Google wants to make the web faster

Hurrah! Who can argue with such a noble cause?

Google’s new Speed site points to tools and techniques designers and coders can use to make web services and websites more efficient and effective, especially over limited bandwidth and high latency connections.

But as many agree, it’s not just the code that needs tweaking. It’s the pipes that need widening. Many agree that broadband provisioning for all citizens is what makes most sense when talking about a more pervasive web and making the world a better place.

Net Neutrality: Economics and implications for ICT4Peace and ODR

A post on Lirneasia prompted some thought on the linkages between Net Neutrality and peacebuilding, especially the use of the web and Internet for conflict transformation. Lirneasia’s post deals with Obama’s and McCain’s stance on the issue of Net Neutrality, with Chanuka making the point that while theoretically desirable, Net Neutrality has its own significant costs.

A complementary article posted earlier on Lirneasia’s site itself points to an approach by Vint Cerf that provides useful food for thought on the Net Neutrality debate. Cerf’s agrees that broadband networks need to be managed, but he differs with Chanuka (and perhaps Lirneasia) on how. As opposed to usage based billing, Cerf proposes a transmission rate cap where users can “purchase access to the Internet at a given minimum data rate and be free to transfer data at at least up to that rate in any way they wish.” (Cerf’s original post on Google which fleshes this idea out can be read here). 

My concern here is with the appropriation of the Net Neutrality debate by ISPs – both State and Private – under repressive regimes to covertly clamp down on communications used by human rights defenders and peace activists. 

For example, I have been reliably told, though not verified, that a well-known ISP in Sri Lanka (not SLT) is blocking P2P traffic, including Skype. This creates significant problems for some HR org’s and activists on it who use Skype to communicate and collaborate securely. Ironically, some actually switched over to this ISP from SLT because they thought it afforded greater security and Quality of Service. EFF’s Switzerland tool, if Lirneasia or any other organisation ever get around to using it in SL, may offer some insight in this regard.

The point is quite simply this – net neutrality is not just about the minimum or maximum transmission rates, but about the way IP packets on a broadband pipe are managed. If ISPs, under their own misguided policies or those covertly imposed by a repressive regime begin to selectively prioritise and monitor traffic on their networks, it forces those who use the Internet for highly sensitive communications and advocacy to re-think the tools and services they access, and how. And sometimes, there’s no other option for tools used by HR defenders – as in the case of Skype. Despite recent concerns over privacy, there is no other encrypted, free and widely used VOIP tool. And once you start going down this path, it soon becomes clear that traffic discrimination can selectively target other tools, web services and platforms used by HR defenders against a regime to capture, generate, disseminate and archive inconvenient truths – such as human rights abuses. This includes video streaming sites like YouTube.

A final word on economics. As Ars Technica notes,

As unattended apps like P2P and network backup utilities tie up a portion of bandwidth for ever longer periods of time, the old solutions aren’t working as well and congestion is one result. Cerf’s idea would take us back to the old “circuit-switched” days in the sense that each Internet user would instead get a guaranteed line with a minimum guaranteed rate at all times. This would answer consumer complaints about “not getting what I paid for,” but would cost ISPs more cash.

Emphasis mine. Lirneasia’s research in Sri Lanka suggest deplorable QoS across all “broadband” ISPs. Not a single ISP in Sri Lanka guarantees minimum transmission speeds and often advertise speeds that paying customers simply don’t get, or even come close to. Convincing them to upgrade their networks to go down the path Cerf suggest may be impossible, given how enticing the economics of a metered data transmission model looks and sounds, on paper. 

The problem of course is that this doesn’t address the problem of pissant data rates for all. A pay-for-megabyte model will see that though the heaviest users pay up (corporate consumers) and the economic disincentive for individuals to become high volume users will simply not be enough to improve transmission speeds (particularly if, as I suspect, our ISPs will do little or nothing to improve network capacity). The net result will quite simply be more or less the same old, glacial data transfer rates which will anger even more those who can are willing to pay more (like myself) for better connectivity. 

