Category Archives: Inner Workings

Dirty little secrets of ISP’s

Dirty little secrets of ISP's

Has there ever been a time where you wanted a speeding ticket? Yeah, me either. But in the ISP game, speed perceived speed is king. And when you type something into your browser, you expect it to return what you ask, yes? Did you know many ISP’s step in to try and “help” you when you don’t search for the right thing? Well, we’ll talk about those and some other items big ISP’s commonly do to game the system.


Power boost, turbo mode. There are a few names for it. Bottom line, these techniques provide temporary speed increases. Comcast is one of the most prolific users of this “product”. What this enables ISP’s to do is offer temporarily faster service to their clients. This happens for two reasons: make larger files download faster and tweak the perceived speed of your internet connection.

How fast is your internet?Comcast specifically sells this to help download large files more quickly. Based on a file’s download size, PowerBoost can kick in to help it feel like it is downloading faster. However, the boost is short lived and generally is either time-bound or size bound. Meaning if you download a 50 meg file, PowerBoost kicks on and lasts for 30 seconds, just for the sake of the discussion. This also works for most speed testing websites. This “product” affects the perceived speed of the internet connection so much the SamKnows, the FCC’s broadband measurement program, specifically notes the effect that PowerBoost has on Comcast customers’ speed.


 Network Neutrality

Network neutrality is a very hot topic for internet service providers. What is basically boils down to is a fairness among providers. Not to pick on Comcast again, but an very thorough Level3 network engineer busted Comcast for allowing their Xbox 360 Xfinity app to stream to the Xbox and not count against their data caps and have a higher level of network priority than other traffic. This launched denials by Comcast, investigations by the Department of Justice, and a number of other legal and industry maneuvering.The premise behind network neutrality is that an internet service provider cannot prioritize their traffic over another providers traffic. IE, Comcast cannot say my VOIP (voice over IP) traffic is better than Skype’s and prioritize it higher. They can prioritize VOIP traffic in general to provide a better quality of service for all users of all services, not just their own. This is still a bit of the wild west mentality. Luckily, most providers do not push the network neutrality envelope too much. Yet. That we know of.


 An Ongoing Topic

Every few months, a new hot topic rears up so we will do our best to cover those big incidents and help explain them in layman’s terms. You can follow all of these dirty little secret posts here. And if you hear any rumors and feel like you’ve got a dirty little secret about your ISP, let us know. Like our next series: can your ISP read your email?

Leave a comment

Quality Versus Quantity in an Internet Provider

Quality Versus Quantity in an Internet Provider

The age old question, which is better? It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about wine, kids, or seat belts. Some times, you might crave that jug or box of wine that you only spent $6 on for a gallon. Other nights may require one $50 bottle. Seat belts, however, I’d rather have one great seat belt in my seat than 3 seat belts that are just so-so.

Internet is much the same way. People have different needs when it comes to their internet and if they’d like to have quality versus quantity. A decent analogy for the internet is the quantity is how much internet you can get (your speed) whereas quality is measured in latency, or the time it takes two systems to communicate.

Quantity is easy to measure. And easy to sell. Here’s an example of an ad from Charter:

Notice the first thing they talk about is “Get the Nation’s Fastest Internet” and “Speeds up to 30 Mbps”. Online speed tests are prevalent nowadays so measuring that claim is pretty easy. Charter is what we call a quantity ISP. They provide lots of cheap bandwidth. They are a great provider for households who down extreme amounts of data online, such as people running peer-to-peer file sharing or those who watch multiple HD Netflix movies per day. However, this quantity comes at the price of quality.

Charter, being a cable company, has their network built as something called a star network. They bring in a single pipe to feed a neighborhood and all the neighbors get fed off of that one pipe. Generally, this is why you can get great speeds at 3am but not 8pm. You’re sharing your bandwidth with all of your neighbors. Now your connection to the little green pedestal in your neighbors yard a few houses down is great. But plug in 2 dozen neighbors in the same pedestal sharing one line out and you get some congestion. More congestion = bad performance. As the network becomes more congested, latency gets even worse. As a point of reference, here is a set of pings, a tool that measures latency, from a Charter connection:

Averages about 184 ms, or about 1/5th of a second. For us humans, that sounds amazingly fast. But in computer time, that is not quite an eternity, but close. For comparison, here is set of pings from one of our servers inside our network, making this very similar to what one of our customers would experience:

Notice our ping time averages 18ms, 10 times better than that of Charter taken at the same time during the evening. What this means to our customers is that the latency they experience while visiting most websites is incredibly fast. We won’t get into any of the technical details here (like TCP restransmission and its terrible effects on performance), but know that the worse your latency, the worse your internet experience will be. Imagine having 50 gallons of hot water (lots of quantity) to take a nice relaxing shower and having no pressure to deliver it (no quality).

1 Comment

What is the internet?

What is the internet?

Silly question, I know. But most people don’t actually know what the internet truly is. Its more than just Facebook or Netflix. Comcast and Qwest aren’t the internet.

The simplest definition of the internet is that it is a collection of computer networks tied together. Imagine that someone in Florence had a big network of computers and servers and they wanted to be able to connect with a business in Newport to exchange information. They would need a physical connection put in place up the highway to tie in the two computer networks. At that point, the two networks would be able to talk to each other just like they were next door neighbors.

Now take that example, and image hundreds of thousands of those little networks all tied together. Generally, these networks are tied together by their internet service provider. Acme Co. uses BigISP in downtown Portland for internet. Acme has a connection into BigISP. BigISP then has relationships with other ISP’s which is commonly referred to as peering. Now not all ISP’s are next door neighbors and can afford to build a cable from their part of the city to the other. So rather than build their own connection, ISP’s also purchase “transit” from third party providers. That way BigISP in Portland doesn’t have to build their own cable from Portland to Des Monies, Iowa.

Peering (two neighbors connecting themselves for free or low cost) and transit (two networks far a part paying a third party) are the fundamental building blocks of how computer networks tie together. In a real world example, some of you may remember a few months back there was a big dust up between Comcast and Level3 about delivering Netflix movies to Comcast internet users. This centered solely around the peering relationship between Comcast and Level3. Comcast has all the customers, but they need to get those customers to the internet. Netflix pays Level3 for transit to deliver their product and Level3 peers with Comcast to bring it into our homes.

Surprising, isn’t it? Who knew that’s how the internet really works? Aside from us nerdy folk…

Leave a comment