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Why world broadband speeds declined at the end of 2011

Why world broadband speeds declined at the end of 2011

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Out of 49 countries studied, 36 reported average Internet speed declines in the second half of 2011. Here are a few theories on why.

Akamai's latest State of the Internet report paints an odd and troubling picture. Although the report was published a month ago, Benoit Felten, CEO of telecom consultancy firm Diffraction Analysis and former analyst at Yankee Group, more recently wrote a blog post pointing out a clear trend in Akamai's cumulative statistics. Out of 49 countries studied, 36 netted average Internet speeds in the fourth quarter of 2011 that were equal to or less than speeds reported for the second quarter of 2011. And 21 countries had average speeds that declined in both the third and fourth quarter of last year.

The measurement is purportedly an assessment of wireline Internet connections, although that includes Wi-Fi networks driven off of wired connections. In other words, the decrease in speeds shouldn't be attributable to greater mobile Internet usage at slower connection rates. Instead, Felten cautiously suggests that the actual Internet experience may be degrading in many countries.

There are a couple of theories on why this is happening. Felten rules out a methodology change on Akamai's part (there was no notice of one, plus the trend takes place over multiple quarters), and also the idea that consumers are downgrading their own packages to save money (this would have been noted in operator financial reports). But commenters on his post speculate with other thoughts.

The decline may stem from a greater number of Wi-Fi requests loading down the wired infrastructure. Or it may come from Internet service providers (ISPs) throttling traffic during peak hours. One commenter specifically notes that her ISP throttles traffic from Akamai (a content delivery network provider) between six in the evening and midnight, forcing rates down to two megabits per second regardless of the speed the connection is capable of delivering.

Whatever the reason, it appears that in the short term our Internet infrastructure is not keeping up with demand.

As a contra-indicator, it’s nice to note that Verizon in the United States just announced a substantial bump in speeds for its residential FiOS subscribers. As the largest provider of fiber-to-the-home Internet service in the U.S., that’s something Verizon can afford to deliver. However (and this is a big however), Verizon has now shifted its focus from wireline investments to wireless. In fact, just yesterday Multichannel News reported that Verizon is looking to eliminate 1,700 jobs from its wireline business.

Felten warns that it's too soon to draw firm conclusions from the Akamai data, but the numbers certainly aren't promising, particularly for Europe, North America and the Middle East.

Hat Tip: Teresa Mastrangelo

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Mari Silbey

Contributing Editor

Mari Silbey is an independent tech writer based in Washington, D.C. With a background in cable and telecom, she's a contributor to several trade publications, and part of the GigaOM analyst network. She also writes for the long-running digital media blog Zatz Not Funny, and has written for both corporate and association clients focused on broadband networks, mobile apps, and video delivery. She's a graduate of Duke University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure