Measuring Canada’s Internet performance one test at a time

CIRA launches its Internet Performance Test to help Canadians understand their connection speed and encourages individuals to participate.

As the head of the registry for the .CA top-level domain, I can tell you that few things get Canadians riled up as much as the performance of their Internet service. Their concerns aren’t entirely unfounded – according to OECD data, Canada’s ranking for broadband speed and price relative to its OECD counterparts has been on a downward trend over the past dozen years. And for those of us who travel overseas, especially to countries with advanced Internet infrastructure like South Korea and Sweden, we’ve experienced firsthand just how green the grass is on the other side of the fence.

Unfortunately, there has been a dearth of reliable data to base this conclusion on – the OECD report uses advertised prices and speeds, and while there are numerous tools to test your Internet speed, they are often a service  operated by your Internet service providers (ISP). An ISP’s checker will only analyze the transit speed of content it generates to and from your computer. It isn’t analyzing ‘real’ traffic, like how Netflix is performing at your home when you’re bingeing the latest season of House of Cards at the same time as your neighbors.

To enhance the Canadian knowledge-base on Internet performance, today CIRA officially launched the .CA Internet Performance Test. Our new test uses a globally accepted standard for research on Internet performance, and the findings will contribute to the growing body of knowledge on Internet performance as experienced by end users. It uses a vendor-neutral server (that is, one not connected to an ISP), on Canadian Internet Exchange Points (IXPs). As such, it gives users an unbiased measure of their connection on Canadian Internet infrastructure. The test is based on a set of servers we installed in various IXPs across Canada. We currently have the supporting infrastructure in Toronto, Montreal and Calgary, running the M-LAB platform, a research-based ecosystem for the open, verifiable measurement of global network performance.

When a user performs the test, they are presented with their upload and download speeds, as well as their IPv6 and DNSSEC status. As more and more Internet users perform the test, the overall picture of the state of Canada’s Internet will become more robust. At the micro level, it shows users their speed and performance under real network conditions, including the mess of network congestion and data transit routes. But this isn’t the real value; those individual results are aggregated into an interactive map that presents that unedited information in a way that allows Canadians to see how their Internet performance and service compares to the rest of the country.

For users who are interested in digging a little deeper, the .CA Performance Test analyses 100 variables to determine connection and performance quality. Each time a test is performed, the data is anonymously collected and can be dissected by a number of points, such as geographic location, certain system details like the browser used, the node the test ran against, and which ISP was used. As a result, researchers will be able to gain a better understanding of Canada’s Internet infrastructure, and how variables like our demographics and geography are linked to Internet performance. 

Of course, Internet technologies are ever-evolving. When we started the development of the performance test, it utilized a java-based system. As Java ceased to be supported by the major browsers, the underlying technology moved to the current Flash-based system. As such, it performs best when accessed with a Chrome browser – Google has built the most robust integration of flash into their browser. However, as the Internet evolves, so too will the tool. We are already working on a mobile-friendly version, and we will eventually move away from Flash to a more widely accessible platform.

Please take a few minutes and measure your Internet connection’s performance. The more tests that are performed, the more robust the data will be, and the closer we get to having a strong evidence-base for making informed decisions about enhancing the Internet for the benefit of Canadians. 

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