Fiber broadband: Know what you're signing up for

Things to look out for before you ink that fiber broadband contract

Speeds that enable lightning-fast downloads (and uploads) and broadband services not possible before, along with aggressive price plans and bundle offers from ISPs, it makes little to no sense not to go the optical fiber route when your existing dial-up, ADSL, or cable broadband contract is up, or when you're wiring up your new home.

If there are two things you must do before signing up for a plan, one of them is to make sure your premise is ready for fiber.

Like buying anything in real life, the second thing you need to do is a bit of research; and in this case, it's knowing what the various broadband terms mean, so that it makes sense when you start comparing plans from the different ISPs. Sure, you can have the promoters explain them to you; but going into the shop prepared is always a good thing, as it increases the chance of alarm bells going off in you when a clueless salesperson is trying to hoodwink you.

ISPs' own fiber broadband resources

Thanks to the Internet, a lot of the research and comparison can be done at the comfort of your home. Of course, in most cases, what we really want to know are the plans on offer. If you want to cut to the chase, you can find the links to the six local home fiber broadband service providers' current price plans below.

Also noteworthy are the FAQs put out by the ISPs. Let's face it: customer service officers aren't always perfect. They may know the price plans at the back of their hand or the upgrade charges if you're still within 12 months of your current contract, but they may not be equipped to answer technical questions like how typical speed ranges are derived or what's the company's traffic shaping policy.

Instead of wasting time being put on hold, it's sometimes quicker to skim through the FAQs or support pages. Again, you can find the links to the main ones below. We could of course extract the relevant information out to compare, but given the volatile nature of prices and terms offered, we've decided to link you to the respective pages for the most updated information.

 

 
Price PlanLink 1, 2LinkLinkLinkLinkLink
FAQLinkLinkLinkLinkNALink

With that out of the way, let's look into a few of the finer aspects of fiber broadband, things that are important but are usually not highlighted (you know, those fine print) in the marketing collaterals.

1.) Subscribed speed vs. real-world speed

Do you know that the (insert number here) Mbps fiber broadband plan that you've subscribed to is a theoretical maximum speed and that you don't hit that kind of speed most of the time? Well, now you know.

A better metric to pay attention to is the typical speed range, which is a range of download speeds that you're more likely to experience. In some cases (e.g., M1, ViewQwest), this range consists of a mix of local and international downloads, and the result is applicable 80 per cent of the time (because it's taken at the 10th and 90th percentile of the speed distribution of the collected data points).

Note too that such tests are always done with a wired connection. In other words, even if all the planets align, you'll never hit that 1,000Mbps speed if your computer is connected over a Wireless 802.11n Wi-Fi network that tops out at 600Mbps.

Below is a table showing the typical download speed ranges for the various plans from M1, StarHub, and ViewQwest. StarHub is unique because it even breaks it down to local and international speed ranges.

 

 
PlanOverallLocalInternationalOverall
100 Mpbs97.2 - 99.760 -10071.2 - 99.4NA
150 MpbsNA90 - 15073.5 - 109.522.7 - 148.5
200 Mpbs194.6 - 199.3120 - 199.274.2 - 115.630.2 - 198.2*
300 Mpbs

294.9 - 299.4;
296.9 - 304.2
(GamePro)

180 - 300113.2 - 179.447.2 - 296.1
500 Mpbs481.7 - 497300 -491.1126.3 - 207.5117.5 - 493.2
1,000 Mpbs657.3 - 803.6586.6 - 885.6306.6 - 414.3237 - 981.7
Note: Typical speed range figures according to current published data on respective ISP's website. *ViewQwest 200Mbps typical speed range kindly provided by ViewQwest.

For SingTel, it says that you're able to experience average download speeds as advertised 95 per cent of the time. While the largest ISP in Singapore doesn't publish any typical download speeds, a spokesperson pointed us to IDA's quarterly broadband report (more on that below), which shows that SingTel's fiber broadband speeds are right up there with StarHub. It's worth noting too that at this moment, the chart contains results between March and May, which means the story is always changing. In our opinion, this serves to keep the ISPs on their toes.

For MyRepublic, there's no speed limit imposed on international downloads as well, and the company claims that its unique data prioritization system affords everyone maximum advertised bandwidth 99 per cent of the time for streaming, surfing, gaming, and VoIP. And while typical download speeds aren't available at the moment, the company has plans to publish them soon. For SuperInternet whose both residential plans have an advertised speed of 100Mbps, it averages 92Mbps for local sites and 72.35Mbps for international (US specifically).

Of course, with different testing methodologies and incomplete info from the ISPs, these results are at best a gauge of what to expect. Another good resource to supplement what the ISPs tell us is the aforementioned SamKnows data (which include download throughput, upload throughput, latency, and packet loss) published over at IDA's website.