There’s one ISP in the UK offering something I’ve not seen anywhere else – a meaningful IP traffic prioritisation / management plan. It’s from Plusnet. Check it out here. Their explanation uses the same metaphor as Chanuka uses in his Lirneasia post,

Think of it this way, the broadband network is like a motorway. When the traffic is light, all vehicles can move at the national speed-limit. Some lanes of the motorway have been reserved for important traffic, such as buses or emergency vehicles. During rush hour, most vehicles are forced to slow down. However, the traffic on the reserved lanes can continue to travel at their full speed.

Google itself has promised a tool that helps end-users / consumers to see how ISPs manage traffic. No date for the release of the tool, but a more user friendly Switzerland or Google’s tool would be a huge asset for those of us who use the Internet for peacebuilding and ODR, if only to see which ISP we should avoid.

Update – 5 September 2008

Comcast, the cable operator and ISP in the US at the centre of the Net Neutrality debate, has sued the FCC over a decision it made on Comcast’s network management techniques. Ars Technica has the story here.

Patriotism and broadband in Sri Lanka

`Our initial decision to partner with Reliance Globalcom of the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group to extend the Falcon cable segment from Trivandrum to Colombo was in no small measure motivated by patriotism,` Lanka Bell Managing Director Prasad Samarasinghe said. 

Quote taken from a news report on Lanka Bell’s 3 billion rupee investment to help Sri Lankans surf the web faster.

Now what the devil does patriotism have to do with facilitating broadband connectivity? This imprecise and nonsensical use of language is very telling in a context where telecoms companies, amongst some of the largest corporate entities in Sri Lanka and most valued / traded in the Colombo bourse, regularly bend over backwards to please a government unafraid to tout its own fire brand definition of patriotism. 

However, strip away the rodomontade of the press release and this development is very interesting / exciting. Wonder what offerings Lanka Bell will provide using this new found capacity and more importantly, how the other telcos will respond. I’m sticking with SLT for the moment – it may be annoyingly slow, but I suspect once the lumbering beast starts to move, we’ll see far better data transfer rates and services than the pissant “broadband” we tolerate today.

Growth of mobiles and ICTs in the Asia Pacific region

The UNESCAP 2007 Statistical Yearbook for Asia and the Pacific has some interesting figures on the growth of ICTs in general and mobile phone telephony in particular in the region.

Mobile phones per capita

Sri Lanka has more mobile phone subscribers per 100 population than Pakistan and India. Other interesting statistics include:

  • Mobile phone growth is stifling fixed line growth across the region, but particularly in low income countries, SAARC member countries and least developed countries in the region (e.g. 97% of all phones in Cambodia are mobiles)
  • Internet use is growing, though the statistics don’t register wireless broadband internet access (via mobiles).
  • The Maldives, unsurprisingly, has the highest number of cellular subscriber per 100 population with Sri Lanka coming in second in South Asia.
  • SAARC member states and least developed countries show the highest growth for mobile phone subscribers in the Asian and Pacific country / area groupings noted in the report. 

Not sure why in the report Sri Lanka doesn’t register any growth in (wired) broadband subscribers from 2004 – 2006, though it does show an increase in the number of Internet users. I thought SLT alone would have given out a fair number of ADSL subscriptions over the past two years.

It will be interesting to see the data that comes in for 2007 / 2008 on how the introduction and growing usage of wireless broadband connectivity (3G and WiMax) over mobiles and PCs impacts these figures.

For me, these stats are vital determinants in favour of strengthening and promoting citizen journalism and user generated content in the region.

The State of “Broadband” in Sri Lanka – Take 1

Lirneasia’s come out with preliminary test results of the Quality of Service of three of the most widely used broadband packages in Sri Lanka, SLT Office (2 Mbps / 512 kbps), SLT Home (512 kbps / 128 kbps) and Dialog (2 Mbps / 512 kbps). (With Dialog, I’m not sure what exactly they tested (Dynamic or Static IP package) and whether this makes a difference.)

I’ve touched base with Lirneasia off and on broadband speeds in Sri Lanka as well as in other countries and it’s good to finally see a rigorous, impartial and insightful study in this vexed and vexing issue.

The preliminary results of the survey are available here. For me the greatest eye-opener was the lack of any discernible difference between the SLT Home and Business packages. Actually, it’s what I suspected for a long time after upgrading from the Home to the Business package around a year ago at a significant difference in cost monthly for no appreciable improvement in the quality of data transfers I got on average.

