Why is my internet connection slow and unstable even when my internet speed is high?
By Vijay Sivaraman for The Conversation
Of the 8.2 million homes and businesses active on Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) in July 2021, 77% would now subscribe to a broadband plan offering speeds of at least 50 megabits per second (Mbps).
This is more than enough to meet the needs of a typical household when it comes to video streaming (high definition resolution Netflix, for example, uses around 3 Mbps and ultra-high definition around 12 Mbps), video conferencing (2 -3 Mbps), gaming (less than 1 Mbps) and web browsing.
So why do we still experience video freezes, game lag spikes, and conference call stuttering? The problem is not speed, but other factors such as latency and loss, which are unrelated to speed.
For over three decades, we’ve been conditioned to think of broadband in terms of Mbps. This made sense when we had dial-up internet access, where web pages took several seconds to load, and when DSL lines couldn’t support more than one video stream at a time.
But once speeds approach 100 Mbps and beyond, studies from the Broadband Forum and others show that further increases are largely unnoticed by users.
Yet Australian consumers fear they will be caught short of broadband speed. Over half a million Australians switched to plans offering more than 250 Mbps in the March 2021 quarter. Indeed, we collectively purchased around 410 terabits per second (Tbps) on our speed plans, while that actual usage peaks at 23Tbps. This suggests that we collectively use less than 6% of the speed we pay for!
Contrary to our need for speed, our time online has increased dramatically. According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), the average Australian household consumed 355 gigabytes of data in December 2020, a 59% increase from the previous year.
Our use of the Internet is like a marathon runner gradually adding more and more kilometers to his training distances, rather than a sprinter reaching higher and higher top speeds. So it doesn’t make much sense to judge our multi-hour marathon of video streaming, gaming, and conferencing by running a connection speed test that’s a 5-10 second sprint.
What do we really need broadband?
So what do we need our broadband for a good streaming, gaming or conferencing experience? A connection that offers low and relatively constant latency (the time it takes to move data packets from the server to your home) and loss (the proportion of data packets lost in transit).
These factors in turn depend on how your Internet service provider (ISP) has designed and tuned their network.
To reduce latency, your ISP can deploy local caches that store a copy of the videos you want to watch, and local game servers to host your favorite esports titles, reducing the need for long distance transport. They can also provide good routing paths to servers, thus avoiding poor quality or congested links.
To manage losses, ISPs “shape” their traffic by temporarily holding packets in buffers to smooth out transient load peaks. But there’s a natural trade-off here: too much smoothing holds packets back, resulting in spikes in latency that cause missed shots in games and stuttering in conferences. On the other hand, too weak smoothing causes buffer overflows and packet loss, which slows down downloads.
ISPs must therefore tune their network to balance performance between different applications. But with ACCC’s Measuring Broadband Australia (MBA) program primarily focused on speed testing, and with a 1% margin separating the top three ISPs keen to claim the top spot, we are inadvertently pushing ISPs to optimize their network for speed, rather than for other factors.
This is a detrimental outcome for users, as we don’t really have the need for speed that we think we have.
How can we do better?
An alternative approach is possible. With the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) technology, it is now becoming possible to analyze network traffic flows to assess user experience taking into account applications.
For example, AI engines trained on the model of retrieving video “chunks” from on-demand streams such as Netflix and live streams such as Twitch can infer whether they are playing at the best available resolution and without freezing.
Likewise, AI engines can analyze traffic throughout the various stages of games such as CounterStrike, Call of Duty, or Dota2 to track issues like lag spikes. And they can detect video conferencing stutters and dropouts by analyzing traffic on Zoom, Teams, and other platforms.
Australia has made significant public investments in a national broadband infrastructure that is now well equipped to deliver more than adequate speed to citizens, provided it operates as efficiently as possible.
(The author is Professor of Telecommunications and Internet Technologies, UNSW.)