GRAND RAPIDS — The process wasn’t very dramatic-looking — just a lap top computer sitting there in the offices of The Right Place.
But according to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC), the device was compiling some very important information ultimately having to do with the community’s viability as a place for high-tech investments.
The assessment was an MEDC test of the quality of Internet services in Grand Rapids — one of 25 Michigan communities in which MEDC arranged the tests.
A firm named Technology Policy Group — an affiliate of the Ohio Super Computer Center — is conducting the test, which takes about two weeks at each site.
According to MEDC, the firm uses proprietary software to gauge the quality of service available to Internet users and provide a benchmark for further analysis.
The assessment is part of LinkMichigan, an initiative MEDC launched in May because of complaints from both industry and governments that telecommunications in the state isn’t all it needs to be.
Complaints fell in four areas:
- Dissatisfaction with broadband or bandwidth availability in the state.
- Lack of an adequate backbone infrastructure in many regions of the state to carry high-speed broadband traffic.
- Limited information on availability and accessibility of telecommunications infrastructure.
- Lack of understanding by many communities as to the importance of developing telecommunications infrastructure in their region.
Summing up the concern at the time was David Brandon, chairman of MEDC’s executive committee. He noted Michigan is a traditional economic powerhouse in economic development, but that tradition is no substitute for better telecommunications — especially in contrast with the “wire” backbones of states such as California.
“In today’s business environment, high-speed telecommunications service is becoming a necessity, not a luxury, for both the private and public sector,” he added.
What has dismayed MEDC is that — at least at the customer service level — some telephone companies seem clueless about advanced information technology.
When Doug Rothwell, the president of MEDC, moved to Ann Arbor he was astonished to learn that DSL service was not even available in what was supposedly the most high-tech town in Michigan.
Moreover, when MEDC announced the MichiganLink program, it did so at a Detroit tool and die shop which badly needed but was unable to obtain the same service.
But how badly Michigan lags its competitors never has been quite clear, and that’s one of the assessments to come out of the testing program.
MEDC advised that the network performance testing is the first part of a four-part plan that includes aggregating public demand, broadband mapping, providing community assistance and leveling the regulatory and taxing field for providers.
The tests in each region include an assessment of the number and quality of Internet service providers. It also inventories the availability of high bandwidth services.
Once the data are compiled, MEDC plans to make the information public.
To do the testing, a laptop computer is connected to a dedicated telephone line. It then runs 24/7 continuously dialing each ISP account in the area and running a series of tests. Results are then saved in a database. At least one location is being tested in each area code of the state.
The testing assesses the quality of ISP service by measuring busy signals. It records how many calls result in busy signals, assessing when the service is difficult to reach.
The assessment also involves:
- Ping tests, which measure the response times to and from a site by sending a packet (pinging) to a set of standard sites. Higher response times imply slower service to the end user.
- Transfer tests, using several protocols (http, FTP), which record transfer times to download files of known sizes.
This simulates the types of Internet activities an end-user would conduct. The data will enable a quantitative comparison of ISP performance. The actual measure is whether the routing infrastructure of the ISP (and its upstream feeds or peers) is sufficient to handle the total volume of traffic.
- Mail tests, which send mail from the host system to a receiving account. The time-to-receipt assesses the capacity of the mail function on the ISP server.
- Cross-tabulation of performance measures. According to the test designers, some relationships exist among the test results, one example being between connection speed and file transfer times, termed “achieved speed.”
These are tested using standard statistical analysis tools and shown in tables demonstrating overall network capacity in the region.
MEDC advises that the tests are building a robust database illuminating the differences in Internet services between regions and between urban, suburban and rural areas.
The other area communities covered in the project area are Muskegon, Kalamazoo, Monroe, Lansing and Benton Harbor.