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ACCC eyes broadband speed tests

The Australian competition watchdog is considering keeping tabs on the broadband speeds available in Australia.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is contemplating bringing in a broadband performance monitoring system that would report back the types of speeds available across Australia.

The competition watchdog is looking to follow in the footsteps of regulators such as Ofcom in the UK, as well as the FCC in the US, the IDA in Singapore, and the New Zealand Commerce Commission in developing a monitoring system that would report back on the standard of broadband services in Australia. This would initially include ADSL and hybrid-fibre coaxial services, but could be expanded out to cover the National Broadband Network (NBN) as more customers migrate to the network.

The ACCC noted in its discussion paper (PDF) for the proposal that as the NBN rolls out, and demand for high-end download and upload speeds increases, the actual achievable speeds will become much more important to customers.

To date, the ACCC said, Australia's internet service providers (ISPs) have largely relied on price, download quotas, and headline speeds in order to sell their services, but the speeds achievable can vary differently based on the ISP.

"Two ISPs may offer a plan at the same price point with the same amount of data, but if one provider has invested heavily in network capacity while the other has not, the end user's experience is likely to be significantly different with each ISP," the ACCC said.

By the ACCC providing data on the speeds achievable through that ISP, the commission said it would allow customers to make a more informed decision about choosing which ISP to go with, and at what price. It would also allow the ACCC to hold ISPs to account for claims made in advertising about the speeds they can achieve.

The ACCC has a history of targeting the telecommunications industry over misleading advertising claims, and has taken several ISPs to task over misleading advertising, including TPG, Optus, Dodo, and iiNet.

While the prospect of even more lawsuits and fines from the regulator might be a deterrence for ISPs to get on board with the proposal, the ACCC said it could also offer real-world data for the ISPs on how their services compare to competitors', and allow the ISPs to advertise based on the ACCC's test results.

"This would draw out an extra-competitive dimension in addition to price and download quotas," the ACCC said.

The reporting would also give ISPs a better idea of when there is an issue on the network if they're reselling a service such as a fixed-line service with NBN Co or Telstra or a mobile service through Telstra, Optus, or Vodafone.

"In some cases, the ACCC could use test results to 'triangulate on' an issue with an access network. For example, if the ACCC observed poor performance from all ISPs supplying NBN-based services in a specific area, this would likely indicate an issue at the wholesale access level rather than the ISP level," the ACCC said.

Such a reporting system would also hold a network operator to account for the claims made to its retail customers, according to the ACCC.

The proposed method of gathering the data would be through hardware monitoring units installed on the devices of the end users, most likely between the router and the person's home network, with the ACCC specifically pointing out that the technology would not record private internet traffic.

The ACCC has proposed collecting data on upload and download speeds, packet loss, latency, jitter, DNS resolution rates, DNS failure rates, and webpage browsing speed.

To ensure that the user's service remains the same, the software would only be run when the customer is not using their connection.

"The testing equipment would require minimal electricity, and would likely run tests only when the user is not using their connection (testing units deployed internationally can conduct tests in very small 'connection inactive' windows such as between clicks when a user is browsing the internet)," the ACCC said.

This probe-based testing method is what is being used in the UK today, and the devices currently run around 14,000 tests per day.

The ACCC has said that including mobile broadband testing in the trial would "significantly increase the costs" of implementing the testing program, and has proposed that the tests be limited to fixed broadband in the short term.The ACCC has said that while Australia's four largest ISPs — Telstra, Optus, iiNet, and TPG — would cover 90 percent of the fixed-line market, the commission would be willing to test out the services of any ISP where it could get a sufficient sample size.

The location of the customers that would be brought on to the test has been left open for discussion as part of the proposal, but the ACCC has suggested that there could be anywhere between 1,000 and 12,000 users involved, depending on the number of ISPs and locations included in the test.

The ACCC did not propose how often it would report the data, but suggested that bi-annually or annually would provide a high level of detailed commentary, and, in the interim, the ACCC could release monthly or quarterly performance reports.

The proposal has not been greeted warmly by the Communications Alliance, the organisation representing telecommunications groups in Australia. The group's CEO John Stanton said he will be making a submission to the inquiry, but said it would be expensive for something consumers can already do themselves.

"There is a wealth of broadband speed tests available today on the internet — consumers can test the speed of their connection in a matter of seconds at any time of the day or night," he said in a statement.

"As the ACCC itself points out, the group of volunteers needed to run a scheme along the lines it proposes would have to be large and diverse enough to be representative — potentially making for a very expensive exercise for Australian taxpayers."

The guidance to ISPs would make it "virtually impossible" for providers to talk about the speeds attainable on their services, he said.

The ACCC is accepting submissions on the proposal until Friday, September 13, 2013.

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