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Broadband: What’s Your Need for Speed?

March 5th, 2010 by Joel Gurin - Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau

Since I joined the FCC I’ve commuted weekly from my home in New York to Washington, which has broadened my horizons for comparative shopping. I get to compare bagels with crabcakes, The Washington Post with The New York Times, and high-speed Internet plans from different parts of the eastern seaboard.

The good news is that Internet service providers (ISPs) are offering a variety of plans with ever-faster speeds to support new applications, video, and games. But the bad news is that it’s not easy to understand what speed you actually need, or what speed you’ll actually get, from a given provider and a given plan. The ISP that serves my Washington apartment offers plans with download speeds of “up to” 15 or 30 Mbps (megabytes megabits per second)**; the one we have in our Westchester home can deliver downloads at up to 1, 12, or 16 Mbps; and a third provider keeps sending me offers for service with download speeds up to 15, 25, or 50 Mbps. These different providers have one thing in common: Each claims that its service is “blazing” fast.

If you’re cost-conscious, it’s important to find the plan that’s right for you; two plans from the same ISP can differ in price by $40 a month. But clear comparisons aren’t easy, for several reasons. First, most people don’t know what Mbps is – they don’t have the same intuitive sense for broadband speed numbers that they do for miles per hour or miles per gallon. Second, if you ask what speed you need for different applications – such as emailing documents, video, or gaming – you may get different answers from different ISPs.  Third, as my experience shows, different ISPs offer different speed “tiers” that aren’t easily comparable from provider to provider. And finally, a service that promises “up to” 50 Mbps may deliver much less than that in practice, due in part to factors that are outside the provider’s control. An FCC study found that real speeds may be only half of advertised speeds, particularly at peak evening usage times.

The FCC’s National Broadband Plan, which will be released on March 17, recommends different measures to help consumers find their way through the Mbps maze. The Plan will outline ways that online tools, labels, and other kinds of information can help consumers understand broadband speeds and choose the plans that work best for them. It will also address wireless broadband, where speeds can vary a lot by local coverage, and where consumers have many more providers to choose from.

The FCC is taking steps to help consumers even before the Plan is released. Next week we’ll launch new media tools at www.broadband.gov to give consumers more information about their broadband connections. And in the months ahead, the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau and others at the FCC will be working hard to help consumers understand and learn about broadband speed. Please add your comments and let us know how you think the FCC can help.

**Note: Updated, with comment below

11 Responses to “Broadband: What’s Your Need for Speed?”

  1. Guest says:

    I don't understand why high speed Internet Service costs more than a lower speed Internet Service. It seems to me that the lower the speed the longer the occupancy of use. Therefore, high speed Internet Service should cost the user less lot more.

  2. Michael Dean says:

    Good article! Just one thing that bugged me. Mbps = Megabits per second not Megabytes.

  3. Guest says:

    I think the FCC should implement some sort of "regressive broadband speed tax" on ISPs, to encourage them to raise the speed of broadband. It is not like the technology is not there, but rather there is no impetus for change due to duopolistic nature of the industry. To make sure that this tax is not passed onto the consumers, the FCC should impose a "progressive tax on the price of service" charged to consumers. The government can use the tax money to give "tax breaks" for equipment upgrades. I don't think the government should interfere with wireless broadband. Let the private sector take care of it. Everyone has cell phones even in remote areas, broadband will eventually find its way there.

    In the meantime, I think satellite internet is the most economical and environmentally friendly interim solution. The problem here is that we need new communication satellites (cost $200+million each) plus the cost of subsidizing the terminals, which would still be less than $7+billion proposed plan.

  4. Joel says:

    Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I realized today that I might have made this error, came back to check the blog, and saw that I had not only erred, but that six readers had corrected me before I had a chance to do so myself. I do know a byte from a bit, but slipped here - an error I won't make again. Once bit-ten, twice shy, as they say.

  5. Joel says:

    Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I realized last night that I might have made this error, came back to check the blog, and saw that I had not only erred, but that five readers had corrected me before I had a chance to do so myself. I do know a byte from a bit, but slipped here - an error I won't make again. Once bit-ten, twice shy, as they say.

  6. Callum UK says:

    I think the first real step in solving the publics confusion over download speeds is passing a law that forces all ISPs to advertise in MB/s rather than Mb/s. I think the only realistic reason an ISP is not prepared to do it now is that their broadband speed, in megabytes would appear slower than other connections of equal speed advertised in megabits even though they are the same. The second step once this is done is to explain to everyone they should expect an average of 10% less than the advertised speed due to connection overhead, exchange distance and line quality. At the moment many people see 8Mb/s and feel short changed when their browser reports 900KB/s. I think a fairer advert for an 8Mb/s connection would read "1MB/s with up to 900KB/s download speed".
    Its just misleading advertising, and by correcting this issue many people would be much wiser about the speed they should be receiving. Its not rocket science, its just a bit of transparency on the part of the advertisers, with a little shove in the right direction by the powers that be.

  7. Matt says:

    Hi,

    "The ISP that serves my Washington apartment offers plans with download speeds of “up to” 15 or 30 Mbps (megabytes per second)"

    Megabits per second (Mbps) is not the same as megabytes per second (MBps). Type "15 Mbps to MBps" into google, and you'll see:

    15 Mbps = 1.87500 MBps

    i.e., 15 Megabits per second (Mbps) is 1.875 megabytes per second (MBps).

    I suppose it makes your point though; consumers definitely need to be informed about their ISPs.

  8. David Ellis says:

    Hi Joel - As a Canadian with both academic and business interests in broadband, I'm fascinated by what the FCC is doing on so many issues - not the least being consumer education. My suggestion to all who are trying to help fellow citizens understand the technicalities is to get the basics right. It's not "plans with download speeds of “up to” 15 or 30 Mbps (megabytes per second)" - it's *megabits* per second.

    This trivial mistake shows up everywhere. And if anyone isn't clear about the difference between channel capacity, measured in bits/s, and actual throughput, measured in bytes/s, then we're never going to get consumers to understand the discrepancies between actual broadband performance and target speeds. That in turn is crucial to understanding that accounting for "overhead" vs payload ain't the same as truth in advertising. And ISPs in both our countries have done very well by exploiting public ignorance about these details.

    Keep up the good work!

  9. Duramax08 says:

    And what about the people without broadband? What do we get out of this?

  10. Guest says:

    Im not sure if your are familiar with computer acronyms.... but megabytes is MBs... and mega bits is Mbs.... so you are really having a download speed of megabits... 8 bits - 1 byte... xt914_Blackford420@yahoo.com is my e-mail... if you have any questions,.. don't hesitate to ask. :)

  11. Right to Internet says:

    What you said about people not knowing about the speeds is very true, initially I always thought mbps was Mega Bytes per second, it turns out that its mega bits per second, and the number that they provide turns out to be divided by 8 times.. And they have one more term which they keep using.. "contention ratio" and it happens to be the ratio of download speed to browsing speed, somehow these <a href="http://topper10.net/2009/internet/top-10-countries-with-regard-to-internet-connection-speed/">
    Internet Providers</a> keep confusing people.

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