For those unaware, SamKnows Pte Ltd is the vendor commissioned by IDA to assess the performance of the fixed broadband networks in Singapore; and the results are compiled from a total of over 900 test probes installed in the homes of volunteers. That said, only results from 200Mbps and below plans are published; if you've a faster plan, the HardwareZone NGBN forum is a good place to hang out, as our members frequently post their SamKnows report cards or Speedtest results.

2.) Symmetric upload/download speeds (mostly)

In the past, Internet usage was asymmetric, as in we downloaded way more than we uploaded. So by way of design and economics, even with high-speed ADSL and cable Internet connections, you got a disportionately slower upload speed compared to your subscribed download speed. For example, it's common for a 100Mbps cable connection to have a 10Mbps upstream limit.

While we haven't heard of anyone bringing pitchforks to ISPs' offices to demand for higher upload speeds (there were some grouses, sure), one major advantage of fiber broadband is that it brought about a great bump in upload speed. Case in point: even the 'slowest' 50Mbps upload speed we've seen in a fiber broadband plan is way faster than what we had in yesteryears. So even if you aren't a heavy downloader, fiber broadband can be immensely helpful if you share files with others or stash things in the cloud a lot (think photo and video backups).

Despite the upload speed increase in fiber broadband, it was only last year that we saw most ISPs moving from asymmetric bandwidth (e.g., 100Mbps downstream/50Mbps upstream) to symmetric bandwidth (e.g., 100Mbps downstream/100Mbps upstream); that is, your subscribed upload speed is the same as your subscribed download speed.

At this moment, M1, StarHub, and ViewQwest have moved to symmetric bandwidth for most, if not all, of their home fiber broadband plans. SingTel doesn't explicitly say it on its website, but we've independently confirmed with a spokesperson that SingTel's plans are symmetric too. An exception is the 1,000Mbps (or 1Gbps) plan offered by the likes of StarHub, ViewQwest, and MyRepublic. For their 1Gbps plans, the upload speed is capped at 500Mbps.

Of course, you may ask, "What about the typical upload speeds?" At this moment, IDA doesn't require ISPs to publish typical upload speeds. But you can find out how the ISPs fared in general in the past few months from the SamKnows results on IDA's website (again, 200Mbps and below plans only). And yes, our very active forum is another good avenue.

3.) Traffic shaping

In a nutshell, traffic shaping is a network management technique often used by ISPs to ensure that their networks operate in an efficient manner. Wikipedia has a very good explanation of what it entails: "Traffic shaping provides a means to control the volume of traffic being sent into a network in a specified period (bandwidth throttling), or the maximum rate at which the traffic is sent (rate limiting)".

Now, traffic shaping has sort of become a dirty word among advanced users because for it to work, some traffic are prioritized over others. Broadly speaking, ISPs who implement traffic shaping (or traffic management) aren't really bothered by high HTTP, FTP, or SMTP traffic.

However, they're very concerned with P2P (peer-to-peer) traffic (e.g., file sharing using BitTorrent). For the most part, the reason given is sound: it's to ensure that the small percentage of P2P users don't use up the majority of the bandwidth at the expense of other, non-P2P users.

Yes, it's true that the fiber broadband 'pipe' is way larger than ADSL or cable's, but ISPs will be quick to point out that all of Singapore's fiber broadband services run on a shared residential-grade fiber broadband service provisioned by OpenNet, and so, it's never dedicated.

In Singapore, the three major ISPs (SingTel, StarHub, M1) are known to perform network management. In general, they all target P2P protocols and the traffic shaping kicks in during peak hours (e.g., 6pm to 2am on weekdays, 11am to 2am on weekends).

Of course, each ISP has its own implementation details, so one ISP's network management policy may kick in earlier or throttle the speed more than the other. Also, while traffic shaping isn't usually done during off peak hours, it isn't a rule cast in stone. It may still kick in if the level of P2P activity has crossed a predetermined threshold.

When it happens, the download speed of your P2P app is greatly reduced, sometimes by as much as four times. Of course, if you're only browsing the web, replying emails, or watching YouTube, and don't use P2P apps, you shouldn't notice any slowdown.

Naturally, most of the people who are against traffic shaping are those who use P2P applications. There are also some who believe all types of traffic should be treated equally. For these users, their frustrations are understandable: what's the point of a super-high-speed connection if they can't make use of it fully? This is why many heavy P2P users have turned to ISPs like MyRepublic and ViewQwest.

According to MyRepublic's FAQ, because it employs a flexible traffic data prioritization system, it sees no need to impose a hard bandwidth cap or BitTorrent blocking. But it then goes on to say that this is assuming the P2P apps don't disrupt higher priority applications like video streaming and gaming. That said, a MyRepublic spokesperson told us it's unlikely that its network can't cope with P2P traffic, as the company always plans for redundancy, and will actively increase the capacity to cater for higher loads.

