Google Enters Free Speed Test Marketplace with Academic Collaboration

Broadband Data January 27th, 2009

, Publisher, BroadbandBreakfast.com

WASHINGTON, January 27, 2009 – Search giant Google is preparing to enter the market for free broadband speed tests, through a collaboration with the university research consortium PlanetLab, and the New America Foundation.

Google is set to announce the collaboration on Wednesday, at an event at the New America Foundation in Washington, and keynoted by Vint Cerf, vice president and chief internet evangelist at Google.

Google follows BroadbandCensus.com, which launched in January 2008, in providing a free internet speed tests to consumers.

BroadbandCensus.com’s speed test allows internet uses to test actual speeds and compare them to the speeds that are promised by their internet providers.

Google and the other participants in the research consortium will be using the same speed test – the Network Diagnostic Tool of Internet2 – that was deployed by BroadbandCensus.com beginning in February 2008.

As with BroadbandCensus.com, Google apparently seeks to make the data publicly available, as a means of providing transparency into the operations of internet providers.

“Transparency has always been an essential component of the Internet’s success,” reads the press release announcing Wednesday’s event. “To remedy today’s information gap, researchers need resources to develop new analytical tools.”

“At this event, speakers will discuss the importance of advancing research in network measurement tools and introduce new developments that will benefit end-users, innovators, and policymakers,” reads the release.

The organizational framework for the speed tests and other network tools is to be called the Measurement Lab, and is expected to be hosted through PlanetLab at Princeton University.

Among the individuals also scheduled to speak at the event include Larry Peterson, chair of the Department of Computer Science at Princeton, and Princeton Professor Ed Felten, director of the Center for Information Technology Policy.

In addition to the NDT speed test, the Measurement Lab will allow internet users to use two additional tests, “Glasnost,” developed by the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems, in Kaiserlautern and Saarbrucken, Germany, and the NPAD diagnostic service, Pathdiag, developed by the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center.

According to the Max Plank Institute web site, Glastnost “creates a BitTorrent-like transfer between your machine and our server, and determines whether or not your [internet service provider] is limiting such traffic. This is a first step towards making traffic manipulation by ISPs more transparent to their customers.”

In fall 2007, through tests conducted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Comcast was found to have been interfering in the packet transfers by users of BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer software system. After a complaint, the FCC punished Comcast in August 2008.

Comcast’s system of network management – which the cable operator says it has discontinued – became Exhibit A in the battle over network neutrality, or the procedures by which broadband carriers can prioritize internet traffic.

Over the past several years, Google has opposed attempts by carriers to circumvent Net neutrality.

According to the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center web site, NPAD’s Pathdiag “is designed to easily and accurately diagnose problems in the last-mile network and end-systems that are the most common causes of all severe performance degradation over long end-to-end paths.”

“Our goal is to make the test procedures easy enough and the report it generates clear enough to be suitable for end-users who are not networking experts,” the PSC web site continues.

Google, PlanetLab, New America Foundation and the software engineers that designed each of the three tools are involved in the new venture.

“We are listed as an advisory board” to the project, said Rich Carlson, a network engineer at Internet2. “Google is providing some rackspace. Google is providing the funding to purchase the hardware, and the network connectivity to connect [the tests] to the commercial internet.”

BroadbandCensus.com’s goal in allowing internet users to test their speeds is to provide a publicly-available repository of speeds, prices, availability, reliability and competition in measuring local broadband.

In Taking the Broadband Census, individuals answer a brief questionnaire about their location, their carriers and the quality of service. They are also invited to comment on their carrier.

Information about all speed tests conducted on BroadbandCensus.com are immediately publicly available, both by carrier and by ZIP code, after the tests are concluded. All the content on BroadbandCensus.com is available under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License, allowing it to be republished and reused for free by academics and by local government agencies.

BroadbandCensus.com reported about its experience using the Internet2’s NDT speed test, and made a presentation about its findings at an Internet2/Joint Techs Conference in Lincoln, Neb., in July 2008.

