Last week, the ACCC announced it will be keeping tabs on NBN service provider performance promises and claims via a speed monitoring program. We spoke to the CEO of Enex Testlab, Matt Tett, about how that testing and monitoring might be done.
Enex is an independent testing laboratory that has been in business for almost three decades. Having started at Melbourne's RMIT University, it was commercialised in 2005, sixteen years after being founded.
Enex tests everything from speed cameras for police forces, security appliances, network tools - even poker machines. And they have been working with NBNCo almost since the NBN's inception.
"Since 2004, we've had our eMetric probes, which are devices that sit in customer premises, essentially replicating a computer connected to that customer's internet service. We measure everything from download, upload, latency, packet loss and we go into the application layer protocols as well measuring YouTube, Netflix - even Speedtest.net," said Tett.
Tett told us his focus is not strictly about evaluating the technology but on focussing on the benefit to the consumer. With broadband, it's not about speeds and feeds but on the particular applications users are running at a point in time.
Almost everyone has experienced the after-school slow down with their broadband service, when students arrive home at around 4:00PM and their service slows to a crawl because of network contention.
"It's all well and good if you can get 100% of the speed for x percentage of the time, but if it's not the percentage of the time you need to be using it, then that's what a lot of service providers we work with focus on".
Tett said the testing equipment he uses can be used to detect longitudinal changes in performance. For example, if you sign up with a Retail Service Provider (RSPs are the parties that you'll contract with to access the NBN - they're analogous to electricity retailers who mediate your relationship with the rest of the power system) you may find performance is great at first. But over a few months, the performance may slowly fall as more customers connect and if the RSP hasn't contracted for enough bandwidth to service their customers.
Problems can also arise when service providers merge and one RSP suddenly finds themselves with a bunch of extra customers in a region. This is something we can expect to see as the number of RSPs consolidates, much like what happened in the early days of the internet in Australia.
Tett says Enex's testing gear can also assist service providers to understand why performance can fluctuate. For example, by tracking changes it can be possible to link performance changes to configuration updates.
Enex is already doing monitoring of the NBN's performance "for their own management review", with a particular focus on usability, said Tett. That covers all different connection types including satellite, HFC, FttP and other technologies.
That testing is with end users so that NBNCo understands the usability of the network. However, as NBNCo is a wholesaler, their focus is different to that of the ACCC, who will be focussing on RSPs and whether they deliver on their promises to consumers.
The impact of Enex's monitoring equipment on the user experience is negligible, said Tett. He likened it to the Nielson boxes that were used to monitor TV viewing habits and engagement with advertising. Once the devices are plugged in, they operate silently and don't interfere with users.
"The tests are very low impact and optimised for the speed of the service and we have ways of doing that automatically. The same goes for scheduling to ensure there are no conflicts when the service is in use," said Tett.
The ACCC's timeline is to go to market next month for a partner to support their monitoring program. Once they have made their choice and the 4000 residences are chosen, the program will be initiated with testing expected to commence in early 2018.
Tett noted that no personal information will be reported to the ACCC - only performance data will be sent to the agency.