A new study from the Federal Communications Commission says Internet access in the United States has gotten a whole lot better since last summer. If only that were the whole story.
"Measuring Broadband America — July 2012" follows up on a report last August that found many big-name Internet providers delivered downloads slower than advertised figures, especially during peak evening hours.
The FCC now finds digital subscriber line, cable and fiber-optic connections more likely to meet their advance billing. As before, DSL did worst, with downloads at 84 percent of touted speeds during peak times; cable hit 99 percent and fiber averaged 117 percent. All three technologies slightly beat their own advertised upload speeds.
That should be welcome news to customers tired of feeling lied to by Internet providers.
This study also reported that faster service plans accelerated the average tested connection from 10.6 million bits per second (Mbps) to 14.6 Mbps and approvingly cited the growing availability of 50 and even 100 Mbps packages.
But then the study repeats last year's observation that Web browsing doesn't feel swifter past 10 Mbps. One 1080p high-definition video stream can eat up 5 Mbps, but you'll need a lot of laptops on Netflix to max out 50 Mbps. When I sampled 100 Mbps and 1,000-Mbps (1 gigabit) fiber-optic connections from the Bay Area firm Sonic.net last winter, the rest of the Internet usually couldn't keep up.
Will or should subscribers pay triple-digit monthly fees for speed they can't use? (I'm a contented Fios customer, but I have zero interest in its $200-plus, 300-Mbps option.) The report neglects that point.
This roughly 12,000-word document drew from tests run by the U.K. research firm SamKnows in "thousands" of volunteers' homes during April. These volunteers subscribed to a mix of cable (Cablevision, Charter, Comcast, Cox, Insight, Mediacom, TimeWarner), DSL (AT&T, CenturyLink, Frontier, Qwest, Verizon, Windstream) and fiber (Frontier and Verizon).
I doubt many of these people can choose between those companies, especially if you rule out slower DSL.
Back in 2010, the FCC estimated that 78 percent of housing units were in areas with only two wired providers and 13 percent had only one. Since then, Verizon has not only failed to bring Fios into new markets but has commenced cozying up to Comcast: That New York firm's Verizon Wireless subsidiary and the Philadelphia cable giant now market each others' services.
A few firms are trying to crack open the market: Sonic.net in the Bay Area, Chattanooga's municipally-owned power utility's fiber service, Google's Kansas City gigabit-fiber project (update: now taking pre-registrations, with 1 Gbps service going for $70 a month and 5 Mbps access free after a connection fee) and a venture called Gig.U that aims to offer wireless broadband around some universities. Newly-liberated wireless spectrum may further expand that choice.
But for now and for most of us, the Internet runs through our local phone or cable monopoly, and we risk such monopolistic abuses as slowed or capped access to particular sites or services.
In its intro, the FCC pats itself on the back for pushing these companies to provide faster service. I'm glad public scolding was so persuasive, because competition doesn't seem to be happening anytime soon.
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery