Comms Minister Paul Fletcher decries global broadband speed rankings

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Comms Minister Paul Fletcher decries global broadband speed rankings
Communications Minister Paul Fletcher

Communications minister Paul Fletcher has railed against international speed rankings for fixed broadband internet, claiming they don’t provide an accurate picture of Australia’s relative broadband performance.

But Ookla, one of the major broadband speed ranking specialists, said Fletcher's complaint is more about the global recognition of Australia's NBN and not a sound indictment of its testing and data science methodology.

Writing on his website, Fletcher said the speed rankings or comparisons have limitations like their methodology, data availability, sampling bias and an absence of like-for-like country comparisons.

Fletcher took aim at Ookla’s Speedtest Global Index, which measures a monthly result for median download speed for fixed broadband per country. He said the Speedtest Global Index and most international comparisons focus on comparing countries based on average experienced download speed.

As of 9 March 2022, Ookla lists Australia 61st of 179 countries on fixed broadband performance, logging 50.89Mbps in download speeds. In comparison, first place Monaco had 192.68 Mbps, while Afghanistan is ranked last at 1.62 Mbps.

“While the Ookla test methodology uses local servers in most countries enabling some consistency in measurement – it has several limitations,” Fletcher’s post read.

“Tests are necessarily impacted by a user’s in-home equipment, their subscription speed, and even the strength of their WiFi connection. In addition, the sample is limited to users who initiate tests via Ookla’s testing website and may have specific biases, such as lower than average or higher than average speeds.”

Fletcher added that Ookla also doesn’t provide a like for like comparison, using the median speed experienced by users who click on its website as its sole metric, allowing countries with lower availability and take-up of broadband to rank higher than Australia.

Speaking to CRN, Ookla vice president Adriane Blum said, "[Fletcher's]  article seems to be a general complaint about global recognition of the NBN and not a sound indictment of Ookla's internationally recognized testing and data science methodology."

"What appears to actually be in contest is the Speedtest Global Index, which is just one data resource we provide publicly to our worldwide audience."

Blum explained the Speedtest Global Index represents the typical user experience with download speed in a country and are "subject to the same rigorous methodology" Ookla applies across all of its content and products. "We agree that additional metrics such as coverage and availability are important and we do measure and report on them."

"The median is actually the best representation of a typical user experience in the age of modern networks," Blum added. "When using the mean to rank countries, advanced speeds may only be available in some places and skew the average significantly." 

Ookla also explained how it ensures accurate testing and data in this company website article from its data science chief Brian Connelly. 

NBN Co chief executive Stephen Rue echoed the same sentiments in 2019, telling the Sydney Morning Herald that the low rankings in global speed tests were “intuitively very wrong” as they did not factor in the availability of broadband or the physical size of countries.

NBN Co at the time also commissioned a research report from economic consultancy AlphaBeta, which ranked Australia 22nd out of 37 countries based on government-validated subscription speed data, and 17th when adjusted for households with fixed-line broadband.

The report also claimed international comparisons were “challenging and misleading” saying that there isn’t a global, standardised way to test broadband speed.

Fletcher said the rankings “almost always do not tell the full story” by not taking into account factors that actually influence the quality of broadband: take-up, network capability, population density, geography, market structure and more.

“Our position is characterised by both ubiquitous access to and a high take up of broadband,” Fletcher said.

“Australia is one of only five comparable countries where at least 99.9 percent of the population has fixed broadband access, with near universal coverage. The proportion of households with a fixed broadband connection increased to 90.2 percent in 2021 (up from 88 percent in 2020).”

Fletcher added that Australia is not lagging behind on speed, saying that some 76 percent of NBN subscriptions are for services of 50Mbps or higher and 72 percent of Australian premises in the NBN fixed-line footprint can access speeds of 100Mbps or higher. He also added some 42 percent of NBN customers on fixed-line connections can reach up to 1Gbps, with planned upgrades set to increase that to 75 percent by 2023.

Fletcher also said Australia’s broadband services are affordable, citing NBN Co-commissioned research from Accenture that found the country has the sixth most affordable broadband services compared to 12 other OECD countries it sampled.

As reported by The New Daily in 2019, data compiled by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library found Australia ranked 36th among OECD countries in terms of entry-level broadband services, citing the cost of NBN Co’s 12 Mbps speed tier at the time of between $40 to $45 per month.

NBN Co has since pushed for telcos and customers to move to higher speed tiers over the years, using promotions and advertising campaigns.

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