Real Broadband Speeds

August 6, 2011

The availability and quality of broadband Internet service in the US has been a sometime contentious issue for a while.   I’ve written here before about the National Broadband Plan, released by the US Federal Communications Commission [FCC], and about the FCC’s provision of facilities to test your actual broadband speed.  The  Commerce Department has also joined in the fun; its National Telecommunications and Information Administration [NTIA] released the National Broadband Map in February of this year.  In addition to the sometimes hit-or-miss availability of broadband service in rural areas, there has been a sneaking suspicion that the advertised speeds were considerably optimistic compared to what could actually be obtained.

Ars Technica is now reporting, in a post on the “Law & Disorder” blog, that the FCC has released a new report, Measuring Broadband America [PDF], which summarizes data on the actual performance of broadband connections in the US.  The data were collected, using specially-configured hardware, from a sample of 9,000 Internet users across the country.

The data finally gives consumers a standardized way to compare Internet connection quality among ISPs, rather than limiting themselves to advertised speeds and prices.

The Executive Summary of the report acknowledges that the information that has been available to consumers leaves a good deal to be desired.

Currently, information that would allow consumers to answer these questions is not readily available in a consistent and easily understandable form, and studies show that consumers’ awareness of their broadband service and its characteristics is limited.

Not surprisingly, the best performing technology was Verizon’s FiOS, which uses fiber optic connection to the customer’s premises, and the worst performing was DSL.  The report does contain some good news, too.

… [the] data shows the major ISPs generally offer 80-90 percent of their advertised speeds, even during the peak hours of 7pm-11pm, with cable and fiber services actually offering higher-than-advertised speeds for much of the day.

It seems that, for the most part, the providers’ infrastructure has gotten more robust in the presence of peak loads.

On the whole, the report seems to be good news, because it indicates that some progress is being made.  Service is really remote areas is always going to be economically problematic (as was rural electrification for many years), but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to get the best service we can for most of the population.

Update Monday, 8 August, 11:15 EDT

Technology Review also has an article on the new FCC report.  Shane Greenstein, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, makes an important point about consumers’ need for this kind of information.

We did not have a mature electricity industry until everybody agreed on how to measure use of electricity. And we cannot reach a similar state in our broadband industry without a similar agreement. This is a big step towards that, even though we still have a longer conversation in front of us.

Market mechanisms do not produce good results by magic, even via references to the Invisible Hand; information has to be available to the market participants.

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