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

A new FCC study shows that your access to the Internet is up to 50 percent slower than advertised.

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.

Stacy Johnson

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