Dodo, iPrimus, TPG and Club Telco all offer plans with unlimited downloads. Internode, MyNetFone, Optus and Telstra all offer plans with hundreds of gigabytes. The average Australian usage is about 21GB a month, though that figure is rapidly rising. So who is using all that data, and what for, and why are some things slower than others?
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Understanding internet speeds is impossible without a general understanding of just what the internet is. In simplest terms, the internet is a bunch of interconnected networks. The smaller networks are made up of even smaller networks. And then those networks are made up of connections coming from your street. Then your home. Then your computer. And along the way, some networks talk directly to each other, while others have to talk through a third party.
There’s also physical choke points. The most significant being the copper line that connects your home to somewhere else. Even on Cable, the connection from your home is still a copper cable – it intersplices with a fiber optic connection in the street.
Why is copper a choke point? Why is mobile (or ‘wireless’) broadband typically slower? You don’t actually need a degree in physics to understand this. All internet connections are made with some variation of electromagnetic radiation (EMR). Copper lines use electricity. Mobile connections use radio frequency. And fibre optic lines (made of glass or plastic) use light. The visible spectrum of light – the stuff we see in – is a form of EMR as well. Now try looking through a sheet of copper. Hard, yeah? Try looking through air – but put buildings, rain and trees in the way. Difficult? Try looking through a sheet of plastic or glass. See the difference now?
So getting back to downloads. Let’s first make sure we’re all on the same page here.
What is a Download?
‘Downloading’ is one of those terms that barely means anything anymore. A more accurate way to think of it is to use the term ‘Data Transfer’. Every time you interact with your internet connection, you are sending and receiving data.
When you go to Google, you first send data. You click on a link your bookmarks. A little packet of data sends off into the ether, asking ‘please open and retrieve Google.com’. Then you retrieve data – namely, the Google page. This uses a pretty small amount of data – something like 50 kilobytes.
Then you type in your search term and hit Enter. That sends some data. Then you retrieve the results. Then you click the result. That opens a page full of pictures, text, animations…all of it wizzing back and forth, using up some of the allowance that you’ve paid for.
Of course, when people talk about slow downloading, they generally mean the speed at which they get large files. This means movies, software, music and games. All the fun stuff. Sometimes this means Object downloads (ie. downloading an actual movie file to a fixed location on your computer) for later consumption. Sometimes this means streaming data (ie. streaming video, skype calls, streaming music, online real-time games) where the data is stored temporarily in a cache file, to be emptied when you're done, so that you can enjoy the content in real time.
Where do these bits of data go?
Your connection, whether it’s a phone line, cable line or wireless link to a mobile tower, meets up with a fibre optic feed eventually. With phone lines, it’s at your local telephone exchange. With cable, it’s somewhere in your neighbourhood, probably at a junction point along a utility pole. With mobile, it’s underneath the tower.
From there, your connection will travel at light speed to an Internet Exchange, or IX. These are big warehouses with lots of…well, big modems. These are massive, fridge sized devices built by companies you won’t hear about much. Each one of these big modems will have about 160 inputs for other companies to plug into. A fibre optic lead will be drawn from one modem to another. Bing. Bang. Boom. That’s how you connect. It’s called peering.
Your internet service provider has one of these modems at the end of its network. It sits in a cage. A yellow cable connects its big modem to a big modem belonging to Facebook. And Google. And Apple. And Microsoft. And Amazon. And the dozens and dozens of companies that host websites. If there’s no direct connection, an alternative one will be found by routing it around. Maybe Amazon hosts a site that hosts a site that hosts a site that connects where you want it to. That will obviously slow things down a little.
But WHERE does the info go?
Image credit ZDNet
Ah, right. Where are these IX buildings? Here in Australia, there’s about 30 or 40 of them. The biggest is Equinix, Sydney. Equinix is kinda like the Hilton of the internet – it’s all over the world, and looks the same in each location. Equinix is descended from the very first company to do this sort of thing, back in the early 90’s. Back then, the company that eventually became Equinix ran everything out of a carpark in Ashburn, Virginia, called MAE East (Metropolitan Access Exchange, East – and yes, there was eventually a MAE West in California).
An Equinix building is also built to make network engineers feel comfortable, just like a Hilton. Blue lights, futuristic looking materials, sliding doors that make a neat little ‘Whoosh’ sound – it’s the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.
The other big companies that run Internet Exchanges here in Oz are Pipe Networks (a subsidiary of TPG), AAPT (a subsidiary of iiNet), NextGen (a subsidiary of Leighton Holdings) and a handful of others. Telstra does more most of the stuff in between, especially between your home and a Telstra Telephone Exchange.
Of course, these buildings are themselves then connected to yet more fibre underground, which travels back to the NSW and WA coasts, where they eventually end up on a beach somewhere, linking to a big undersea cable going back to…well, everywhere else. The big undersea pipes are mostly run by Optus, Telstra, NextGen and TPG.
Where on the coast? That’s not exactly secret, but it’s also best not to talk about it. After all, these are the links that connect the entire continent. Let’s just be happy that they’re somewhere.
