The tools will not only allow broadband customers to test their Internet connections, but also allow security and other researchers to work on ways to improve the Internet.It's clear that the press and blogosphere are going nuts about the latter half. Specifically, the affect this will have on Net Neutrality, and shady practices of certain telcos. As powerful as this will be in the long run, I want to focus on the other half of the description. The tools to "allow broadband customers to test their Internet connections." I promise this isn't as geeky as it sounds, and it applies directly to helping helping your online business save time and money.
Imagine one of your customers sitting at home ready to use your service. She opens up her web browser, types in your URL, and presses Enter. The browser starts to load the page, the status bar shows "Connecting to yoursite.com...", then "Wating for yoursite.com...". It sits like this for about 15 seconds with a blank page the entire time. She starts to get annoyed. Just to see what happens, she presses refresh and starts the process over. Again, a blank screen, the browser sitting there waiting for your site to begin loading. She then checks that her Internet connection is working by visiting google.com, which loads fine. At this point, if you are lucky, she decides to call your support department up or shoot an email over asking whether there's something wrong. If you are unlucky, she asks around on Twitter, or blogs about it, or just gives up with the new thought in the back of her mind that this service is just plain unreliable. Now, imagine that this scenario took place while your site was perfectly healthy, with no actual downtime anywhere.
Your site is up, but your customer thinks your service is down. The problem lies somewhere along the way between the clients browser and your companies firewalls. The Tubes are clogged just for this specific customer, but how is she supposed to know?
There are a few levels to this problem (followed by the solution):
Level 1: The affect this has on your customer(s)
Online users are still more then likely to give you a few chances before they draw a conclusion, however every incident like this adds to the incorrect negative impression. Especially if this problem manifests itself as a performance issue, slowing or interrupting your customers connections, versus simply keeping them from connecting at all. Your user begins to dread using your service, and look for alternatives every chance they get.
Level 2: The dollar cost to your business
How many calls do you get to your support department from customers claiming they cannot connect to your site, or that your service is broken, or that it's really slow for them? How often does the problem end up being on their end, or completely unreproducible? It may be a relief for your support people, and it may be something your company is happy with, as it confirms that your site is working just fine. Unfortunately, each of these calls costs you money and time. Worse yet, these types of calls generally take the longest to diagnose, as they are vague and require long periods of debugging to get to the root cause. I haven't even mentioned the lost revenue from the missed traffic (if that affects your revenue).
Level 3: The "perception" cost to your business
As described in Level 1, any perceived downtime is just as real as actual downtime in the eyes of your customers. Word of mouth is powerful, especially with todays social media tools, in spreading negative news unfounded as it may be. The more you can do to keep the invalid negative perception from forming, the better.
Level 4: The unknown cost
How often does this happens to your customers? No one has any idea. I said earlier you're "lucky" if your customer decides to pick up the phone and call you about the perceived downtime. More often then not, your customer will simply give up. At worst, they give up with your service entirely. How can you capture this type of information, and help your customers at the same time?
Provide a tool that your customers and your support department can use to quickly diagnose where the problem lies. The simplest of these would be to offer a public health dashboard. The more powerful route is to offer tools like these:
Network Diagnostic Tool - provides a sophisticated speed and diagnostic test. An NDT test reports more than just the upload and download speeds--it also attempts to determine what, if any, problems limited these speeds, differentiating between computer configuration and network infrastructure problems.And what do you know? These are two of the tool that have launched on The Measurement Lab!
Network Path and Application Diagnosis - diagnoses some of the common problems affecting the last network mile and end-users' systems. These are the most common causes of all performance problems on wide area network paths.
Clearly these are still very raw, and not for the every day user. But I see tools like these becoming extremely important for online businesses, both in reducing costs, and in controlling perception. I see this becoming a part of the public health dashboard (which I hope you're hosting separate from your primary site!), allowing users to diagnose problems they are seeing that not reflected in the Internet at large.
I'm going to be watching the development of these tools very closely over the next few months. Most interesting will be noting which other companies support the reasearch, and end up using these tools. Will the focus stay on the Net Neutrality and BitTorrent, or will companies realize the potential of these other tools? We'll find out soon enough!