The notice of the presentation that Lirneasia sent around had two representatives from SLT and Dialog who were supposed to be on the panel as respondents, but the post on the event does not record their participation or their reactions and responses.

I have little experience with Dialog’s broadband solutions save for marketing campaigns really did jump the gun on promising connectivity that their implementation of Wimax simply could not match. Incidentally however, the best downloads I’ve got in Sri Lanka have been at Kandalama Hotel which I believe is on some sort of Dialog wireless connection (wimax or HSPA) late last year. I’ve never even come close to those speeds using ADSL or HSPA at any time of day on any day.

It will be interesting to see future iterations of this survey that look into HSDPA / HSPA solutions from SLT / Mobitel and Dialog. Having got a HSPA 3.5G connection from Mobitel a while ago, I’m happy to report that I am far more happy with the QoS on it than with my Business ADSL connection (just tested the download rate and it’s 93.3kbps at 5.30pm on a Wednesday. Would have compared to SLT ADSL, but see below). I’ve not run any robust tests, but from using it quite a bit when I’m travelling and also at peak time, the speeds I get for uploads and downloads are again certainly not near to what’s advertised or what the Mobitel Sales Rep told me they would be, but are a damn sight better than ADSL.

Office got a Dialog HSDPA connection (it’s the same Huawei USB modem as mine) for our mobile citizen journlism work with Vikalpa in particular, yet they seem far less happy with it than I am with mine from Mobitel.

But at the end of the day, wireless connectivity depends on the same backend network infrastructure as wired / ADSL connections, which raises the question as to just why the Mobitel HSPA QoS is markedly better than SLT ADSL connectivity. Perhaps it is an issue of saturation?

It may be just coincidence, but I’ve also noticed far more ADSL outages in the past two weeks. My ADSL connection in Nugegoda has got very unreliable and at the time of writing this, ADSL services are out for Colombo 7, Wellawatte and some other areas in Colombo. Office tells me that this now happens quite regularly. Either SLT is upgrading something somewhere or their QoS is just getting worse. Hope it is the former.

The picture I get from all this is that things are not as bad as I assumed they would be. However, that’s small comfort for those of us who have been paying significant more for an SLT ADSL package for a QoS that’s overall no better than or equal to a Home package.  For my work, what’s revealing from these preliminary results is that there is really no option at present than to stick with my ADSL connection (I may downgrade back to the Home package) and my HSPA connection, for which I pay a small fortune at the end of the month. Is it too much to really expect telcos to provide what they promise? And when the final results are published, I wonder whether consumers can take legal action against telcos for not providing what they promise and actually state in their marketing campaigns?

A final thanks to Chanuka from Lirneasia who has kindly included my name in his presentation. Lirneasia’s work (in particular their BOP research, on which I have still to write on in this blog) has helped me more than any other organisation to justify my on-going work with citizen journalism and new media as a means through which one can strengthen democratic governance, peace and fundamental rights. Years ago I began work on ICT4Peace with the hunch that mobile devices / phones would change the way in which citizens communicate with governance and governance mechanisms in the swabhasha, and that wireless internet access / cloud computing and diminishing costs of access would make them producers of content instead of passive recipients and consumers of content dished out to them by e-government initiatives with a downstream emphasis. It’s heartening to see research from Lirneasia supporting the validity of these early assumptions and my continuing work in ICT and peacebuilding.

Now if I only could just bloody get a decent connection to download that gargantuan Vista Service Pack…

“Broadband” in Sri Lanka – Where the gremlins reside

ADSL

That’s a photo of where I get my SLT ADSL from. It chokes. It splutters. It dies.

But just when I was about to write this post and in the background decided to download a Top Gear episode, it magically just sprang to life.

Downloads

219Kb/s sustained for 20 minutes. Phew.

It’s not the first time my ADSL connection, of its own accord, decided to live up to what it is advertised as. Or at least something closer to it than the pissant data rate I usually get on it.

It was partly because my ADSL connection was so bad (and I’m on a business package) that I spent a small fortune and bought a HSPA 3G modem with Mobitel. Average speeds on it are much better than ADSL. And when ADSL simply gives up and dies during peak times, the 3G connection just keeps going.

What’s not so great is the measly 1.5Gb combined upload plus download package I’m on. Honestly, I usually go through that kind of data a day using my ADSL when I’m doing some multimedia work on the web.

