The heat is on some local ISPs — Xtra in particular — after an informal test showed up vast differences in the quality of their Usenet news services.
Access to the thousands of Usenet newsgroups has been considered a core service since the commercial ISP industry was born in New Zealand. But the test indicated that Xtra users missed nine out of 10 of the postings offered by top news performers such as The Internet Group (Ihug) and Netlink.
David Farrar, who posted the original results to the nz.net.admin newsgroup, was last week coordinating a wider test involving at least nine news servers, including two in the US for comparison. Three news-groups, one from the "big eight" hierarchies, and an alt. and nz. group were to be tested.
The test concept certainly appears to have attracted the attention of some ISPs, including Clear Net, whose Olof Olofsson discussed his company's policies in the newgroup. Users last week also reported an apparent improvement in the quality of Xtra's news feed.
Xtra spokesman Andy Miller says at the time of the test Xtra had been having problems with its upstream news-
feed from US-based Super-news, which is also one of several feeds taken by Ihug. Olofsson says Clear Net also takes four different international feeds.
"It was there for a couple of weeks and we saw a degradation in news," says Miller. "We've been talking to our upstream news provider and it's taken them a while to solve it. We weren't quite down to the level that people were indicating, but it went up about 30% when the problem was fixed."
Some Xtra customers have been complaining about newsfeeds for far longer than two weeks. Farrar says he ran the first test because "it was apparent from complaints in the nz.comp newsgroup that some New Zealand ISPs had sub-standard newsfeeds as customers were complaining constantly that they were not seeing many articles.
"This is why I tested out the newsfeeds of four of the biggest ISPs on a standard newsgroup — rec.audio.car. I was amazed to find some ISPs had 10 times as many articles as other ones did."
Farrar says that having a bad newsfeed is like reading a newspaper where 90% of the stories are missing.
"We will be repeating our tests of Usenet reliability for the major ISPs over the next month and publishing the results.
The quality of a Usenet newsfeed is a complex combination of disk space, article expiry time and peering arrangements with other servers. Ihug has a published policy on article expiry which sees an expiry time of only two days for some alt.binaries groups, and up to a week for groups in the nz. hierarchy. Miller won't be drawn on whether Xtra's news service will make a major improvement in continuing tests.
"It depends what groups they test on. We're also revisiting all the groups we subscribe to. It's more than 20,000, and we're going to increase that by 5000 to 7000 over the next week or two."