The Truth About Broadband Speeds

Entrenched broadband providers sell their connection speeds using "up to" marketing tactics. Good luck determining if you're actually getting those upload/download speeds -- and don't bother looking to the FCC for help.

Suppose you went to the supermarket to buy a pound of steak for dinner and when you got home you noticed that the package seemed very light. So you went back and complained to the manager, only to be told that the label says "up to 1 pound," and you're stuck with it.

You'd be furious, of course. But that seemingly ridiculous stratagem is used every day by broadband providers across the country. Don't believe me? Check your agreement. In my case, AT&T tells me that I'm entitled to upload speeds of "up to" 3 Mbps and download speeds of "up to" 384 kbps. What do I have? Download speeds that average about 15 percent slower depending on the time of day, and upload speeds that are more or less as promised.

You can do the math as well I can. A big file, such as a backup or a photo album that takes 120 minutes to download at 3 Mbps, takes an extra 17 minutes at 2.5 Mbps, my actual download speed.

OK, so maybe that's not the biggest deal in the world, but why should I burn up an extra 17 minutes when I thought I was paying to avoid that? And as I found out, I'm lucky. Many consumers get just 50 percent of the speed they thought they purchased.

If we were talking about almost any other consumer service, you'd have the choice of taking your business elsewhere. But not in broadband. "Ninety-six percent of the country has two or fewer choices for broadband -- the cable provider and the phone company," says Chris Riley, policy counsel for Freepress, a non-partisan advocacy group.

How Fast Is Fast?

Not only do we lack a standard for acceptable broadband service, there's not even a standard definition of what constitutes broadband. The FCC, as part of the National Broadband Plan, has just begun collecting data on connection speeds across the country via a test posted on its website. Sure, that's a good idea, but hello, this is 2010! Why don't we know this already? Why, as Eric London of the Open Internet Coalition points out, are ISPs allowed to claim that 90 kbps is broadband?

That 90 kbps figure may sound like a relic of the analog modem days, but in fact it's what you get on your iPhone when forced to connect to AT&T's sclerotic and nearly useless Edge wireless network.

Authorized by Congress, the Broadband Plan lays out numerous goals for this country's data infrastructure, most notably assuring 100 Mbps access for most of the country by 2020. To reach that goal, average download speeds in the United States will have to increase five fold.

Although its data is incomplete, the FCC cites private research indicating that broadband customers aren't getting what they pay for. In fact, households are, on average, experiencing download speeds that are approximately 40 percent to 50 percent of the advertised "up to" speed they paid for, the report states. Upload speeds average about 45 percent of what's advertised. All in all, it appears that the average actual download speed around the country is about 4.1 Mbps.

"There's no excuse for the industry to use 'up to' speeds," says Joe Ridout, of Consumer Action in San Francisco. "It's useless to consumers. The FCC should require the use of average speeds."

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