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The man keeping the internet honest

It would be fair to say a few Internet Service Providers (ISPs) see red at mention of John Butt’s name. In 2012, Butt founded TrueNet, a business which measures and reports on broadband performance. The service is a joint venture with open source IT company Catalyst IT and is funded by the Commerce Commission, which under the Telecommunications Act is obliged to review and study the industry for the long-term benefit of New Zealanders. “We’re piggy in the middle,” says Butt, acknowledging that isn’t always a comfortable place to be.

Those who challenge TrueNet would say Butt is a poacher turned gamekeeper – an engineer with an influential career in telcos, who went on to found a company which monitors their performance. Maybe, says Butt, however the work is for the public good. Independent monitoring of how ISPs perform keeps everyone honest. Part of the problem is that the Commission makes ISPs part-fund TrueNet. And not everyone agrees with the company’s monitoring model.

Butt says you can’t keep everyone happy. He has the frankness of an engineer but maintains a wry professional objectivity in the face of occasional hostility. He’s got a job to do, and he’s getting on with it.

In July, TrueNet hit a significant milestone, 300 million tests, which means the company has the country’s largest database of grassroots consumer experience of ISP performance. The testing is done remotely via bridge routers installed in the houses and offices of 400 volunteers. The “probes” conduct an array of tests, from getting the volunteers’ computers to call up a series of web pages, to a ping test to see how long it takes for a packet of data to upload and download. The computers feed performance data back to TrueNet 24/7, from a variety of ISP providers.

TrueNet data allows ISPs to drill down into what’s going on with their networks – and those of their competitors. And it means Butt and his team can produce regular commentary on the state of our broadband performance.

John Butt.

While there may have been criticism in the past around speed and consistency of ISP offerings, mostly these days it is good news. In April, TrueNet compared webpage download speeds in New Zealand with those reported by the US Federal Communications Commission and found our internet experience over copper is vastly better than theirs. “The worst New Zealand ISP is well ahead of the best US ISP for time-of-day performance,” the report said.

Then in June, TrueNet acknowledged some great work ISPs are doing on ADSL and VDSL evening speeds – once a time of significant congestion and slow down. The testing showed all ISPs achieving evening peak speeds nearly equal to off-peak speeds. “That’s the equivalent of having all cars on the motorway doing 95-100km/h during rush hour,” Butt says.

So would Butt be happy with his broadband if he was a farmer? TrueNet has up to 70 probes in rural areas, with people on a full range of broadband services and providers, from DSL and fibre, to fixed wireless and satellite.

“Like a lot of things, that depends on where you live. Some farmers on VDSL connections have wonderful service, but there’s lots on older ADSL1 and for many that means 0.5-1Mbps.”

He says farmers can buy satellite broadband, and with smart software trimming webpages to a minimum, the speed can feel like good VDSL at times. Still, they shouldn’t try streaming video in the evening, he says.

TrueNet has been analysing the impact of the Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) and finds an improvement each quarter of about 7% in performance from wireless connections, largely mobile broadband, and from Chorus connecting rural cabinets with fibre. But ironically, the improvements for rural communities with access to the RBI has left those still waiting feeling even more disadvantaged. “Those without the benefit of RBI funding are now likely to find that websites take over three times longer to download than those where an update has occurred.”

This story originally appeared on The Download.
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