Some may call it a storm in a tea cup, but the Ookla-Jio-Airtel controversy has turned out to be a one with an unexpectedly long life.
After coming up with a half-hearted defence two days ago, Ookla — the provider of the world’s most popular mobile and broadband speed testing service — today gave a more detailed explanation of why its data crowning Bharti Airtel as India’s fastest network is reliable.
Airtel’s rival Reliance Jio had taken issue with Ookla’s test methodology, pointing out that the app was reporting the carrier used by the SIM in the first slot of a dual SIM handset even if the test was done on the second SIM.
Ookla said it doesn’t matter, as it does not rely on the carrier value reported by the app.
“Due to limitations of the Android platform, the “Active Carrier” does not always indicate the actual data provider in devices with multiple SIMs. In these situations, Ookla applies additional data sources and mechanisms during postprocessing to help determine the actual data carrier being tested.
“For example, Ookla matches the connection IP address recorded during the test to known carrier IP blocks. This enables Ookla to determine the actual data carrier with a high degree of confidence,” it said.
Airtel has created an ad campaign on the subject as part of its attempts to bounce back into prominence after it was sidelined by free data services offered by Jio.
According to some estimates, Jio is carrying 94% of India’s wireless data traffic, while Airtel’s share has been reduced to 2%.
However, due to the tremendous amount of data carried by Jio, the average speed experienced by a subscriber on the network is reported to have fallen to ‘just’ 8.34 Mbps in January.
The reverse seems to be happening with Airtel. As capacity utilization declines, speeds on Airtel have increased, doubling to 8.42 in January from 4.68 Mbps in the preceding month, according to user-reported data from the website of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.
Similar numbers were announced by Ookla earlier this month, showing that on average, Airtel users experienced faster connections.
Airtel, which in 2015 was forced by the Advertising Standards Council of India to withdraw a similar ‘fastest network’ ad, seized on the opportunity to come up with a new campaign calling itself the ‘fastest network in India’.
However, Jio said its data was being misinterpreted as belonging to Airtel due to faulty reporting by handsets.
This was followed by a brief reaction two days ago by Ookla, saying it ‘stood by’ its previous assertion without giving further explanation.
WHO IS RIGHT?
According to telecom and IT experts we spoke with, the likelihood of Ookla mistakenly ascribing Jio’s test results to Airtel based on the carrier reported by Android is extremely remote.
“Ookla has its own system of determining the carrier independent of the handset,” pointed out an official from a third telecom company that has nothing to do with the controversy, but hosts several Ookla test servers.
“Remember that their speed test also works on PCs, where there is no SIM card to identify the network with,” he added. “The primary method they use to figure out which carrier is being used by the subscriber is the IP address.”
Telecom officials, and even some consumers, are amused by the heat generated by the controversy.
General opinion is that consumers do not choose their telecom provider based on average speeds reported by apps, but by real speeds that they experience in their daily lives.
“I think this whole controversy is funny,” said the above official, who we cannot name as he is not authorized to give statements to the media.
“If a consumer is stuck with a poor connectivity in his area, or if he has to spend three times as much for an 8 Mbps connection compared to a 7 Mbps connection, these kind of claims have no meaning,” he said.
Broadly, however, industry sees the controversy as a marketing victory for Airtel as the reams of headlines have helped draw attention to its ‘fastest network’ claim better than any ad campaign.