Akamai Details Winners, Losers in Broadband Race

About one-fifth of all Internet traffic passes through an Akamai server on the way to its destination—and even the four-fifths that doesn’t leaves ripples in the network that the Cambridge, MA-based content distribution network can easily detect. Indeed, with 34,000 servers monitoring traffic within and between 950 networks in 70 countries, Akamai may have the world’s most complete picture of Internet usage. And this week the company is sharing part of that picture, releasing its first report on “The State of the Internet.”

While the report summarizes Akamai’s data on network performance, security threats, and per-capita Internet penetration for the first three months of 2008, the longest section is devoted to a comparison of broadband connectivity in various countries and U.S. states. Unsurprisingly, South Korea is still about a century ahead of the rest of the world. And here at home, it turns out that the “First State” of Delaware also happens to be first in broadband.

It’s the first time Akamai has given the general public a peek at the extensive data it collects on the Internet’s behavior and performance—information that has previously been shared only with Akamai customers (and with various government agencies the company says it’s not at liberty to name). Akamai director of market intelligence David Belson, who assembled the report, says it’s just the first in a series of quarterly overviews intended to highlight notable events and trends affecting the global computer network—and to showcase the company’s unique perspective on those trends, once described by Wired magazine as “a God’s-eye view of the Internet.”

“This is an avenue for Akamai to reinforce our thought leadership position in the market, and to get people to think about us as more than a content distribution network,” Belson says. “It allows people to see that we have some deep knowledge about the Internet. And it will be invaluable for customers considering including more rich media on their site, as they’ll be able to look at this data and know whether the bandwidth is there to reach the people they’re hoping to reach.”

The report certainly offers a storehouse of statistics for Internet mavens. Over 50 percent of all distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks launched in the first quarter of 2008, for example, originated in just four countries: China, the United States, Taiwan, and Venezuela. (A DDoS attack is an attempt to shut down a specific Web server by flooding it with spurious requests—such as the January assault by the online group known as “Anonymous” on the Church of Scientology website.)

The Akamai report also includes data on network crises such as the severing of four undersea cables in the Mediterranean by stray ship’s anchors in late January and early February, reducing the bandwidth between Europe and the Middle East by 75 percent. An animated visualization created by Akamai shows that data traveling between the two regions took up to three times longer to reach its destination after the cable cuts. (In a rare moment of self-promotion, the report notes that Akamai customers were not affected by the outage, since the company’s automatic routing technology quickly registers such interruptions and sends traffic around them.)

Fastest Countries
Country% above 2 Mbps
South Korea93
Hong Kong87

The Akamai data that is likely to generate the most interest is about Internet penetration and broadband usage in various regions. As a rule, every device connected to the Internet has a unique Internet Protocol address—though in some cases, large networks of devices are represented by a single address. Simply by counting the unique addresses connected to the network and comparing the addresses to a geographic database of IP addresses, Akamai was able to determine roughly how many Internet-connected devices there are in each country. In the first three months of 2008, the country with the largest absolute number of unique IP addresses was the United States, with about 97 million, followed by China (32 million) and Japan (25 million). But on a per capita basis, the countries with the greatest Internet penetration were all in Scandinavia, with Sweden in the lead (0.40 addresses per person), followed by Norway (0.37), Iceland (0.37), and Finland (0.35). The United States was in eighth place, at 0.32.

Another type of data Akamai captures whenever an Internet user requests content stored on an Akamai server is that user’s connection speed. Over time, that gives the company a pretty good picture of the spread of “high-broadband” access—meaning last-mile connection speeds of 5 megabits per second or more. South Korea, as usual, was in the lead, with 64 percent of all connections occurring at high-broadband speed. The next closest competitors were Japan (48 percent), Hong Kong (35 percent), and Sweden (29 percent). The United States was seventh on the list, at 20 percent. (The table on the previous page ranks countries according to the percentage of connections that occurred at “medium” broadband speeds, meaning 2 megabits per second or above. And the table on this page details the slowest countries, giving the percentage of connections below 256 kilobits per second.)

The South Korea of the United States, it turns out, is Delaware, where a remarkable 60 percent of all connections took place at 5 megabits per second or more. Rhode Island was a distant second, at 42 percent, followed by New York (36 percent) and Nevada (34 percent). Massachusetts was in eighth place, at 29 percent. Strangely, the slowest state—the one with the highest percentage of connections taking place at 256 kbps or below—was Washington, home to Internet heavyweights Microsoft, Amazon, and Real Networks.

Slowest Countries
Country% below 256 Kbps
Solomon Islands95
New Caledonia91

Belson cautions that one can’t make too much out of the connection-speed data, since it only represents a single three-month period, and measures behavior—the number of times broadband customers requested data—rather than the actual prevalence of broadband-capable connections. And the data contains some anomalies that may not be possible to explain until the company has collected more data. In Tunisia, for example, the number of connections taking place at 2 megabits per second or more went up a whopping 29 percent between the fourth quarter of 2007 and the first quarter of 2008. Unless the Tunisian government is engaged in a secret project to give broadband access to every citizen, this jump seems inexplicable.

Still, Akamai’s report offers an unusual look behind the curtains at a company whose tendrils may extend farther into the Internet than any other’s. In the past, you had to be a paying Akamai customer—or perhaps a three-letter federal agency—to get a look at this kind of information, says Jeff Young, Akamai’s director of corporate communications. “We’ve been working with business and government organizations almost from the inception of Akamai, and data like this would certainly be something of interest to those organizations,” Young says. “We’re not allowed to get into a lot of detail about what specific kinds of information they are looking for. But this is certainly an example of the kind of data we provide to our customers.”

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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