Of Horseshoes, Hand Grenades and Broadband Advertising

Broadband service providers in the United States are celebrating the results of the Federal Communications Commission’s findings on the contentious question of broadband speeds in the country.

The FCC has found that actual sustained download speeds are much closer to the speeds advertised by ISPs than was the case in early 2009.

Sustained speeds refer to speeds averaged over a period of several seconds, and the FCC used this measure because broadband Internet access service is “bursty” in nature, meaning there are some periods where it’s faster than others, due to network congestion.

Various factors impact download speeds, and performance varies significantly by technology and provider, the FCC said. Overall, fiber-based services were faster, cable services came next, and DSL-based services were the slowest of the three.

On average, during peak periods, fiber-to-the home services such as Verizon’s FiOS, delivered 114 percent of advertised download speeds — meaning the average delivered speed was actually faster than advertised. The average for cable-based services was 93 percent of advertised rates, and DSL-based services averaged 82 percent.

Is 82 percent good enough, or are consumers still being short-changed by their broadband service providers?

FCC spokesperson Mark Wigfield pointed TechNewsWorld to sections of the commission’s report that state the FCC has issued a notice of inquiry on the topic of general consumer information and disclosure requirements.

This seeks comment on the types of information consumers need to make informed choices.

Figures and Findings

The FCC study looked at services from 13 of the largest broadband services in the U.S. Together, these companies account for roughly 86 percent of all U.S. wireline broadband connections.

The services were monitored at the homes of thousands of volunteer broadband subscribers through the month of March.

They were measured by SamKnows, which won the FCC contract for the task.

The findings in the FCC report were for performance during peak consumer usage hours of 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. local time during weekdays, because this is when performance degrades the most, the report states.

The average actual sustained download speed during peak periods was calculated as a percentage of the ISP’s advertised download speed, and the calculation was performed for different speed tiers offered by each service provider.

Are Consumers Getting Shortchanged?

With actual sustained download speeds often 10 to 20 percent lower than what ISPs advertise, are consumers being cheated? Could the industry do better?

Industry members contend that the FCC’s findings show they’re doing a good job.

One of them is the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, or NCTA. Organization spokesperson Brian Dietz pointed TechNewsWorld to a blog post by NCTA Executive Vice President James Assey that calls the results in the FCC’s report positive.

AT&T spokesperson Mark Siegel pointed TechNewsWorld to a blog post on the company’s site by Senior Vice President Robert Quinn in which he states that the results of the FCC study show American consumers are getting the broadband speeds they are paying for.

While 80 to 90 percent is certainly a different figure than 100 percent, it’s close enough for Matt Davis, a director of research at IDC.

“Given what I know about the broadband infrastructure in general, that’s acceptable,” Davis told TechNewsWorld. “There are a lot of variables involved, and I’m surprised that the test results came back that close.”

Granted, the results aren’t as good as those of Finland, but they’re not that bad, Davis pointed out. “They’re better than what you get in Canada, for instance,” he added.

Finland, a highly wired nation, is often held up as the poster child for a digital society.

More Testing Needed?

Perhaps the FCC should continue testing broadband speeds.

The test involved a small fraction of the ISPs in the United States and only covered wireline providers, the NCTA’s Assey pointed out in his blog post.

Further, only a few customers of each ISP were selected for testing, and the report covers only one month of performance data, Assey added.

Further analysis of the data is needed, he contended.

Broadband Access and Competitiveness

Relations between the United States federal government and broadband service providers have been strained for some time.

The bad blood between the two groups intensified when the Obama administration came up with its National Broadband Plan and stated the U.S. is falling behind the rest of the world and is losing productivity because it doesn’t have adequate broadband access.

The FCC subsequently asserted in its Sixth Broadband Deployment Report, issued in July 2010, that broadband services offered were well below advertised speeds, sparking outrage among the industry.

It also changed the definition of what “broadband” actually means, raising the minimum speed for a connection to be considered “broadband” from 200Kbps (kilobits per second) to 4 Mbps (megabits per second), stating the previous standard was set in 1999 and the increase was overdue. This further irritated the industry.

The situation remained strained — at the Cable Show 2011 in June, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski reportedly said the level of broadband adoption in the U.S. was far from good enough.

Washington’s claim that lack of broadband access is hindering America’s competitiveness might be overstated, IDC’s Davis suggested.

“I don’t think it’s true that we’re falling behind the rest of the world and we’re going to lose productivity,” Davis said.

The FCC is conducting a power grab, Davis opined.

“Essentially, the FCC wishes to have greater control over broadband deployment and the rules governing its use,” Davis said. “They’ve approached this from a few angles, but the most recent has been to compare U.S. broadband capability to that of other countries, deem it second-rate, and argue for the teeth to impose stricter rules.”

Richard Adhikari

Richard Adhikari has written about high-tech for leading industry publications since the 1990s and wonders where its all leading to. Will implanted RFID chips in humans be the Mark of the Beast? Will nanotech solve our coming food crisis? Does Sturgeons Law still hold true?

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