M-Labs: An Attempt to Gather Grassroots Metrics for Bandwidth Problems

I noted with interest the announcement of Measurement Lab, a partly Google-backed initiative to give Internet users and researchers free measurement tools that can help quantify what kinds of service they’re getting from ISPs, and much more. With all the arguments swirling about tiered broadband pricing, and ISPs throttling users’ bandwidth and performance, I’m all in favor of this idea. It doesn’t work quite as it’s supposed to yet, but you can still take a tour of what’s to come.

Here’s what I found.

Measurement Lab, or M-Lab, was founded by the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, the PlanetLab Consortium, Google (s goog), and academic researchers. As you can see on the right of the organization’s Welcome page, it’s broken up into one area for “Users” and one for “Researchers.” Again, the goal of the effort is to serve the needs of both.

I went to the Users section and looked over and tried some of the diagnostic tools. While there may have been a problem with network security tools and firewalls in play, I wasn’t able to get M-Labs’ basic, 20-second Network Diagnostic Tool to provide any accurate throughput data. When I clicked the Start button as instructed, I kept getting “Network Process Not Running” error messages. Also, as it stands, the diagnostic tool takes you to M-Lab servers running only in the San Francisco Bay Area, but the organization fully acknowledges that the tool “works best when using a server that is geographically close to you.”

To be fair, though, the site has just been introduced — clearly identified with a beta logo — and the suite of tools as well as servers you can ping to run tests is slated to grow. I’m going to try tests on a couple of other systems when I get home to see if the problem in testing was on my end.

There are various freeware tools, such as QCheck, that you can use to get a general sense of your throughput and whether bandwidth is being throttled. However, I like the fact that M-Labs is shooting for these two goals: 1) an easy diagnostic suite of tests that requires no download; 2) aggregation of test data so that throttling problems and bandwidth problems in general can be identified by geographical location and analyzed.  It hasn’t met these goals until workable tests and widely available servers in disparate geographical locations are in place, but with the backing the organization has, I’m sure all this will come along. Google, in particular, may be able to lend a meaningful hand. Given the two-fisted control that ISPs tend to have over all of us, this could lead to grassroots identification of problems that can be solved more quickly than they are now.