On Friday, the FCC asked for bids on a contract to measure broadband performance in roughly 10,000 homes to scientifically understand broadband performance across America. (Read the Request for Quotation). The contract would likely involve installation of a measurement device in the homes of volunteers, using a representative set of connections to help identify how different networks and technologies perform at different times of day, across different parts of the network, under different conditions and using different testing methods. The test will focus on how speeds (maximums, averages and other) and performance characteristics (latency, availability, etc.) change and vary in these circumstances. The end goal is to provide better insight into the metrics that consumers and network designers care about most.
And the best part? Once aggregated with sufficient privacy protections, the FCC will make this data available online and in a published report, to allow others to see and use the results as they like.
This is just one of the many steps the FCC is taking to increase transparency for consumers on broadband speeds and performance. As the National Broadband Plan rolls out, we look forward to continued input from all interested parties on how we can continuously refine our approach. Last week, the FCC launched two new helpful tools for broadband mapping and performance testing, which received many comments. What do these tools do? They allow users to access a point in time view of their speeds to a server on the network. They also allow the FCC to collect data on where broadband is available. Already over 250,000 fixed speed tests have been run by Americans, which means we have been able to gather privacy-protected data on 250,000 locations throughout the country for understanding broadband availability.
And we recognize what this test does not do. (See the “About” section). It is a user-sourced, point-in-time test that helps educate consumers to a point. Unlike the RFQ described above, this test can be impacted by many things, such as consumers with slow computers or Wi-Fi networks, by long distances to testing servers and by general internet congestion that is beyond any one group’s control. It also cannot account for what a user might experience on an ongoing basis, such as while watching a video or conducting a videoconference. So it is not the full solution, but rather one small part of it.
Going forward, we encourage interested parties to continue feedback on our consumer transparency and mapping initiatives. We expect to roll-out additional initiatives with a focus on disclosure obligations that give consumers the right information at the right time to make the right decisions (for them). Transparency and consumer information are critical inputs to helping spur competition in our networks and enriching our broadband ecosystem.
- How should we think about the way that information about new and existing broadband service is displayed and communicated?
- Is this information comparable from one service offering to another?
- How do we ensure privacy of consumer information?
- How should we augment existing data to track, measure and report broadband service performance across the nation?
- What are the most useful pieces of performance information for consumers, researchers, service providers and regulators?
- How should performance be measured?
- What are the benefits and what are the costs of measurement?
- How should we increase transparency of broadband services offered for multi-unit residential and commercial buildings?
Answering these questions will help identify ways to educate broadband consumers, a goal everyone agrees is in the best interests of the country. Striking the right balance on depth of information, communication, privacy, display and cost effectiveness will be difficult, but we intend to find the right path. We need your input and thoughts on new ways of thinking that empower consumers.
Co-written by Peter Bowen, Applications Director, and Shawn Hoy, Program Analyst, Omnibus Broadband Initiative
Last Thursday, August 27th the FCC helped moderate two workshops on technology, applications and devices, which provoked some fascinating discussions around the current and future state of broadband in America.
The first workshop focused on the current state of the network, applications, and devices. The panelists represented a cross-section of network, applications, and devices backgrounds and covered a number of critical points.
The first point from the panel was that defining broadband in a way that is sustainable and measurable is a non-trivial task. The simplest way of defining broadband seems to be measuring basic network speed (e.g., Mbps), selecting a threshold for speed, and classifying broadband as any product above the threshold. However, the panelists raised the issue of whether network speed is really the appropriate measure or if a more user-facing measure (e.g., number of seconds to load a page) would be more appropriate and comprehensive given the impact of applications and devices on performance. One panelist, Anoop Gupta from Microsoft, suggested a two-tiered approach to defining broadband. The first tier would focus on a network performance that enables consumers to participate meaningfully and productively in the economy and in civic engagement - he described it as a "civic baseline" for speed. The second tier would be focused on a network performance that enables strategic assets (hospitals, schools, etc...) to use the internet to its fullest capability, along with "power users" who conduct significant download and upload activities online.
The second point the panel discussed was that the US is lagging far behind best-in-class countries (South Korea was mentioned most frequently) in terms of performance of and access to the internet. The panel noted that the OECD ranks the US 19th in terms of broadband adoption and connection speed, and that the average connection speed in South Korea is 11 Mbps as compared to 1.5 Mbps in the US. This is important because the panelists agreed that applications will evolve to use up all available bandwidth. For example, video consumption will evolve from standard definition to high definition. At the same time, less consumer-focused applications (e.g., computational research and health care applications) will roll out, requiring significant network bandwidth. Therefore, the productive use of the internet, both consumer and non-consumer, is really only constrained by the applications that it enables. Several panelists strongly suggested visiting South Korea to get a sense for what consumer and business applications are possible when you have access to such a powerful network.
Finally, the panel also discussed the impact of US policy on innovation. The panelists agreed that policy (ranging from spectrum policy to telco consolidation) has had and will continue to have a significant impact on innovation, both in the telecom and network spaces. The panel noted that most net work, equipment and device innovation is taking place overseas and that the US should have a goal of becoming once again the center for innovation in this space. Other answers to the question "What role should the FCC and the government play?" touched on open devices, unlicensed spectrum, network neutrality, universal service being re-oriented from voice toward broadband, R&D investment and the role of state and local governments in pushing innovative new approaches to network deployment and broadband adoption.
The day's second workshop included a group more heavily representing equipment and network providers. The group focused on several topics, including the debate of "What is broadband 'success' for the US?" An interesting segment of this debate centered on the question of what was more important to our 'success' - is it more important to increase adoption among those who are served but don't buy broadband, or is it more important to increase the quality of current users' experience. The panel posed an open question to the community: Is there more value in driving higher adoption (programs that increase uptake of broadband) or in creating a better user experience (more bandwidth and quality of service)?
A similarly interesting discussion revolved around the importance of basic broadband as a gateway to better broadband for the user - the premise is that once a user experiences even a modest broadband connection (and one that doesn't incur per-use charges or tie up the phone line) they will trade up to a higher speed. Then, as their usage naturally evolves, what we see is a progression toward more and more engagement and more bandwidth-intensive applications over time. There was agreement that there is no uniform evolution in utilization for users, but that re-framing the conversation by comparing this evolution to the evolution on other adoption patterns may be fruitful for the FCC as it thinks about how to value increased utilization of broadband.
A final discussion for the second panel was around the short-term and long-term path of innovation and utilization, and implicitly around the "social value" of certain activities. A point of agreement was that while our broadband initiative will lead to many enhancements in business and consumer productivity, civic engagement, our national energy grid, our healthcare system, our educational system and other priorities, these will take time. In fact, the panel agreed that US policymakers and the public have to be prepared for the reality of what one panelist called "frivolous" activities. His point was that while much of the initial innovation and usage will be in games and entertainment, in the long run games and entertainment open the door to investment that will enable US strategic goals. His point of view was that online applications, in almost all cases, result from consumers looking to replicate their offline behavior online. For example, people listen to music and play video games offline and migrating that behavior online is a logical step. So, as you think about the future of applications, simply look to the current "analog" behavior that could move online.
Simply having more people online and using the internet with faster connections will drive innovation. Ingenious American users and the companies hoping to serve them will find a way to maximize this new broadband capability, and that "frivolous" activities (however one defines them.we did not discuss that) are a necessary step toward the enablement of longer-term national priorities.
Thoughts? Comments on any of these viewpoints? Let us know!