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I Feel the Need. The Need, for Speed…Test Results

(August 3, 2011) - Quickly, now – what’s the speed of your broadband connection? If you don’t know, you’re in good company. Connected Nation’s survey research reveals that 59% of consumers don’t know (the FCC is reporting this statistic as higher, with close to 80 percent unaware of their subscription speed), and 60% of businesses don’t know, either. Also interesting, Connected Nation’s research indicates that 23% of broadband subscribers believe their actual speeds are slower than their advertised subscription, 61% tell us their actual speeds are “about the same” as advertised, 6% say their actual speeds are faster than advertised, and 10% are unsure how their actual and advertised speeds match up.

But simply because you may not know the specifics about your broadband speed doesn’t mean that the quality of your Internet connection isn’t important. Internet data usage is growing rapidly thanks to bandwidth-intensive activities like streaming video, and the ability to use a broadband connection for applications such as distance-learning and other rich media services depends upon having accurate and reliable high-speed services.

On Tuesday, the FCC released the initial results of its “TestMyISP” project (which you can find here: - download), one of the key recommendations of the National Broadband Plan. Launched last year with the research firm SamKnows and 10,000 U.S. volunteer households, TestMyISP measures and tracks several aspects of the quality of a user’s fixed broadband connections offered by ISPs nationwide. Importantly, the report primarily focuses on data collected between the peak usage time of 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., one of the typically highest congested times of day for Web traffic.

Among several of the key findings:

  • Depending on the subscriber’s broadband platform, sustained download speeds were between 80 to 90 percent of advertised speeds

  • Speeds during “peak” usage times don’t differ significantly from the 24-hour average speeds

  • The report also includes several great resources for consumers, including:

The TestMyISP results are an important supplement to the National Broadband Map. A well-functioning, transparent broadband market depends on accurate and reliable information that addresses not only the availability of broadband services but also their quality.

A host of factors, however, can impact your Web surfing experience, from the wiring inside your house to the quality of your ISP’s network. Third-party speed tests – which have noted as much as a 50% difference between an “advertised” and “actual” speed – typically do not separate elements within the consumer’s control and the service that the ISP is delivering. And, frankly, figuring out a workable methodology to “map” the actual speeds of every household or Census Block in the U.S. is not a breakthrough anyone in the country has made yet, despite the vocal demands for just that from some quarters of the tech policy world. Believe us, we’ve tried.

The “TestMyISP” project is a great way to generate a nationally significant sample size that can provide realistic assumptions about actual speeds across the nation.

The FCC’s TestMyISP project addresses this gap, by recruiting thousands of U.S. consumers to voluntarily place a specialized “White Box” router in their homes throughout the country. Once connected, the units perform a series of regular tests to those users’ fixed broadband connections. These specialized devices allow the project to test the actual throughput of the ISP’s service, separate and apart from the consumer’s computer, home network, and congestion on the general, public Internet. The project will operate for three years and will test not only speed but also important metrics like latency, packet loss, jitter, DNS query times and failures, Web page loading times, and video streaming quality.

These additional measurements are important, particularly for rich-media applications. For example, latency and packet loss are far more important for real-time applications like VoIP and online gaming than raw download speed. Also, busy-hour service can differ from off-peak quality significantly.

The results of the TestMyISP project has a clear relevance not only to broadband consumers but also to public policy and economic competitiveness. The FCC has proposed to convert its current voice subsidy program to one that will support broadband service at 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up – subject to robust validation and verification. Projects such as TestMyISP and the National Broadband Map are critical pieces to the puzzle of providing consumers and policymakers complete and accurate tools for expanding the access to and use of broadband technology.

By Phillip Brown, Director of Government Affairs & Advocacy, and Tom Koutsky, Chief Policy Counsel, both at Connected Nation