Testing regional broadband

commentary Regional areas are finally getiing a break on broadband services, but how do you measure the quality of service?Compared to the major cities, the regional areas of Australia often get the short end of the stick when it comes to infrastructure.



commentary Regional areas are finally getiing a break on broadband services, but how do you measure the quality of service?

Compared to the major cities, the regional areas of Australia often get the short end of the stick when it comes to infrastructure. One of the more apparent deficiencies is the IT infrastructure -- while city dwellers now take our broadband Internet connection for granted, most regional areas make do with modem.

Well I for one would be enormously stroppy if I had to go back to glacial modem speeds after the luxury of my cable broadband. The federal government, well the Department for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA) to be precise, is in the process of correcting this imbalance.

DCITA is working with the ISPs to deliver broadband services to the regional areas at prices comparable to that in the city. And in the past the price has been the rub; sure we can deliver broadband to your farm in Taradale but there will be quite a few zeros tacked on at the end of the price.

The scheme is called the Higher Bandwidth Incentive Scheme (HiBIS). ISPs can apply to become HiBIS providers and will receive an incentive payment of AU$1540 for premises with access to ISDN or AU$3300 for premises without access to ISDN to allow for the higher cost of non-terrestrial technologies such as satellite.

One glaringly obvious problem is that the HiBIS provider is only responsible for part of any Internet path -- and often a small part.
HiBIS is not available in capital cities, or larger cities and regional areas such as Geelong, Newcastle, or the NSW Central Coast for example. Given the remote locations of many outback residences one would guess that many of the services will have to be provided wirelessly, either by satellite or line-of-sight wireless transmission.

Furthermore, to qualify for access you must be either a residential customer, a small business with 20 or fewer employees, or a small not-for-profit organisation.

The good news is that the threshold for the service is a minimum download speed of at least 256kbps, with a peak upload of 64kbps and a monthly usage of at least 500MB. There are also price ceilings for the first three years of the service. Further details on HiBIS can be found at www.dcita.gov.au/telinfo/HiBIS%20page.htm.

One of the major problems in remote locations is ensuring quality of service (QoS) and checking the line speed actually bears some resemblance to the service that has been subscribed to.

To this end, DCITA has asked the RMIT Test Lab to provide some technical assistance, particularly with regards to benchmarking the HiBIS services.

As you can well imagine, monitoring sites all around Australia is not a trivial problem and there are a lot of factors that need to be taken into account. One glaringly obvious problem is that the HiBIS provider is only responsible for part of any Internet path -- and often a small part. Once you get past the border router, in most cases the QoS is completely out of the HiBIS provider's hands -- the HiBIS provider is only accountable for the performance from the client to their router, and of course the link the HiBIS provider has subscribed to from the telco's to its border router but beyond that, well it's the Internet after all.

The Lab is currently developing a series of benchmarks to try and monitor the performance of each service.

The benchmarking will probably be a two-step approach (but this may change) that measures performance from the client up to a benchmark server, and also from the HiBIS providers' router to the benchmark server. This will help isolate where any problems may be occurring if the service falls below par, the only link it does not actually isolate in the testing is the HiBIS providers' router to the border router, but we somehow doubt we could con the telcos into letting us wander in and place monitoring devices on their border routers.

Steve Turvey is Lab Manager of the RMIT IT Test Labs, and can be reached at stevet@rmit.edu.au.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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