The fact is, I pay a ridiculous amount of money a month for broadband packages that simply don’t work as advertised.  And that, whichever way you cut it, is just bull shit. The same bull shit one encounters on SLT’s broadband helpline, which asks to download an old Eudora programme from http://www.sltnet.lk and then says that if the speeds are ok from there, everything else is ok. Anything international, and apparently the copper in my Japanese junction box becomes the problem. Or some virus.

When I tell them I am on a Mac, the fun starts:

“Yes yes. Apple very good. But must be something running on background no? You have virus? No? Ah, no virus on Apple. Yes yes. Not like XP no? Ha ha. Did you try opening Eudora.exe? No, must work no? No? Not work? Did you click? Mac no – yes. Very good Apple. No exe. Yes. Ha ha. I forgot. Sorry. Must be with system then. Drivers? Did you restart? Ah. Ok. Did you restart? Ah. Ok. [Pause] Where you buy? Go ask? SLT ADSL no problem. Thank you.”

As for Dialog, the less said the better, though one does notice that they’ve changed their marketing spiel to describe Wimax speeds that now go as “up to {whatever speed}” in their recent ads.

Hopefully Lirneasia’s got some more answers to these issues.  Can’t wait.

Mobitel 3.5G HSPA + Huawei E220 USB modem on Leopard – Download speeds and experience

Repeated calls to Dialog’s WiMax call centre, meeting them face to face at the Crescat Lobby in December and repeated SMS’s to the General Manager of Marketing failed to get me a Dialog WiMax connection that worked as promised. Clearly, Dialog is too busy giving “wings to equality” to care too much about what must surely be one of the most lackadaisical and essentially useless marketing and customer care divisions amongst telcos in Sri Lanka.

Mobitel

Thought of going with Mobitel’s 3.5G HSPA service today. Walked in at around 10.30am to their shop on Duplication Road with my Macbook Pro and asked them whether the Huawei  E220 USB modem they offered (approx. SLR 22,000 – why are they so damn expensive?) was compatible with it. By the looks on their faces, it was evident that this was first time someone had asked them this question. To cut a long story short, I was told that someone, somewhere at SLT had figured out a way to get it to work (Huawei doesn’t support OS X officially) and that the salesperson I spoke to, a very amicable and helpful bloke, would get back to me with details of it on Monday.

Came home, did a Google search and found this page (link updated on 2nd September 2008 as the earlier one was dysfunctional)  which gave all the details and links I needed to get the E220 fired up on OS X 1.05 Leopard.

Second trip to Mobitel at around 4.30pm lasted around half an hour, in which time I was able to get my 3.5G HSPA connection with a minimum of fuss. My N.I.C was required in addition to billing proof, that I said should be in their system since I am an SLT subscriber as well as an SLT ADSL user. Clearly, their databases aren’t linked. Anyway, drove home, plugged the Huawei USB modem into my MBP, followed the instructions here and was in around 3 minutes flat connected to the internet.

So here are the results of the first test using CNET’s Download Meter Speed Test.

Mobitel 3.5G HSPA – 219.4kbps
SLT ADSL Business Package – 145.3kbps 

Both tests were conducted back to back at around 6.20pm.

Admittedly, this is far lower than what the salesperson told me when I specifically asked him what the real speeds I should expect were. On my connection, which is a 1.5Mbps downlink and 384kbps uplink, he said actual speeds would be around 500 – 600kbps down and 384kbps up.

Haven’t tested upload speeds yet, but it’s been my experience with my SLT ADSL Business Package that uploading happens at a much faster sustained throughput than downloads.

With a measly 1.5Gb for combined uploads and downloads, I’ll still have to use SLT ADSL for the bulk of my media and advocacy work on the web and internet, but the HSPA connection does offer the advantage of higher upload speeds and the ability to connect to the web at “broadband” speeds even when the lights go off (I have a wireless router at home).

Would be great to hear the experience of anyone else out there who uses Mobitel’s HSPA either through their mobile or though a USB modem.

One final link for OS X users. If you get Mobitel’s HSPA connection or Dialog’s HSDPA mobile broadband on a Mac, get CheetahWatch. It’s brilliant.

UPDATE

To set up the Huawei modem under Debian / LINUX check out the post here.