Mass broadband adoption poses metric problems

Are consumers getting what they pay for?

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If it is true that as Gartner says the US will add over 27 million new broadband customers in the next four year, service providers and the FCC need to address a whole host of issues from pricing to services lest there be mass confusion and tons of consumer complaints.

According to a report from the watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office, a wide range of measures to assess broadband performance is generally available to consumers, industry, and government. However, many in the industry told the GAO that the measures used by consumers and those used to make comparisons across the US and among other countries have limitations.

Reaching a compromise among broadband providers, consumer advocates, and others on improved broadband measures in the United States has proven to be difficult because they do not agree on alternatives for improvement, the GAO found.

Specific challenges include:

Price. Industry experts told the GAO the available pricing measures for consumers are limited. For example, officials from the Consumer Federation of America and Pew Internet & American Life Project said the lack of a comprehensive and consistent measure from the government for consumers to compare prices from providers was a limitation. They added that improved measures for prices would help consumers make more informed decisions about broadband services. Although FCC has opened proceedings on requiring providers to include measures of price in the broadband reporting form, it currently does not collect this information.

Actual delivered speed. Experts identified limitations regarding the speed tests for consumers to measure actual delivered speeds. A representative from Akamai, a company that handles approximately 15 to 20% of all Internet traffic worldwide through its global server network, said one problem with speed tests is that the result can be significantly affected by the location of the server that is used to test the speed. The farther away the server, the less accurate the result.

Many other factors can also affect a user’s speed of service, such as congestion on the network, time of day, and other applications that the user may have open on the computer when testing. NTIA officials told the GAO that the speed tests are not able to determine the Internet traffic congestion points, if any, along the chain of networks. An official from the Pew Internet & American Life Project said the results of the speed tests are not verified by other parties. He also explained that some third party websites that attempt to compare actual delivered speeds have limited numbers of respondents and do not have an independent party verify the results, a fact that decreases the utility of the information for making comparisons.

Service reliability. Some industry players the GAO contacted, including BroadbandCensus.com, IEEE, the Internet Engineering Task Force, Akamai, an economist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), NTIA, and Wireless Internet Service Provider Association (WISPA) are concerned that there is no measure for consumers that addresses service reliability. A service reliability measure would provide information to consumers on factors such as transmission quality, which affects perceived speed and could be useful to consumers in comparing the reliability of broadband services. According to an official from Akamai, service quality is the most difficult performance measure to define, measure, and relay to a consumer.

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