The Federal Communications Commission is warning that average broadband speeds fall well short of the speeds advertised by customer's Internet service providers (ISP).
In a new report, Broadband Performance -OBI Technical Paper No. 4, the FCC found that broadband service across a variety of technologies, including cable, fiber, DSL and satellite, carried advertised mean and median speeds of between 7 Mbps and 8 Mbps last year. Actual speeds, according to the study, checked in with a mean of 4 Mbps and a median of 3 Mbps, creating a shortfall of roughly 50 percent.
"This gap may cause confusion among consumers, as actual speeds, which largely determine the end-user experience, lag speeds advertised considerably," the agency concluded.
The commission noted that the speed gap is attributable to a variety of factors, some outside the control of the ISP. Older computers or sluggish routers, for instance, will undermine the user's Internet experience, as will unresponsive websites. At the same time, the researchers pointed out that the advertised connection speeds, often marketed as "blazing fast" and expressed as offering service "up to" X Mbps, can create a false and misleading perception among consumers.
"This 'up to' speed is commonly the only metric that can be used to compare the speeds of different broadband offerings. The 'up to' speed, however, does not provide an accurate measure of likely end-user broadband experience," they said.
"In other words, consumers need a better, publicly agreed-upon measure of broadband performance that reflects the network operation and end-user experience."
In its report, the FCC reiterated one of the recommendations of the national broadband plan the agency delivered to Congress in March, calling for a partnership with the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology, as well as other stakeholders, to develop a common set of standards for measuring and advertising broadband speeds.
The FCC announced its probe into connection speeds in June when it released a survey reporting that four out of five Americans don't know how fast their Internet service is.
"Speed matters," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski declared at the time. The FCC launched the website TestMyISP.com, asking for volunteers to sign up for a trial program to measure their connection speeds.
The FCC's latest warning about the broadband sector come as the agency is embroiled in a political quagmire over its proper role in overseeing Internet access providers.
Just weeks after the FCC released the national broadband plan, a federal appeals court dealt it a major blow in voiding a 2008 order censuring Comcast for secretly blocking traffic on its data network. In that ruling, the court held that the FCC lacked the legal authority to issue its ruling under the current designation of broadband service under communications law, calling into question the commission's ability to act on a host of the recommendations in the plan.
In response, Genachowski announced a proposal to reclassify broadband to clarify the FCC's legal authority, setting off a political firestorm that has led to a heated debate about the agency's proper role in the broadband arena and what, if any, steps Congress should take to grant it new authorizations.
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