National broadband deployment has a blind spot: lack of accurate, transparent data on Internet access speeds
Imagine buying “up to” a gallon of milk for $4.50 or paying “up to” a full tank. Most people would view such transactions as absurd. And yet, in broadband services, the use of “up to” speeds has become common business practice.
Unlike other ads for goods and services – for example what an automaker is telling a customer about expected fuel efficiency – There are no federally established standards for measuring the speed of broadband services. This means there is no definite way to tell if customers are getting what they pay for.
Consumers typically purchase an Internet service package that promises a certain speed – for example, 10 megabits per second, 25 Mbps, 100 Mbps, 200 Mbps, or 1000 Mbps/1 Gbps. But the speed you actually get can often be much less than the advertised speed. Unlike in the automotive industry fuel efficiency standardsthere is no government mandate to systematically improve the speed of internet services – and no national strategy to ensure slow connections are upgraded in a timely manner.
A home user’s quality of service can change dramatically even over relatively short periods of time and can be particularly degraded during times of crisis. For example, analysis found that in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of Americans switched from using their office’s business-class Internet connection to teleworking from home using their personal Internet service widespread slowdown in service speeds.
Follow-up investigations revealed that the Federal Communications Commission was inundated with consumer complaints from across the country during the same period. Complaints about billing, availability and speed increased from February 2020 to April 2020 24%, 85% and 176% respectively. Although monthly bills did not change, customers experienced poorer service with slower speeds and less reliability.
The discrepancy between advertised and actual speeds also varies by geographic location. See rural areas consistently major deviations than urban areas. Broadband service descriptions are often confusing, with many plans that consumers think are unlimited actually have data caps. These plans often limit data usage by slowing down or “throttling” Connections after users reach their caps.
Minimum values and dimensions
Consumer advocates have long been calling for aBroadband nutrition labeling‘ which would create a federal mandate for internet service providers (ISPs) to disclose speed, latency (such as the amount of delay in video conferencing calls), reliability and pricing to prospective and current consumers. The FCC is Comment wanted on proposed broad-spectrum nutrition labels, and there is a risk that new labels will result in an opaque disclosure of ‘typical” speeds and latencies.
In my view, minimum guaranteed services should be part of any service offering for private customers and should reflect the already standard contractual language for business class lines. Rather than promising a “up to” cap, ISPs should essentially guarantee a minimum floor for the service that customers pay for.
Also the FCC and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration can standardize and enforce the use of “off-net” speed measurements rather than relying so heavily on “on-net” metrics. On the Net refers to the method typically used by both the FCC and ISPs to measure Internet speed, measuring the throughput of your connection between your home and your ISP. This ignores off-net connections, i.e. your ISP’s connection to anywhere outside of your local provider’s network, which is effectively the entire Internet.
On-net measurements also do not document the congestion that often occurs when different ISPs have one peek Strife, like the infamous Comcast vs. Level 3 dispute that led to it limited service for millions of Netflix subscribers. For many adversely affected customers, on-net speed tests often reveal no issues with their connections, although they do experience significant disruption to their favorite off-net services, applications, or websites.
On-Net speed tests have led to claims that the median landline broadband speed in the US as of May 2022 was over 150Mbps. Meanwhile, US broadband off-net speed tests show significantly lower average speeds — the US average speeds for May 2022 were under 50 Mbit/s.
This creates a real disconnect between the understanding of connectivity by policymakers and ISPs and the lived consumer experience. ISPs’ business decisions can create bottlenecks at the edges of their networks, for example when they implement lower-cost, lower-speed connections to other ISPs. This means their broadband speed measurements do not capture the results of their own decisions, allowing them to claim to deliver broadband speeds that their customers often do not experience.
To protect consumers, the FCC needs to invest in building a suite of broadband speed measurements, maps and public data stores that allow researchers to access and analyze what the public is actually experiencing when people buy broadband connections. Previous efforts by the FCC to do this have been criticized as inaccurate and inaccurate.
That The FCC’s latest proposal for the creation of a national broadband map – at an estimated cost of US$45 million – is already being criticized because its measurement process is a “black box”, meaning its methodology and data are not transparent to the public. The FCC also appears to be again relying almost exclusively on ISP self-declaration for its data, meaning it likely grossly overstates not only speeds but broadband availability as well.
The new National Broadband Map may actually be far worse in terms of data access due to rather strict licensing agreements that the FCC appears to be under granted control over the data – collected with public funds – to a private company for subsequent commercialization. This process will likely make it extremely difficult to accurately determine the true state of US broadband.
A lack of transparency about these new cards and the methods behind them could lead to major problems in the payout of the US$42.5 billion in broadband infrastructure grants Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program.
Independent analyzes such as the Consumer Reports initiative, Let’s do broadband together, is a crowdsourced data collection of monthly internet bills from across the country. (Full disclosure: I’m a consultant on this project.) Efforts like these by consumer groups are critical to creating more transparency about the problem of official actions diverging from consumer experiences. The FCC’s methods were very imprecisewhich has hampered the nation’s ability to address the digital divide.
Reliable, fast access to the Internet is a necessity for working, studying, shopping, selling and communicating. Making informed telecoms policy decisions and curbing false advertising is not just a question of what is measured, but how it is measured. Otherwise, it’s difficult to know if the broadband service you’re getting is the service you’re paying for.