Mixed Signals: Your Internet Access Isn’t as Fast as Your ISP Says It Is

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When your Internet service provider (ISP) boasts about how fast you can access the web, it turns out they’re playing slow and loose with the truth.

A new report by the Federal Communications Commission shows that those advertised speeds are off by roughly 50 percent.

FCC researchers studied those much-hyped “up to” claims – the ones that breathlessly advertise “up to 10 Mbps when you use our service!” (Mbps stands for megabits per second and refers to the speed of information that can flow through your Internet connection.)

Their findings were buried in a 30-page report called “Broadband Performance: OBI Technical Paper No. 4″ [PDF]. They found that last year, U.S customers who subscribed to broadband in their homes were told they’d get “average (mean) and median advertised download speeds of 7-8 Mbps.”

What they really got wasn’t even close…

FCC analysis shows that average (mean) actual speed consumers received was approximately 4 Mbps, while the median actual speed was roughly 3 Mbps in 2009. Therefore actual download speeds experienced by U.S. consumers lag advertised speeds by roughly 50 percent.

But as with most technical matters, the reasons for this aren’t clear. While ISPs may be overselling their speeds, the customer also shares some of the blame, says the FCC…

The gap is due to a variety of factors, some controlled by users (computer performance, home Wi-Fi set-up, etc.), some within the span of control of providers in their network, and some due to the unpredictability of the Internet.

In other words, along the way from the Internet to your computer, there are any number of places where the pipeline can get clogged.

Regardless of who’s at fault, the FCC says it’s crucial to come up with a more accurate system, because the current one is spreading “confusion among consumers.” And since the report also shows that we’re spending more time online than ever – “roughly 29 hours per month online at home, double the amount in 2000″ – the FCC is touting a complete overhaul.

The FCC’s National Broadband Plan even suggested labels like you find on dishwashers and other appliances – the ones with those “star ratings.” But instead of energy efficiency, they’d rate “broadband performance.”

A more complicated system has been proposed by The New America Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute. It proposes a Broadband Truth-in-Labeling [PDF] that mandates a disclosure form similar to those you get with your credit cards.

Whichever system is adopted, it’s a sure bet it’ll happen soon. As the FCC reported, the “average Internet user” has been online for 10 years now, and they’re only going to get more demanding about customer service.

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  • angelmom1

    I finally got faster internet about a month ago, my provider for dial-up was the only provider for dial-up and they advertised the speed at 26.4Mbsp. I then got my speed checked and found out I was getting at 4Mbps and AT&T said it was because too many people were on the phone lines, I could tell people to stop using their phones, ha ha ha and hung up. So I switched best thing I could have done. I can actually download email within seconds instead of hours. Magic. And AT&T wonders why everyone hates them and their service.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_IVVAW6UNB5GKVBE6J52VV7XUGY Shawn

    just an FYI, dial up fastest speed is 56k, not Mbps, if you went from a dial up provider to a broadband user there is night and day difference. 20Mbps services is around 60/month on average where as some dial up providers can be free or up to mid 20’s for service. You can go to numerous online speed test sites on the net, I would recommend that you use multiple and make sure to go to http://www.speedguide.net/sg_tools.php and make sure to use the tcp/ip optimizer as most computers are not set for anything faster than 4-10 Mbps. also if you use wireless upgrade your internal card to an N. Hardwired connectons of years past used a 10/100 card (meaning connection speed up to 100 Mbps, Wireless G speeds are MAX 54 Mbps.