Which Internet Service Providers Are Really Fastest?

New rankings tell the truth about download and upload speeds from Comcast, Verizon and their peers. See how your provider ranks and learn about the gotchas to avoid if you're comparings specs while shopping for a new provider.

Picking a new ISP just got a lot simpler. A company with the unlikely name of Ookla, the outfit that runs the popular www.speedtest.net Web site, has just released a huge volume of data that identifies the Internet service providers that will give you the fastest uploads and downloads, and the ones that don't. (See how Ookla ranked your ISP.)

Based on one million user tests a day, Ookla says that: "As of today the top residential ISP in the U.S. based on download speed performance is Comcast, followed by Charter, Optimum Online, MidContinent Communications and Road Runner to round out the top five." The tests are practically up to the minute; they were performed between June 26, 2010 and July 25, 2010.

Upload speeds, which are always slower, tell a different story with Surewest Broadband on top, followed by Verizon Internet Services, AT&T Worldnet, Comcast and Cox, the Seattle-based Ookla found.

That data is based on average speeds monitored across the country, and doesn't necessarily reflect the speeds you'd experience in your city. But Ookla has thought about that, and it's easy to go to the company's Web site and drill down by state or by city and see what various ISPs actually deliver.

Should you care to, you can also check average speeds in foreign countries and a long list of cities across the globe.

Sadly, the United States lags well behind, ranked 27th, with an average download speed of 9.87 Mbps, behind countries you'd expect to lead, such as South Korea, ranked first at 31.73 Mbps, and some you wouldn't, like the tiny Aaland Islands, an archipelago in the Baltic Sea, ranked fifth at 21.95 Mbps.

Even people in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, enjoy a download speed of 11.22 Mbps, while we San Franciscans, who pride ourselves on how connected we are, poke along at 8.38 Mbps.

To be fair, there is something a bit misleading about the data. As you probably know, Internet via cable is nearly always faster than DSL, which moves over copper wires, so averages from city to city and country to country reflect the technologies most in use and not necessarily the quality of the ISPs. Still, lagging behind Bishkek does not fill me with hometown pride.

The latency catch

Ookla CEO Mike Apgar has been working with Internet speed data for more than seven years. "I'd rather have a high-quality 10 Mpbs connection than a 15 Mpbs connection with high latency," he says.

That's because a number of factors, including, jittering and packet loss as well as latency, affect the performance of your Internet connection, along with the raw speed. To measure those factors, Ookla uses a separate testing site and has also released the results.

Interestingly, the five U.S. ISPs that ranked the highest overall were not the same as the five fastest. Indeed, none of the ISPs that ranked highest in the download tests were ranked highest by the quality tests performed by users at www.pingtest.net. One caveat: The spread in quality scores among most of the ISPs was fairly small, with anything over 80 considered acceptable, says Apgar.

For example, Comcast, with the fastest downloads, ranked 16th when measured by quality, though its score of 79.93 is barely below the acceptable range. The highest quality ISPs were Windstream (85.96), Tds Telecom (85.81), Verizon Internet Services (85.27), Qwest Communications (85.22) and Cox Communications (84.81).

It's worth noting that pingtest only gets about 10 percent or 15 percent of the testing volume that speedtest garners, so the results are not nearly as complete as the tests of downloads and uploads .

Beware the "up to" gotcha

A few months ago, I wrote about the annoying and misleading practice of selling broadband service by telling consumers that they'll get "up to" a certain speed. (See The Truth About Broadband Speeds.) The data from Ookla underlines that point. AT&T tells me that I'm entitled to upload speeds of "up to" 3 Mbps and download speeds of "up to" 384 kbps.

What do I have? Download speeds that average about 15 percent slower depending on the time of day, and upload speeds that are more or less as promised. I'm not just an unlucky exception. Average download speeds provided by SBC (that's actually AT&T, although the domain name differs) in San Francisco are just 2.72 Mpbs, well under the promised throughput, according to Ookla.

Sadly, when it comes to broadband service you often don't get what you pay for. But armed with Ookla's data, you're more likely to find a decent deal.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

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Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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