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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).

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