Latency beats speed for most Internet activity

This evening, editors at Quora asked me to suggest network optimization methods to enhance the Internet experience of Internet gamers. My 5-step reply, below, is good practice for anyone who wants a zippier Internet experience.

Forums across the web stress a high Internet service connection speed as the panacea for gaming or a web experience that lacks zing. Sure, speed is important for network backup or streaming HD video (although, the bottleneck may lie within the video server or it be caused by a backhaul peering spat, or a financial dispute between Netflix and your own ISP). But for everything else — especially a robust web surfing experience, speed takes a back seat to latency. That frustration that you feel when web pages don’t pop up instantly after a click is more likely related to latency than throughput.

Speed is the rate at which a open or streaming data connection passes data. It is measured in megabits per second. In 2014, a speed or ‘bandwidth’ of 30 or 50 Mbps is typical for residential cable or fiber optic service. With their FIOS service, Verizon offers consumers speeds of up to 300 mbps.

Latency is quite different than speed. It is a measurement of the delay in getting a single packet from point A to point B. It is typically measured in milliseconds. (35 ms is typical of an optimized route. 65 ms is tolerable and 120 ms yields a frustrating experience. If you are a gamer or you use VOIP (voice-over-Internet protocol), you should test the latency to various hosting services, with an eye toward observing latency under 50ms. Otherwise, you will notice a lag in responses coming from the other side of your connection. On phone calls, this is particularly annoying.

Because latency involves two end points, measurement entails choosing a remote web server or Internet page. In Windows, latency is measured using a command prompt and the PING or TRACERT commands. (This article is not meant to explain the command or be a procedural tutorial. Look it up or ask your neighborhood Geek).

If you discover very short latency with some sites, but much longer with a few, then the problem is not within your home or local ISP infrastructure. It is related to the remote site that is part of your test or something in the path that is closer to it than to you. But if you find that latency is poor for most of the sites that you choose in your tests, then the problem is very likely with your ISP or even in your own home or business.

Here, then, are my suggestions for a great gaming experience—or similarly, a zippier web surfing session. Tips for reducing latency are offered in the footnote to #1…

1. A fast internet connection: 25 Mbps or better should do. 50 is much better if other family members like to watch Netflix or Amazon Prime while you access the Internet.*

2. Try to use a direct connection to the Internet rather than WiFi. If that’s not possible, use the latest technology—an 802.11AC router. (If you really want to burn rubber, check out the Netgear Nighthawk series). Make sure that any switch or router inside your home supports 1 Gbps at each Ethernet port.

3. Discourage others in your home from doing backups, file transfers, Netflix streaming, Skype or VOIP calls. Even if they are not accessing the WAN/uplink, they will likely hog the limited aggregate bandwidth of your switch or router. Even printing can interfere with gaming unless the user has an ad-hoc/p2p connection with the printer. (This is rare).

4. Check your game documentation for any special requirements such as the need for a phase-inverted, biturbo micro-encabulator. ** [Continue below video]

5. [Advaced]: Learn about the frame buffer feature in your router or switch and study the communications optimization features of your operating system. In some cases, a tool from your ISP can do wonders to optimize some of the esoteric Windows or Mac settings.

* Even more important than a fast Internet connection is the need for a short round trip packet latency. Use a command prompt or diagnostic app to test the ping time (delay) between you and IP addresses of the gaming server or other critical nodes that you can identify.

If ping times are more than 65 ms, look for a different Internet service or perhaps the problem is within your home… Reduce the number of switches and routers between you and the Internet. With a little fine tuning (for example, experimenting with gaming sites that offer multiple hosting cities), you may get the ping time below 35 ms. That would make a big difference in your gaming experience. It may give you the edge that you need.

** I was kidding in #4. There’s no such thing as a biturbo micro encabulator. But still, you should check the gaming documentation!

Malaysia 370: Unexplored possibility

Malasia Air flight 370With nearly a month since the disappearance of Malaysia Air flight 370 with 239 souls on board, the pundits have put forth many theories to explain the mystery of the missing jumbo jet. They explore possibilities such as mechanical failure, terrorist passengers, a mentally unbalanced pilot or copilot, a fire or electrical problem caused by batteries or something stored in the cargo bayand the leading early theory: a plot to steal the plane.

But I have not seen another explanation—one that, to me, seems entirely more likely…

Malasia Air pilot & copilot

Zaharie Ahmad Shah,      Fariq Abdul Hamid

A reasonable explanation for the disappearance of this plane is the accidental lockout of authorized individuals from the cockpit. In the past decade, the cockpits of large planes have been turned into fortresses. The cockpit door has been fortified to withstand attack by axe or explosive. To enter the flight deck, a layered security protocol requires a passcode from the outside in combination with authorization from the inside or 3rd party cooperation. If the flight crew rushed to the doorway due to an innocent event (say the injury of an attendant who was just entering or someone falling as they stood up), or if the crewman remaining in the cockpit was incapacitated by accident or illness, it seems entirely possible that the plane could fly on autopilot while the crew struggles in vain to re-enter the flight deck.

No one at the controls

No one at the controls

Cabin-Ground Communication?

I wonder if Boeing or a jumbo jet pilot can tell us this: If all individuals are locked out of a cockpit as a plane flies on, is there any way to establish voice contact with the flight controllers in Malaysia, Vietnam, or even via satellite? I can imagine that a call might be possible from the cabin phone or perhaps there are Bluetooth-like devices in the galley. But with the recent fortress-like upgrades, I wonder if designers had sufficient foresight to ensure that every plane shipped in any configuration was equipped with cabin-ground capability—and that the all devices were charged and the crew regularly tested on their location and use.

New Topic: Black Box Pinger

While we’re discussing the disappearance of Malaysia Air flight 370, here is something else that I could never figure out.The media informs us that the best batteries we can achieve in a small, indestructible container last for only 30 days. (And that assumes that they are fresh, were recently charged, and stored at the proper temperature!). But this raises a very obvious question (obvious to Wild Ducks, that is)…

“Pings” broadcast from gray cylinder (left)

“Pings” broadcast from gray cylinder (left)

Rather than using a limited reserve to continuously ping for help, why not listen instead? After all, the ping can only penetrate ocean water for a mile or two. It would consume far less power to wait in “standby” mode until the unit is interrogated by a roaming device seeking response. In fact, if the pinger was primarily in a passive state until polled, I bet that the designers could budget for a much bigger energy burst on the ping. After all, when sensing an interrogation, someone is getting within range and we saved all the energy we would have spent on thousands of useless pings during past months!

Ellery Davies is a partner at CRYPSA, the Cryptocurrency Standards Association.
He is a frequent contributor to Yahoo News, Forbes and The Wall Street Journal.