away, and we all struggle with day-to-day operations. This never used to be the case but even the simplest of things took a lot longer. What did we all do before the email revolution? We either wrote letters, phoned someone or physically went to see them. Email has sped things up by unimaginable levels and its no myth that we are lost without it now.

So what happens when there is a scenario in-between all or nothing? There must be a benefit of a fast internet line else there would be no investment or customers associated with them. Companies who have a faster internet connection have more throughput of work, either directly or indirectly. If someone worked on a web-based document management system all day, the page load times would be far slower and affect that person’s productivity. Also, sending and receiving documents between people would cause delays and therefore the amount of time spent working.

Internet speed is crucial to keep up with or more importantly, stay ahead of your competitors, whether you realise it or not. The problem comes with actually acquiring the fast connection. Most internet service providers (ISPs) offer the same speed connections now because they share the physical infrastructure but what is less apparent is the factors that limit the speed you’ll actually experience. The distance from the telephone exchange, for instance – the further away you are, the slower your connection. This is because of friction caused in the copper wire and the longer the line, the higher the chance of a fault in the wire. Of course, this doesn’t apply to a fibre connection.

Other things that affect the performance include the quality of the link at either end – if the copper is frayed in the exchange, then you will undoubtedly experience a slower connection and the wiring in the building. Checking these are near impossible but you have slightly more chance in the building itself depending on whether you own it or are entitled to change anything.

Latency is another widespread cause of slowness. Latency is the number of hops that your internet traffic takes between source and destination. The hops are congested at either end with bigger spaced out hops in the middle. For instance, to get internet traffic (packets of information) between London and Berlin, the data could travel from Source > London exchange > Harwich > Amsterdam > Berlin > Berlin exchange. Some ISPs and countries do not have efficient backbone networks that allow a fast connection. One notorious area is Western Australia

English: Location of the Local Government Area...

English: Location of the Local Government Area City of South Perth in Perth, Western Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Western Australia is a very developed area in terms of health, wealth, education, lifestyle and economy but it has only 2 million people – akin to the tiny country of Kuwait. Australia is the same size as Europe and there is almost no settlements between Perth, WA and Sydney.The latency from Perth, the state capital of WA is a well known problem. With 7-8 hops for each packet of data, before its even left the country, it is certainly not going to help the speed.

Given its population density, the case for investment in WA or the backbone network of Australia, is very small. NBN (National Broadband Network) are on a 10 year roll out scheme for fibre throughout Australia but the ROI will be minimal after the inclusion of WA and spread over a number of years. This scenario illustrates the difficulty.

In the interim, people and businesses in WA, including in the centre of Perth have to manage their lives on internet speeds that the UK would have experienced 5-10 years ago. The contention ratio which measures the number of connections per physical line, is extremely high in WA adding to the problem. Businesses with offices in Perth and overseas struggle to put business systems in place because of the lack of infrastructure available in Perth.

Of course, there is always money to throw at the problem – some big businesses have the financial luxury to afford their own fibre links but what about the SMEs and smaller businesses? They’ll have to make-do until the end of the decade before they get their super-fast broadband.

So we’ve illustrated the issues of latency, wiring quality, distance from the exchange and contention ratios – what else affects the speed of the line? Well the obvious one is the load on the line. Internet speeds are measured on an unloaded basis – if you measure the speed before 7.30am and then again at 12 noon, the speeds will vary. This is not often apparent using tools such as www.speedtest.net but rather using metrics. By this, we mean taking a file – perhaps 1MB and downloading it between the same two points, at various intervals of the day. After a week or so, the resulting times plotted on a graph will give you a better idea.

Smaller uncontrollable factors affect the internet speed too – the weather, the equipment you use to link the connection up to devices, the device itself – all these contribute to the apparent speed of the internet. Brands such as Linksys and Cisco will provide you with a higher quality service than other providers. They also suffer less from ‘packet loss’ – meaning tools such as video streaming and VOIP (Skype etc.) will work better.

So overall, there are a number of factors that affect your internet speed. The question each individual or business needs to ask itself is: “How much am I prepared to spend for how much improvement?” For businesses, this is key – will you see a return for the investment directly or indirectly? If not, then take the matter no further. For private consumers, its a lifestyle choice – how much will you really gain from a speed increase on your internet line? Only you can answer that…

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About theithandbook

Reaching every day people and businesses with simple, effective and modern IT advice.

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