Six things to demand from your Internet Service Provider

published Nov 01, 2007, last modified Jul 26, 2015

In the world of Internet service advertising, we're perpetually bombarded with ads that, above all, extol the "virtues of a faster Internet experience". Don't fall into the trap -- here are six aspects you should evaluate beyond the "numbers" in your current or future Internet contract:

  • Real speed
  • Guaranteed bandwidth
  • Unfiltered, unthrottled service
  • Reliability and quality of service
  • Access from the outside world
  • Privacy, neutrality and censorship
Each and every one of these aspects can make or break the honeymoon with your ISP. Each matter independently, and once you've done a little research on what your ISP of choice is doing to grant (or deny) them to you, you'll be in a position to make a much more informed decision.

Bandwidth is not speed. Latency is.

If you are anything like the next person, by now you've been led to believe that your Internet experience is determined by bandwidth. That's bullshit. Bandwidth is hoy many bytes you can download per second -- and nothing more.

Anything above 500 kbits per second guarantees enough speed to make Web surfing snappy -- if, and only if, the latency of your connection is low enough. Becaus, you see, latency is key -- it's the time your computer takes to initially communications with Web (or other types of Internet) servers.

What happens when you click on a link

After you click on a hyperlink, your Web browser (more or less) goes through the following steps:

  1. It connects your computer to a Web server and requests a Web page.
  2. It receives the response, starts processing it and (in parallel) starts other requests -- to get the images, videos, styles and scripts that actually form the page. But only four of those at a time.
If each of those steps can be started in, say, 50 milliseconds, you're golden -- the page more or less snaps in front of your eyes. But if they take over a second each... well, let's say you have a problem because, for the average Web page, you will never see it settle down before ten or so seconds since your last click.

What happens when you play games over the Internet

Let's imagine for a moment that you're playing Unreal Tournament, or any other fast-paced first person shooter kinda game. Just blink once -- boom, you're dead. That's how long it takes for someone to shoot your neck and rip your head off.

A blink of an eye is, literally, 25 milliseconds. Not a problem for wireless or wired local networks -- because the bullets traveling through the network take less than two milliseconds to get eaten by your enemies. But if you're gaming through an Internet connection and your enemy is sitting just 200 milliseconds "away", you're going to have real trouble making any kills.

Sure, modern games incorporate mechanisms that attempt to compensate for that latency problem. But they only go so far.

What determines latency

Latency is determined by two factors:

  1. The physical distance of the route that information takes through the Internet. Not a really big hurdle, since information travels at a rather close factor to the speed of light.
  2. The time each "hop" (Internet router) takes to process and forward that information to the next hop.
You can verify this yourself. Open a command line (cmd.exe on Windows, konsole or gnome-terminal on Linux) and type (on Windows) tracert (on Linux, substitute tracert for traceroute). You'll see a table grow: each row is a hop, and the three columns on the right side are the times, in milliseconds, that information took to reach that hop. The last row will contain the final destination's latency measurement. You can substitute for your favorite Web site's address or your gaming friend's IP address.

So latency is key -- now you know that.  Next up: how much bandwidth you're really getting?

Do you really get guaranteed bandwidth?

Most ISPs advertise monstrous "speeds" (bandwidths) on the order of 5 MBps, 10 MBps or even 20 MBps. What they don't tell you is that they're delivering that speed while (in effect, they're) sharing the same speed to your neighbors.

In other words, they're overselling. If you are downloading a big file, and no one on your neighborhood is, you'll see the download rate you paid for. But if all of your neighbors are doing the same (and, hey, after all, isn't that what everyone paid for?) you'll see your download rate divided by a rather large factor.

Usually, ISPs alter how much bandwidth they allocate for different geographic zones based on the time of day. During the day, they'll give preference to business and corporate zones, while tilting the scale toward residential zones during the night. You'll see this effect once you've signed up with an ISP, but you can only really verify the real impact on peak usage times.

Throttling and filtering: makes important services impossible

Did you get your "blazing fast" Internet connection just to browse the Web and chat over MSN? If you're anything like the 23% of delinquents in the U.S. (we'll call them filesharers during the rest of the article, because their crime exists only as a consequence of of corporate greed), I bet you didn't.

I bet you got a fast Internet connection because you wanted to download movies. Or listen to music. Or download a big honkin' new Linux distribution. In a decent amout of time, of course.

So what methods do people use to download big files?

Only a minority of Internet traffic actually consists of Web page surfing and other light services such as voice, video and text conferencing. The bulk of traffic consists of what people are actually using the Internet for:

We don't need to extol the virtues of YouTube here. Suffice it to say that, if you haven't watched a YouTube video, you were most likely on suspended animation since the nineties.

