The QoS Moment of Truth – Tunisian regulator INT starts monitoring broadband services

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Many African operators offering broadband services – whether fixed or mobile – continue to provide highly contended or congested services. Bandwidth speeds are improving but there’s no easy way for African consumers to know what they’re getting. To tackle this issue, Tunisian regulator INT has commissioned a specialist company called Epitiro to provide a monitoring service. Russell Southwood spoke to Iain Wood, its VP Marketing and Regulator Solutions, about the impact of this kind of work.

Africa is coming out of a period when operators were “selling shortage”: there wasn’t much bandwidth, it was therefore very expensive and woe betide those who wanted to complain about quality. But there are now increasing numbers of fibre connections (both national and international) and prices are coming down (see bottom of KDN story in Internet News).

But operators are still “slicing and dicing” bandwidth for consumers in ways that make it difficult for them to understand what they’re getting. Few consumers know exactly how much capacity they are using for simple tasks like e-mail or downloads and operators don’t give them much help.

Increased speeds are collapsing the old models. Tanzanian cyber-café owners (see also Internet News) are finding it harder to charge on a time basis because with decent speeds, users get done with their mail and browsing much more quickly. However, they lack the software and sophistication to charge on a capacity basis.

The National Authority of Telecommunications of Tunisia (Instance Nationale des Télécommunications, INT), the Tunisian telecom regulator recently selected Epitiro who partnered with CERT (Centre d’Etudes et de Recherche des Télécomunications) to execute a pilot project for measuring and analysing broadband services in Tunisia.

The project analyses five internet service providers (Globalnet, Hexabyte, Topnet, Tunet and Planet) from a consumer viewpoint and collected data on key performance indicators (KPI) on web surfing speeds, file download speeds, performance during peak periods and reliability. Metrics such as TCP throughput, HTTP speed, latency, VoIP quality and reliability were part of the test scripts executed every half hour throughout the month of June.

To ensure anonymous testing, Epitiro subscribed to a typical service from all of the five ISPs tested from a residential premises in the country. According to Iain Wood:”All the services are tested automatically from a programmed computer on this premises. Like all computers, they just stop working from time to time. We have to reboot them remotely which is a challenge but we can do so.”

Epitiro does this testing globally for both operators and regulators. For operators, it provides a real-time way of monitoring what is happening at the “sharp-end” rather than simply looking at NOC statistics. Using the data, operators can ensure that they have the capacity and network configuration to provide consistent service. For regulators, they are much more interested in providing monthly average statistics against different metrics.

(Click on this link to see examples from the Singapore regulator’s web page:

In the example given above, the Singapore regulator publishes QoS service stats for ISPs on a monthly basis and it provides significant pressure on the companies to improve their service as the numbers published show. But most importantly, it allows consumers to make informed choices as to the relationship between the cost of a service and the quality it provides. Over time, from an operator perspective, this has to be an education for consumers about the cheapest service not always being the best.

Interestingly, Wood says that with one of its international clients, it identified an ISP that was not performing at all well in terms of its connectivity outside of the country. It was able to identify a major fault in the ISP’s network and the ISP was able to correct it quickly.

For regulators, the information offers two potential courses of action: you simply publicise the results and allow the information to do its work; or you apply sanctions where that doesn’t seem to work. UK regulator Ofcom has been using the data to tighten up on the speed claims made in advertising by operators. The number after the phrase “up to..” has become rather more tightly defined and a voluntary industry code of practice has been put in place.

So will regulators need to be more pro-active in the future? According to Wood:”I think the screw will get tighter and tighter, particularly in those countries where they have defined a legal right to have access to broadband.”

The cost? “ It varies but around the six digit mark to analyse a country. Given the importance of it and the speed at which it can be done, that’s not really horrendous.” African regulators make be taking a sharp intake of breath at this point but it’s worth pointing out that many of them are not “poor widows” and have ample funds to do this kind of monitoring.

With the growth of mobile Internet, it is probably as important that this monitoring covers the “alphabet soup” services (GPRS, EDGE, 3G, HSDPA and HSPA) that we are all increasingly finding ourselves relying on, both at home and on the move.