Then it goes to a handful of truly massive interconnection points along the globe. The biggest is either Frankfurt or Amsterdam, with London close behind. Palo Alto, California and Ashburn, Virginia are also major hotspots. More locally, Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo are huge exchange points.
So why is my download slow?
At a macro level, the reason your download is slow is because we’re far away from everywhere else. You wouldn’t think this would matter when things are travelling at light speed. But not everything comes to Australia directly. Big companies like Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon (which makes more money hosting websites than it does selling cheap books and DVDs) have the money and resources to directly connect into Australian networks. Everyone else might have to go through them. This is why downloading an iPhone app is relatively painless, but other files might come slower. Even a webpage might slow to a crawl if a direct link is down and has been rerouted through a hundred other hops.
But all my downloads are slow!
Well, then it comes back to the first problem. Your particular connection to the internet. Each connection method has potential issues:
ADSL – Being too far from the telephone exchange (anything beyond 2500m will start to slow down significantly)
Cable – Too many people online at the same time (everyone on Cable within a 4 street area generally shares the same fibre optic feed, meaning it can slow down at peak periods)
Mobile – Too many people connecting to the network, interruption of the radio signal from rain, buildings and trees…a mobile connection is very tenuous, since it relies on a direct line-of-sight connection to a mobile tower.
The speed you ‘sync’ at will be a good guide on how quickly you should download a file at. Line speed is measured in BITS per second, while most downloads are measured in BYTES per second. That’s just how it is, but it leads to a lot of frustration, since many people don’t know that the difference is pretty big – 1 Byte = (roughly )8 Bits.
So…if you go to speedtest.net, and your speed comes back as 8000 kbps, that means your maximum download speed on an individual file will be about 1 megabyte per second. Or 1000KB per second (notice that kilobits are denoted with a little ‘kb’, whereas kilobytes are denoted with a capital ‘KB’).
But my download speed is way less than my line speed would suggest…
It really should be pretty close to maximum if you’re downloading from a big source, like Apple, or Microsoft, or Facebook, etc…after all, these companies probably directly peer with your service provider.
But, um, games are slow…
Some ISPs peer directly to servers owned by the big gaming companies. Internode runs several dedicated gaming servers, as do BigPond and Optus.
Look. My download looks like THIS.
OOOOOOOOHHHHH. You mean you’re downloading pirated content, using Bit Torrents, very slowly. Well, that’s very different. After all, you’re downloading bits and pieces from other individual users, known as peer-to-peer networking. Each one of those users is of course behind their own bottlenecked ‘last mile’ connection – such as copper phone lines. So you’re not directly connected to them. You can’t blame your ISP – they only connect directly to other big, more…um…LEGAL enterprises.
The internet seems pretty big, but it’s actually getting smaller. Most legal sites (even the pornographic ones) go through a small portfolio of major hosts, and those major hosts connect directly to other major hosts. So the speed of the internet beyond your home is getting faster and faster, and more connections are made directly, even across oceans.
But your connection at home is almost entirely dependent on the physical or radio link to your service provider, and that’s hugely variable. Before switching providers, consider this: there are nearly 200 ISPs in Australia, but realistically the number of real connection options is much smaller. Every DSL (including Naked DSL) connection uses a copper telephone line that belongs to Telstra. Every Cable connection uses a copper/fibre hybrid connection owned by either Optus or Telstra, and every mobile connection uses a signal link owned by Vodafone, Optus or Telstra. The keys to speed are sometimes in your control, sometimes not.
As for downloading that is borderline illegal…we don’t condone it, but it can’t be ignored. It’s clearly driving a lot of the business to these bigger plans. The big files are video. If you were paying for 300GB of video every month, you’d be broke; if you were watching 300GB of YouTube every month, you'd be dead. So obviously some of this is going towards copyright-infringing downloads.
Complaining to your ISP that your illegal downloads are slow is like asking a bunch of cops to keep the noise down while you’re robbing a bank. It’s cheeky, and probably ill-advised. But if you’re curious why it’s like that, remember that you’re not linking directly to FREETVANDMOVIES.RU. You’re probably going down some of the back streets and alleys of the world wide interwebs. So…deal with it.
Also: your computer might be garbage. Your connection might be blazingly fast – but if your computer takes 1 full minute to open up a browser, then it will seem pretty slow. That’s like blaming bad traffic on other people while sitting stationary in a car with pizza boxes for wheels. Or like making a bad metaphor while sitting on a rooftop eating toffee apples, y’dig?
For more information on the best plans, connections and providers in your area, call us on 1300 106 571.
Tubes by Andrew Blum. Like ‘Fifity Shades of Grey’ for telecommunications infrastructure nerds. But also a fascinating read in its own right. Available on iBooks, Kindle and in the non-internet (or 'FleshNet') world as well.
Peeringdb.com – a totally free website (login with username: guest, password: guest) that lists every internet exchange by country, and the number of peering participants therein. Kinda fun, and one of those weird things most people don’t know exists.
Network-tools.com – one of many sites that will allow you to do a quick traceroute to see where your connection goes to get to a specific website. For instance: from our office in Melbourne to the server where our site is hosted, you’ll see we go through Dallas, LA, Singapore, and back to somewhere in Asia where Amazon hosts our site. Have fun :D