How and why ISPs are messing with your Internet service

What we do need to mention is that most contemporary ISPs are crippling BitTorrent, Direct Connect and alikes. What they do to cripple is technically called traffic shaping, and the methods they use range from rather sneaky to outright illegal. The reasons they're doing it are rather obvious:

  1. Big ISPs are Big Telco Business, and Big Telco is in bed with Big Media (those other obsolete dinosaurs whose business model went AWOL ten years ago with the advent of Napster and parallel video technologies).
  2. Big ISPs have been overselling their bandwidth for a long time, and when people actually try to use their bandwidth to the fullest extent, their lie shows.
ISPs resort to all sorts of things you wouldn't do on your best friend or neighbor, such as inspecting the contents of your traffic leaving and reaching your computer, and outright breaking into your Internet communications. Some eagerly collaborate with, and happily give your name and address to Big Media, so they can deliver threatening lawsuits right on your front porch, and put you in jail while they sip champagne. Let's not even get into the ethical aspects of ISPs that sell something to you, then intentionally cripple it.

How to detect this

So, how does this "problem" manifest itself? Easy:

  • Download a very big file from a server nearby you, and measure how fast it goes.
  • At the same time, use BitTorrent to download another very big file with lots of peers, simultaneously.
If you see BitTorrent go slowly compared to the big file download -- or, for that matter, compared to the bandwidth you're supposedly paying for -- it's very, very obvious your ISP is slowing BitTorrent down.

Techniques to get around these unethical attempts to cheat on you are a dime a dozen, but you're better off just switching to an honest ISP. After all, would you pay for 20 MB/s to download a movie in one day, or would you pay for 5 MB/s to download a movie in 2 hours?

So now you know two big "dirty little secrets" of Big Telco.  Next up: reliability, full service and privacy.

Reliability and quality of service: more important than you think.

What would you rather have? A 20 MB/s service that goes down fifteen minutes a day, or a 10 MB/s service that goes down fifteen minutes a year?

It all depends on:

  • your willigness to hold on to a customer support call for hours
  • your tolerance for poor service
On this topic, I'm just gonna say that I'd very much rather spend the same money on an Internet link that's rated at half the "speed", if it'll save me tons of support calls. Because we all know that everyone in the tech support industry is forced by script to lie through their teeth, overworked and jaded.

In fact, I'd rather spend those hours making money or something else that caters to my interests. What about you?

Access from the outside world -- the key to use many useful (and free) services

There are two classes of Internet service providers:

  • those that let your computer play first-class citizen on the Internet, and
  • those that let your computer play on a playpen as a child.
You can roughly divide those classes along one big fat line that divides your service between first-rate and second-rate: whether you get a public Internet address or not. For example: I have a public Internet address, while my brother doesn't. Other ISPs will give you a public Internet address, but will block/filter access to your computer from the outside world (usually in the name of "security") -- let's lump them in the same category of second-rate services.

The consequences of having a first-rate service?

  1. I can work anywhere in the world. If I have Net access, I can connect to my computer's screen and operate it via remote control. It's incredibly handy when you need to look at something you left open.
  2. I can fetch files from my computer. Whenever I need a song or a picture I have at home, I can get it -- using my Palm handheld or any desktop computer.
  3. I can use peer-to-peer applications with zero configuration. No need for UPnP, router reconfiguration or other hacks. If the bulb in my cable modem is blinking, I'm game.
  4. I can start, host and control a network game such as Unreal Tournament. In contrast, my brother must obligatorily connect and can't host games.
  5. I can diagnose problems in my computer anywhere, anytime (through Secure Shell).
  6. I can broadcast music from my computer in real-time. No need to fruitlessly search for my music on the radio anymore.
None of those advantages are available to you if your computer doesn't get a public IP address. Or if your Internet service provider forcefully blocks requests for those services from reaching your computer.

Privacy, neutrality and censorship. Is your provider snooping and breaking your information?

No ISP will admit it, but off the top of my head, I've heard at least the following scandals (whose perpetrators shall remain nameless):

  • Replacing text on Web pages you visit.
  • Intentionally breaking certain Web pages (or, even worse, competitors').
  • Reading your e-mail and investigating what you view on the Web.
  • Ratting file sharers out to Big Media.
  • Leaking customer information and Internet usage habits to third parties or onto the Web.
  • Hijacking Web pages to insert extra advertising.
  • Terminating your service (or issuing C&Ds to you) because of critical comments.
  • Impersonating Internet servers to obtain "evidence" (hack you).
Scary, scary behavior indeed. Unfortunately, this is something you just cna't gloss over and handwave away, in light of the fact that most of the details of your life will eventually travel down that big fat pipe you'll be getting. The days of the ethical, neutral and reliable middleman are gone, and you have no reason to believe they will come again, much less trust the middleman anymore.

I know past behavior is a lousy predictor of the future, but if I were you, I would steer clear of companies that have engaged in these practices, the same way you would steer clear of a known burglar on the street.

You should also stay away from any ISP who doesn't explicitly endorse Net Neutrality. Those thugs will be the first ones to start breaking Web sites that don't "pay up" to them for faster service. They're no different from your local "protection" racketeer.

In summary

Bandwidth isn't everything. In fact, it's only a sliver of the big pie of issues you should be thinking before you commit to a monthly contract with an ISP. Remember them:

  • Real speed
  • Guaranteed bandwidth
  • Unfiltered, unthrottled service
  • Reliability and quality of service
  • Access from the outside world
  • Privacy, neutrality and censorship
Your favorite search engine is your friend: before getting hitched to any ISP, do your homework and "Google it up" in association with online scandals.

...and don't ever sign any contracts uninformed.