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Blog Posts by Walter Johnston & James Miller

Need for Speed, Part II

by Walter Johnston & James Miller, Office of Engineering and Technology
April 13, 2011 - 12:18 PM

Consumers may need better information to determine which broadband service to purchase to meet their needs. Yesterday, the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau (CGB) released a Public Notice requesting comment on this topic. As CGB Bureau Chief Joel Gurin noted, the metrics for broadband speed and performance are not as meaningful to consumers as, say, measures of fuel economy:  “Most people don’t understand megabits-per-second in the way they understand miles-per-gallon.”

But in another way, fuel economy and broadband performance are similar—they’re complex measurements influenced by many factors. How much gas you use depends on everything from how full your tires are to how cold it is outside to how aggressively you drive. Similarly, a single user checking email at 10 AM might find a lower speed broadband service to be sufficient, but the same connection might not support a household with a heavy gaming user, a VoIP- and VPN-using telecommuter, and movie fans watching HD-quality streaming video in the living room at 7 PM. 

It’s no simple task to determine how “fast” your Internet connection is; just developing a measurement methodology that accurately captures and represents performance is a serious technical challenge.

The FCC took on this challenge when we set out to test broadband performance in the homes of 10,000 volunteers across the nation. To do this test, we contracted with SamKnows, a consulting company that conducted a similar effort in the United Kingdom with the regulatory authority for the UK communications sector. Our nationwide test is the first precise U.S. measurement of internet services as delivered to the home by the service provider.

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