Last month, Netflix released performance rankings of the top networks in America, much to the embarrassment of Internet service provider Clearwire, which placed dead last. But Netflix's rankings did little more than provide a one-time snapshot of ISPs from Comcast to Time Warner to Verizon—and only from a national perspective, offering consumers negligible insight into what networks perform best in their local areas.
Enter BitTorrent. The San Francisco-based file-transfer company, which now boasts more monthly active users than Hulu and Netflix combined at 100 million, has been developing a skunkworks project that could serve as the true national and international report card for ISP performance.
"We looked at Netflix's [data], and we thought, we can have some fun with this, because we have data that is miles better—miles, miles better," says Simon Morris, VP of products at BitTorrent. "We have download traffic, upload traffic, BitTorrent traffic, and we have HTTP traffic. So we can answer questions like: I live in this city in the world—it could be anywhere, literally anywhere—which ISP should I use? Which is the fastest? Which ISP is messing with BitTorrent traffic? Because we have this data, we can see the difference in speeds by time of day."
As he gives me a peek at the data, Morris stresses that the project is in its "really raw" early stages—but it sure is impressive, despite the basic pre-alpha design. Two drop-down menus let you organize ISP performance by country and city. "Let's go to Greece—this is the average for Greece over a week," Morris says, guiding his finger along the ups-and-downs of a dozen or more networks in the country. "You can see people going to bed at night, and when they get up. You can see that on Saturday, [it's] back down." He then zeros in on Athens, where the data is narrowed to the ISPs just in the Greek capital.
We bounce around to a few other cities and countries in our world tour of network performance. "In the U.K., I know that most ISPs aggressively throttle BitTorrent traffic after 6 p.m. at night," Morris says. "Speeds go off a cliff."
BitTorrent provided Fast Company readers a sneak peek at the project, but only with the ISPs blurred. Here's a look at the report card for San Francisco, showing how the city's ISPs rank well below the national average, for the most part.
Over in Brussels, we see a much healthier and more competitive market than in the U.S., with ISPs neck-and-neck in performance and matching or passing the average for Belgium as a whole.
Back stateside, to show just how specific the data can get, here's a look at the small town of Ramsey, Illinois (population 1,056) demonstrating how far behind some suburbs are from the national average.
And lastly, to show the near-endless range of BitTorrent's data, here's a look at the city drop-down menu for Italy, from Ramano Di Lombardia to Ronco All'adige. The list of countries and cities goes on and on and on. "We have clients in every country in the world, seven days a week for the most part," says BitTorrent CEO Eric Klinker. "We cache over 9,000 ISPs."
What to do with all this data is another story. Says Morris: "This is certainly an interesting resource for being a guardian of net neutrality."
Not that that was the project's aim. "It wasn't meant to be a report card on ISPs, not by a long shot," Klinker says.
BitTorrent is trying to figure out possible applications for the data—the team is very open to hearing new ideas. The company is currently using the data internally to improve the user experience and spot areas where the technology's performance could work better with ISPs.
But Klinker says he only wants to use the project for "helpful and constructive" purposes, and is not interested in picking any fights with the service providers themselves. He adds that BitTorrent is also wary of privacy concerns, and makes clear that the company has absolutely no visibility into what its users are transmitting, especially in terms of file types or size.
Although the skunkworks project is a long way from market (if the data is ever actually released), BitTorrent recognizes that it has something no one else has—not even Netflix.
"We have a broad sample of data that would be impossible to replicate with any other application," Klinker says.
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