FCC Broadband Speed Tests Should Also Support Enforcement

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While it's great the Federal Communications Commission is offering free broadband speed tests, it would be greater if the commission would use the data to force carriers to more accurately describe the speeds they offer and then keep their promises.

There are lots of speed tests available on the Internet, but when the agency charged with regulating Internet carriers offers a speed test, it should be more than a curiosity or a toy.

The FCC's broadband.gov site should generate real information that leads to enforcement actions against carriers that don't deliver promised speeds. Of course, first the FCC must require carriers to make actual speed promises.

Testing My Speeds

My AT&T DSL account promises me a download speed of "up to 6mbps." That tells me the maximum speed I can expect, but says nothing about the typical or lowest speed AT&T will deliver. There is the implied promise that my bandwidth will be somewhere near 6mbps, but the words "up to" let AT&T off the hook.

Indeed, Broadband.gov tells me my download speed is 5.115mbps, which qualifies as meeting the AT&T numbers, but so would the speed delivered by my old Hayes Smartmodem 1200.

My upload speed is 608kpbs, which isn't very fast. Latency is 104ms and jitter is 108ms. These last two numbers appear to be suboptimal, as high-quality video conferencing demands a latency of 20ms. Jitter of less than 30ms is considered excellent. (Read what these numbers mean and about the mechanics of the FCC broadband test here.)

According to the Broadband.gov site, latency is "the time it takes for data to be sent from your computer to the testing server and back (the 'round trip time')." Jitter is "the variability in the delay between your computer and the testing server."

The above numbers were provided by MLAB, the FCC's primary contractor for the speed tests. A second test, using Ookla, which also provides the FCC with testing, found virtually the same upload/download speed as MLAB, but latency and jitter were a much-improved 13 and 3ms, respectively.

What Should Happen

With the FCC's proposed National Broadband Plan due out on March 17, it's good to see the FCC offering tools to help customers.

But, if the commission is really trying to improve broadband, it should allow Broadband.gov users to enter what carrier they use and what they are paying, match the customer up to their plan, and then tell them whether their carrier is delivering on its promises.

The commission should also adopt rules that require carriers to typically deliver at least a certain percentage, say 90 percent, of their highest promised speed. Then customers, and the commission, could immediately know whether their Internet provider was or was not providing the service its customers pay for.

By aggregating this information and then slicing and dicing it in interesting ways, the commission could tell broadband users about typical speeds in their neighborhoods and rank the providers based on the actual speeds they deliver. It could also tell customers whether carrier speeds were increasing or decreasing over time.

FCC Botnet?

The FCC could recruit customers who want to take part in a measurement program and give them an application that would periodically and while their computer is idle, run a speed check and report the results back to Washington. That would give the commission powerful information about the state of our broadband infrastructure in near real-time, if desired.

I hate to use the word "botnet," but a properly designed system would allow FCC engineers to query the remote clients for speed data on an as-needed basis.

As I say, Broadband.gov is a great idea, but with some extra work it could be far greater.

David Coursey has been writing about technology products and companies for more than 25 years. He tweets as @techinciter and may be contacted via his Web site.

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