For ViewQwest, its FAQ has a question that goes like this: "Does ViewQwest restrict any ports or do any traffic shaping?" Its answer is short and sweet: "No."

All that said, know that traffic shaping is just one way to explain slow P2P download speeds. Your computer's configuration, the P2P app you use and its settings, and the number of peering nodes all play a part to determine the eventual speed. In other words, don't always blame your ISP. And to reiterate, if you don't do P2P file sharing (to be fair, most subscribers don't), you shouldn't be affected at all by your ISP's traffic shaping policy; on the contrary, it ensures your Internet experience isn't being adversely affected by those who're abusing the bandwidth.

4.) Gaming-oriented plans

You may have noticed that some ISPs are also offering gamer-centric fiber broadband plans, such as M1's 300Mbps GamePro plan and MyRepublic's 1Gbps Gamer Ultra Edition plan.

In short, these plans offer features that appeal to online gamers, such as low latency (through custom routing). For MyRepublic's case, its network data prioritization system already ranks gaming traffic as the highest priority, alongside VoIP and network protocols like DNS and SSL.

In addition, it attempts to minimise latency (or lag) further through custom routing to specific overseas game servers, even during peak hours. To sweeten the deal even more, the plan offers additional game bonuses and retail privileges.

For M1's gaming plan, it's the same story: gaming traffic gets the highest prioritization, committed lower latency, custom routes to overseas servers, and gaming-related freebies (currently, it's a SteelSeries Sensei mouse).

At this point, you may wonder if being on the 'slower' 300Mbps subscribed speed means its gaming performance isn't as good as MyRepublic's 1Gbps gamer plan. In theory, the higher bandwidth doesn't count for anything if the latency or response time is high, and the information doesn't reach you quick enough.

Of course, assuming both having the same low latency, MyRepublic's plan is on paper more attractive because it has bandwidth to spare if you're also engaging other activities like downloading files or if other members in the family are sharing the same connection.

On the other hand, there are people who dislike such gaming-oriented plans, because they also see this as a form of traffic shaping, and that the latency is adjusted via software means, which in turn enables ISPs to come out with more expensive plans. Naturally, for most of us, the question is whether that means online games are unplayable on our non-gaming plans.

If you look at the latency report on IDA's website, average international (rather, US) latency among the ISPs' 200Mbps and below plans is anywhere between 200 to 230ms, which is decent, but not great.

The caveats are that we don't know what are the results for the higher-speed plans (both gaming and non-gaming plans), and obviously, the data doesn't apply if the servers you're trying to reach reside elsewhere (e.g., ideally, you should get below 100ms for Asia servers). Short of sounding like a broken record, let's just stress once more that we've a lot of helpful members in the forum.

Conclusion

Before fiber broadband, most of us are either on an ADSL or a cable connection, and are contracted to one of the big three ISPs. So naturally, when it's time to upgrade, the path of least friction is to first look at what our current ISP is offering, and stay with it to minimise disruptions to existing services.

For example, if you're hooked on MioTV or your whole family is contracted to SingTel Mobile, you're likely to be attracted to SingTel's fiber entertainment bundle plans, which comes with over 50 channels on MioTV, handset upgrade and mobile subscription discounts.

Similarly, if you like to watch your shows on the go, you may be lured by StarHub's plans that come with free StarHub TV Lite subscription. We also know of people who went for M1 because they've good experiences on M1's mobile side of things.

Of course, with new players like MyRepublic, SuperInternet, and ViewQwest coming into the residential fiber broadband space, we now have more choices.

The old adage "Buy only what you need" is still very much applicable here, though it's often easier said than done, especially when it comes to a brand new technology like fiber (the kaleidoscope of deals doesn't help too).

For some consumers, what they want is the cheapest price plan; and if they're willing to tolerate some hiccups along the way (they may not even notice things like the Internet is crawling today), who are we to say that they're wrong? They got what they wanted, and are happy, so that's that.

But sometimes, price isn't everything, which is why we went to great lengths to discuss the finer points of fiber broadband, like real-world speeds, the pros and cons of traffic shaping, and the merits of gaming-oriented plans.

Hopefully, by understanding them and matching them with your own needs, you would be able to make a more informed buying decision. For example, are you a Netflix, Hulu, or ITV addict? If so, it may be better to go with either MyRepublic or ViewQwest who offer DNS routing add-on services (Teleport and Freedom VPN respectively) that allow you to easily get to such overseas content.

Conversely, such services are useless to you if you only watch YouTube, and you're better off signing up for a plan that gives you a free laptop. Last but not least, things like network reliability and quality of after-sales support can't be gleaned from the ISPs' websites.

 


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