A new report from the Federal Communications Commission released Tuesday demonstrates that most of the nation's major broadband ISPs using wire-line technologies are providing service close to what they're advertising. While there are some differences between technologies, DSL, cable and fiber-to-the-home are all delivering quality service generally consistent with what they advertise, said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski.
The broadband study examined service offerings from 13 of the largest U.S. broadband providers, which collectively account for approximately 86 percent of all U.S. wire-line broadband connections. The tests consisted of automated, direct measurements of the broadband performance delivered to the homes of thousands of volunteer broadband subscribers during March 2011.
Though broadband performance generally decreases during the peak hours of 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., "most services still provide actual speeds that are 80 percent to 90 percent of advertised speeds, or better," which is "a significant improvement" over the FCC's findings from two years earlier, Genachowski said.
The Need for Speed
When it comes to delivering advertised download speeds during the peak period, fiber-to-the-home (114 percent) was the clear leader on average, followed by cable (93 percent), and DSL (82 percent). What's more, upload performance was generally better than download performance during peak periods -- with all technologies meeting their advertised upload speeds by 95 percent or better.
Most ISPs delivered download speeds within 20 percent of advertised speeds, with modest declines during peak periods, the FCC reported. Moreover, during peak periods upload performance is much less affected than download performance.
Cox Communications exceeded its advertised upload speed by the greatest percentage among the 13 providers tested by the FCC in cooperation with researchers from MIT and Georgia Tech. However, Verizon's fiber-to-the-home was the only service that exceeded both its advertised upload and download speeds.
The "powerboost" performance enhancements available as part of many cable-based services delivers a far higher throughput for the earlier portion of a connection, although the duration of the speed burst may vary by ISP, service tier, and other factors. This is of significant benefit to web-browsing and other apps -- which use relatively short-lived connections and transfer short bursts of data, the FCC noted.
However, once the burst window lapses, throughput will return to the base rate. In addition, other household broadband activities may decrease or eliminate the benefit of the speed burst, the FCC report observed.
Speed isn't the only issue of potential importance to U.S. consumers. Latency -- the time it takes for a packet of data to travel from one designated point to another in a network -- increased across all technologies by 6.5 percent during peak periods, according to the report.
The impact of latency is felt in a number of ways, the FCC report explained. For example, high round-trip latencies may compromise the quality of voice services in ways perceptible to consumers.
"One might suspect that the higher the speed or bandwidth of your connection, the lower the latency," Genachowski noted. "But the study found that for basic Internet applications like web browsing, at a certain point higher speeds do not mean lower latency and therefore do not mean improved performance."
While broadband pipelines pass near most U.S. households, roughly one-third of Americans still are unconnected, Genachowski noted. "The FCC is working with a broad array of stakeholders to help these Americans subscribe to broadband," the FCC chairman said.
Furthermore, 80 percent of American consumers who do have broadband access don't know what speed they subscribe to. "We encourage current subscribers to check their bills and ask their providers what service they have, and make sure it matches with what they need," Genachowski said.