Carlson said he believes that Google will also make its data publicly available. “My intention is to make that data available, as soon as possible.”

Carlson said that he and Internet2 believed it was important to “get the data collection started, and see what kind of community resources can be put to bear, to do some analysis” about internet traffic.

Other academic organizations, including Virginia Tech’s eCorridors Program, have also used the NDT speed test, which is open source software. Speed test data from eCorridors is also publicly available.

Google announced its interest in the speed test marketplace at Supernova conference in June 2008, and the collaboration apparently took root after an invitation-only conference Google organized in Mountain View, Calif., in the summer of 2008.

More details are expected to be made available at the Wednesday New America Foundation event.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt is chairman of the New America Foundation, and Schmidt personally has made significant financial contributions to the think tank.

The Foundation has taken stances congruent with positions that Google been pushing. For example, the think tank strongly advocated for the FCC to make vacant television channels available for unlicensed use by internet devices, a position endorsed by Google.

Editor’s Note

Internet2 provided technical direction about deploying a speed test to BroadbandCensus.com, and the eCorridors Program at Virginia Tech has provided encouragement and technical advice in taking the Broadband Census to a national audience. See BroadbandCensus.com supporters.

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5 Responses to “Google Enters Free Speed Test Marketplace with Academic Collaboration”

  1. Drew Clark Says:

    I’ve been reminded that NDT (Network Diagnostic Tool) is, of course, much more than a speed test. It is an open-source network performance testing system designed to identify computer configuration and network infrastructure problems that can degrade broadband performance. The NDT is under active development by the Internet2 community, an advanced networking consortium led by the research and education community. The NDT has been used by other broadband mapping endeavors, including the eCorridors Program at Virginia Tech, which is working to collect data of residential and small business broadband trends throughout the Commonwealth of Virginia. See http://broadbandcensus.com/blog/?p=4

  2. Brett Glass Says:

    There are several “testers” out there which purport to discover whether an ISP is conforming to various people’s ideas of “network neutrality.” (Most of these, including the ones mentioned in the article, are listed at http://www.eff.org/testyourisp#projects.)

    Unfortunately, these programs are not scientific measurement tools but rather propaganda tools. None of these applications was designed by anyone who is actually in the business of supplying broadband service. And they are limited in their ability to produce valid results by several factors. Among other things, they tend not to play well with NAT routers, caches, and unexpected network architectures. For example, with the “NDT” program, we see reported bandwidth far below what the user can achieve on simple uploads and downloads. And we can’t get some of these programs to produce any results at all on our network; they simply “hang” forever.

    Finally, most of these programs, by their very nature, slander ISPs by asserting that there’s something wrong when an ISP blocks an attempt to violate the terms of service to which the user has agreed (for example, by setting up a server on a residential connection) or prevent hogging of bandwidth.

    I’d thus have to advise users to avoid these programs. They were created with an ideological, rather than a scientific, purpose in mind: to find fault with ISPs’ service so that Google and its associated lobbying groups can call for Internet regulation that favors Google.

  3. Drew Clark Says:

    Brett, I have to respectfully disagree with your assertion that all NDT-related speed tests “were created with an ideological, rather than a scientific, purpose in mind: to find fault with ISPs’ service so that Google and its associated lobbying groups can call for Internet regulation that favors Google.”

    BroadbandCensus.com does not take positions with regard to net neutrality or regulation of the internet. We do not take positions on the universal service fund, on the appropriate architecture of the internet, or on bandwidth throttling — other than to seek to point out where it is happening.

    The only point we are advocating is that data about broadband speeds, prices, availability, reliability and competition should be transparent and publicly available, so that a friction-less marketplace can operate in the internet area.

  4. Drew Clark Says:

    Google’s official policy blog discusses their use of various tools, including the Network Diagnostic Tool of Internet2.

  5. BroadbandBreakfast.com: Google Shakes Up Broadband Landscape With Fiber Build Initiative Says:

    [...] Lab was launched in 2009. Like the BroadbandCensus.com speed test and user-generated survey, Measurement Lab allows [...]

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