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Think Your Internet Connection Is Fast? Don't Count On It

Most Internet users have long been aware that the actual download speeds they get from their Internet connections are somewhat slower than advertised. Those "up to" speeds promised by Internet service providers are sort of like speed limit signs during rush hour -- theoretically possible, we suppose, although not likely in the real world.

But you probably have no idea just how big the difference can be. An extensive report on broadband performance -- one of a series of reports by the Federal Communications Commission's Omnibus Broadband Initiative – includes a study showing that actual download speeds for U.S. consumers are about half the advertised "up to" speed. 

Using metrics from Akamai and comScore, the report states that the average advertised maximum, or "up to," download speed in 2009 was about 6.7 megabits/sec. FCC's analysis, however, showed that the "median actual speed" was roughly 3 megabits/sec, and the "average (mean) actual speed" was about 4 megabits/sec.

The averages include all forms of broadband connections. Actual average speed per technology:

  • Fiber: 7.7 megabits/sec.
  • Cable: 5.5 megabits/sec.
  • DSL: 2.0 megabits/sec.
  • Fixed wireless and satellite: 0.7 megabits/sec.

A lot of factors besides an Internet connection go into actual performance, including the performance of routers, end-users' computers, Web sites and applications, all of which can slow down transmissions, and none of which is under the control of an ISP, the report notes. And it's not that performance for the average broadband user is bad – in fact, the National Broadband Plan sets the target for broadband users at 4 megabits/sec for downloads and 1 megabit/sec for uploads.

Nevertheless, the advertised speed of a connection is all consumers have to go on when comparing the speeds of competing providers. And the bottom line is that subscribers are not getting anything close to what they're told they would – or could – get.

"Consumers need a better, publicly agreed-upon measure of broadband performance that reflects the network operation and end-user experience," the report states.

The report supports the creation of a standardized method of advertising broadband speeds, such as the recommendation by National Broadband Plan earlier this year, which would include:

  • Actual speeds and performance over the broadband service provider's network and end-to-end points of the connection.
  • Actual speeds and performance at peak-use hours.
  • Actual speeds and performance achieved with a given probability (such as 95 percent) over a set time period (such as one hour) that includes peak usage times.
  • Actual speeds and performance tested against a given set of standard protocols and applications.

Under NBP's recommendation, FCC, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, industry, consumer groups, and technical experts would work together to develop the standard for broadband measurement.

Meanwhile, subscribers should take promised speeds with a grain of salt, expect them to be slower than advertised, and do whatever they can on their end to increase performance as much as possible.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is the managing editor of Government Computer News.

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