The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released its second annual Report on Consumer Wireline Broadband Performance in the U.S. (Report). Chock full of jargon, “net-speak,” and charts and figures galore (38 of them), the 54-page report is remarkably readable and informative.
The tests conducted in April 2012 (by the UK-based firm SamKnows) were intended to gauge actual residential wireline network performance (particularly download speeds) as a percentage of speeds advertised by the broadband provider. In other words, are the residential networks as good as providers are telling consumers?
The answer is “yes.” And they may be even better.
The data in the Report are sliced and packaged in myriad ways – download speeds, upload speeds, peak periods (7:00 pm – 11:00 pm), sustained 24-hour periods, service tier, data “burst” offerings, and many others. The Report’s conclusions show that technology matters, and so does population density.
The Report finds Verizon’s fiber-to-the-home network and Cablevision’s network (serving the most densely populated urban and suburban areas in and around New York City) to be the top U.S. performers, with actual network performance at or above 120% of the advertised throughput ranges. Other cable operators included in the study, including Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications, Charter Communications, and Comcast were very close to, and in some cases above, the 100% benchmark. Internet providers still heavily dependent on copper (many still offering only DSL services), including AT&T, Frontier, and Windstream, showed somewhat lower advertised-to-actual throughput metrics than cable providers or pure-fiber players.
U.S. policymakers have shuffled along hang-dog about the U.S.’s comparatively low broadband penetration rankings that perennially hovered around 10 or below worldwide. Nonetheless, the populations of many of the countries ranked above the U.S. on the list are tiny by comparison – Qatar (1.9 million), Macau (556,000), and Iceland (320,000), to name but a few. But take heart: Andorra (population 86,000) is not even on the list — although Lichtenstein and Monaco, each with a population of about 36,000, are not only on the list, but are ranked well ahead of the US. