tvOS and the Need for Internet Speed

October 27th, 2015

Just the other day, I read an article about a new feature in iOS 9 known as App Thinning. It’s basic function is to limit the resources of an app to what’s needed on your device. So your iPhone 6s will download a slightly different version of an app than your iPad Air 2. The latter is, of course, optimized for a larger display, so it hardly makes sense to download content you’ll never need. It also means that you’ll save space, and this is particularly helpful if you have one of those 16GB models.

This plays out in a more sophisticated fashion on the new Apple TV. With tvOS, initial app downloads are limited to 200MB. That may not seem to be sufficient, and, on the surface, it doesn’t leave much flexibility to install fancy games and other apps that have lots of things to do and thus require far more resources. Apple’s solution is to push that extra data on demand, meaning that parts of an app will be download in the background ready for use as needed. But unused resources, such as the early steps in a game when you’ve advanced to higher levels, will be unloaded. Discarded.

It all sounds so neat, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, for one thing, it’s the speed of your Internet connection. Not everyone has 25 megabits, which is the minimum broadband speed in the U.S. according to the FCC. So what may take seconds to prefetch in one home or office, may take long minutes elsewhere. Remember that the Apple TV will be available in a number of locations where Internet speeds are uncertain and sometimes unreliable. One assumes the system is smart enough to begin to retrieve the data you need before you actually start to use it, but we’ll know more after the fourth generation Apple TV ships and customers have a chance to run a variety of apps on it.

Indeed, I wonder how many of you are even getting the Internet speeds you’re paying for.

There’s a published report that New York state’s activist attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, is investigating Verizon, Cablevision and Time Warner Cable to determine whether they are charging customers for faster broadband speeds than they actually deliver. The initial requests include the testing that these ISPs have done to verify their claimed speeds.

But there’s already a possible excuse for poor broadband speeds, which is that speeds might suffer when your ISP is connecting to long-haul carriers, such as Cogent Communications and Level 3. They are the intermediaries in this connection setup, moving traffic to and from your ISP. If things fall down where one of these companies picks up the load, even if you have a valid 100 megabit connection, the sites that pass through those carriers will be real slow.

Doesn’t that sort of let the ISPs off the hook? After all, it may not be their service that’s not delivering the goods. Well, except for the fact that they should be taking the responsibility to work with intermediary providers to make sure you are getting all the speed you ordered.

It reminds me of a problem I had with CenturyLink a couple of years ago. I had a sweetheart deal for a year or two, a real low price for a connection where I routinely benchmarked speeds between 40 and 50 megabits. I was only promised 40 mbps. I should have been happy, but whenever I tried to send and receive files from one of our web servers, hosted by iWeb of Montreal, I was lucky to get a tiny fraction of the advertised download and upload speeds. Sometimes traffic moved along at dialup speeds.

I had iWeb check my server, and they sent me stats that demonstrated that everything was working properly in the datacenter at the point where the connection was being handed off to their upstream providers.

Over the next few weeks, I went through several levels of support at CenturyLink. They each asserted that my online connection was robust, and that the advertised speeds were met and exceeded. But when the connection was handed off at either end to Cogent, things went downhill. I went so far as to open a service ticket with Cogent. It appears that there was a sort of traffic dispute with CenturyLink that apparently resulted in traffic throttling. Obviously I was not the only one to be impacted, but my complaint had gone up to the legal department at CenturyLink. In the end, each side blamed the other, but I had the promise from CenturyLink that they would try to help.

A few days later, I ran another speed test from the server, and was delighted to see everything moving at full clip. When I ran a traceroute to and from the server, I discovered that the traffic was now moving from CenturyLink to Tata Communications rather than Cogent. Tata, which has a worldwide carrier network that competes with Cogent, just happens to be a division of the same India-based company that builds Land Rovers and Jaguars.

Regardless, my connection problems were solved, but I can see where such issues are not uncommon. The ISP is off the hook, because their traffic is moving at the proper speed. And, as you see, the intermediate carrier may, in turn, blame the ISP when slowdowns occur.

Aside from this conflict between CenturyLink and Cogent, my broadband experience in Arizona has been mostly positive. Both CenturyLink and Cox usually deliver speeds that mostly meet or exceed the advertised levels. From time to time, the signal does slow down, particularly during the evening when lots of people are flooding their Internet connections with computers, smartphones, tablets, game consoles, and video streamers

But it’s a good thing the authorities in New York state are holding an ISP’s feet to the fire. Unfortunately, not everyone benefits from speeds of 100 megabits, one gigabit, or even higher. But as more and more of you depend on a reliable online hookup, speeds are only one factor. There’s also the bandwidth cap. If your new Apple TV is regularly downloading up to 2GB of data as app resources are swapped, and that’s the maximum according to current tvOS guidelines, how long will it be before you have consumed a few hundred GB and hit or exceeded your ISP’s bandwidth limits? That is the potential Achilles heel of App Thinning, and I wonder how Apple plans to handle it. Or maybe Apple will just sit back and let customers sort things out with their ISPs.

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2 Responses to “tvOS and the Need for Internet Speed”

  1. Paul roberts says:

    Of course, all too often, those speed test sites and apps go to a local or regional server owned by your own ISP… How much can we trust that? Plus, it’s been reported that the ISPs are very clever about ensuring rapid transmission at the start, specially of tests, that thereby inflates the speeds! It’s the Internet tech world parallel of VW’s defeat devices!

    • @Paul roberts, This is the one I use:

      It’s not owned by Cox, or Comcast or Time Warner Cable, but tests to find the nearest server to run the benchmark.

      When I ran the test of my Cox connection, it used the Phoenix NAP, a local datacenter, for its benchmarks. Downloads and uploads were about 10% faster than advertised. It will slow up some in the evening, but remains acceptable.


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