Technology & Science

CIRA internet performance tests show Western Canada lags

Internet speed varies widely in different parts of Canada — and is generally slower in the West, according to measurements from 60,000 locations across the country.

Canada is behind at implementing new internet technology

The test also looked at measures of internet 'quality,' such as ping and jitter – a measure of round-trip data travel times. When they're too long, people experience them as garbled voice calls or Netflix time-outs. (CBC)

Internet speed varies widely in different parts of Canada — and is generally slower in the west, according to measurements from 60,000 locations across the country.

The 126,000 tests (including multiple tests from some locations) were conducted by ordinary internet users between May and December 2015 using a tool posted online by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority. They measured dozens of different indicators of internet performance, including upload and download speeds, although not all have been analyzed yet.

The results showed a Canada-wide average download speed of 18.64 megabits per second. That's fast enough to download a 5GB HD movie in 36 minutes. It's considerably faster than the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission's broadband speed target of 5 megabits per second, but slower than the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's target of 25 megabits per second.

All provinces west of Ontario, except for Saskatchewan, had below average download speeds.

"Western cities seem to be lagging significantly behind eastern cities," said Byron Holland, president and CEO of CIRA. "Right away, that sparks interesting conversation. Why is that? What's happening? What's the west going to do about it?"

That's the kind of discussion he hopes the results will generate among internet users, policy makers, researchers and network providers.

The highest average download speed was in New Brunswick, at 27 megabits per second.

As expected, northern areas had slower internet speeds than southern parts of the country.  And rural connections were slower than urban connections — but only by 25 per cent, not as big a difference as might be expected, Holland said.

There was huge variation in download speed, even between neighbourhoods in the same city. 

"What does that mean? If you're buying a house is that going to impact you, if you're setting up a business should you go to this neighbourhood or that neighbourhood? Why is that? If a given ISP is providing service to the entire city, how come some neighbourhoods are better provisioned than other neighbourhoods," Holland said.

Slow uploads

The average upload speed in Canada was just 7.26 megabits per second — less than 40 per cent of the average download speed. Holland said upload speeds have traditionally been slower, but that's starting to have an impact on perceived performance, now that people are uploading far more photos and video to the cloud and using services like video conferencing: "Pushing things to the net is now as important as acquiring things from the net."

The test also looked at measures of internet "quality," such as ping and jitter,  based on round-trip data travel times. When they're too long, people experience them as garbled voice calls or Netflix time-outs — things people may mistakenly think are due to other factors such as download speed.

"As overall speed increases to a point where we can all be relatively satisfied with it," Holland said, "quality will start to become equally or potentially even more important measure than pure raw speed."

The report also highlighted Canada's slow adoption of new internet technologies. Canada has just 2.4 per cent adoption of current generation internet addresses, known as IPv6. That's far below the global adoption of 10 per cent. If Canadian networks don't upgrade, there will be soon be a lot of addresses on the internet that Canadians won't be able to access, Holland warns. He likened it to navigating with outdated maps that don't show the newest roads and neighbourhoods.

Canada has also been very slow to adopt DNSSEC, a new security protocol that could prevent many kinds of malicious attacks. Holland thinks the country needs to step up its game.

"We have a history of leading in telco and internet and there's no reason we shouldn't be that leader again," he said. "Security, and therefore trust, is absolutely critical in being a leader in the digital world."

CIRA's internet performance measurement website uses a tool created by M-Lab, which provides a variety of open internet performance data and applications.

They're designed to measure real network conditions, which depend on things like congestion and the routing of internet traffic.

"It's an internet performance test — it's not a 'my computer's and ISP's speed' test," Holland said.

Because of that, the test results and implications may be quite different from those that use other methods, such as recent performance tests run by the CRTC. Those used boxes installed in the homes of about 3,000 Canadians to test very local connections, and found that speeds were generally as high as advertised.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 140,000 tests were conducted between May and December 2015. In fact, only 126,000 were conducted in that time period. The remainder were conducted in 2016 and not included in the analysis.
    Apr 29, 2016 8:28 AM ET

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