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Providers Game System to Boost Broadband Speeds

By John P. Mello Jr.
Dec 17, 2019 4:00 AM PT
isps have interfered with the accuracy of an fcc program to evaluate broadband speeds provided to customers

Measuring Broadband America, a 10-year-old FCC program to ensure that Internet service providers deliver on their connection speed promises to consumers, has become unreliable.

Companies including AT&T, Cox, Comcast and Verizon have been employing tactics to make their performance numbers look better than they actually are, The Wall Street Journal reported last week.

The Journal revealed several ways companies manipulate their scores for the program:

  • When the FCC informs a company which households will be tested, the company will prioritize service to those households to boost their speeds.
  • Providers have persuaded the FCC to exclude unfavorable data from final scores, claiming households had faulty equipment.
  • The companies have persuaded the FCC to exclude data gathered on test days when there is heavy traffic on their networks, such as during NFL games and when the operating systems of Apple products are being updated.
  • The firms purchase information about users being tested from SamKnows, the British company that administers and provides equipment for the tests.

Customer Feedback Trumps Scores

"We don't prioritize traffic for this test or otherwise, and we manage our network investment and upgrades continually, based on utilization at the node level," said Cox spokesperson Todd C. Smith.

"We monitor nodes constantly, and when they reach a certain threshold we upgrade them," he told TechNewsWorld.

Cox wants to deliver the best broadband experience on the market, Smith continued. "While speed tests can be useful indicators of that experience, the most important feedback we get is directly from customers. If a customer isn't getting excellent broadband speed performance, we'll work with them until it's resolved."

A Cox customer cited in the Journal article is a good example of the company's responsiveness to problems, he noted.

"We were unaware she was having a problem with her service until we were contacted (by the Journal). Once we found out, we immediately sent a technician to her home who quickly identified the cause of the impairment and corrected the issue," Smith said. "She is now getting the speed experience that all our customers expect and deserve."

Unbiased Test Route Treatment

It is technically impossible for an Internet service provider to give speed test routes better treatment than others, AT&T spokesperson Michael Balmoris maintained.

"A panelist's Internet traffic is routed to SamKnows servers, and ISPs have no way to control this," he told TechNewsWorld.

"Testing servers for every panelist are chosen by SamKnows," Balmoris continued. "This traffic is treated as standard Internet traffic. The same exact traffic routing that applies to Internet traffic also applies to the SamKnows' traffic."

AT&T pressured the FCC to omit data for the company's DSL customers from Measuring Broadband America to improve its grade, the Journal also reported.

"First-generation DSL is an obsolete technology that we do not actively market, and based on the FCC's practices with other ISPs, should have been excluded from its reporting," Balmoris said.

The FCC has formulated a policy to provide guidance to ISPs on when a speed tier would be dropped from the MBA program. That policy is that a speed tier no longer would be included in the MBA program if it isn't actively marketed and is less than 5 percent of the subscriber base, he explained.

"Other ISPs dropped their lower-speed tiers reporting as well, as this is a normal process in the MBA program," Balmoris contended.

Operator Friendly Agency

"The FCC is friendly to operators currently," observed Brett L. Sappington, senior director of research at Dallas-based Parks Assocates, a market research and consulting company specializing in consumer technology products.

"The FCC can do whatever it wants -- it's just a pro-operator FCC right now," he told TechNewsWorld.

"It may also believe this is not such a big problem that consumers are being defrauded," Sappington continued. "Given The Wall Street Journal article," he added, "that attitude may change, and it could change quickly."

The MBA program has a transparent process, and the FCC will continue to enable it to improve, evolve, and provide meaningful results moving forward, an FCC spokesman told the Journal. The FCC did not respond to our request to comment for this story.

The FCC isn't solely responsible for making sure service providers treat consumers fairly, noted Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, a technology think tank in Washington D.C.

"The FTC took joint responsibility for handling this exact issue in the MOU the two agencies signed," he told TechNewsWorld.

In that memorandum of understanding, adopted two years ago, the Federal Trade Commission agreed to "investigate and take enforcement action as appropriate against Internet service providers for unfair, deceptive, or otherwise unlawful acts or practices, including but not limited to, actions pertaining to the accuracy of the disclosures such providers make pursuant to the Internet Freedom Order's requirements, as well as their marketing, advertising, and promotional activities."

The Internet Freedom Order adopted by the FCC requires broadband Internet access services to make certain disclosures to consumers, including notifying and informing them of business practices.

In addition, state attorneys general could get involved in enforcement actions, Szoka noted, should they choose to do so.

Gigabit Interest Waning

Earlier this year, the Journal performed its own test to determine how speed affected Internet performance. It found there were only marginal benefits for paying for speeds greater than 100 Mbps.

Twenty-two percent of American broadband households have speeds from 100 Mbps to 999 Mbps, suggests a study Parks Associates released this spring. However, a greater number of households -- 39 percent-- have no idea what their connection speeds are.

Interest in speeds above 999 Mbps, or gigabit speeds, has waned over the past two years, according to the research firm.

"Interest in gigabit speeds has declined, due partly to limited availability, but also as households prioritize cost over speed," Parks' Senior Research Analyst Craig Leslie said.

"Of the U.S. broadband households that switched services in the past year, 50 percent did so to get a better price, while 36 percent switched to get better speeds," he continued. "Households are not seeing the benefits to speed upgrades, especially as providers have conditioned households to differentiate based on pricing."


John P. Mello Jr. has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His areas of focus include cybersecurity, IT issues, privacy, e-commerce, social media, artificial intelligence, big data and consumer electronics. He has written and edited for numerous publications, including the Boston Business Journal, the Boston Phoenix, Megapixel.Net and Government Security News. Email John.


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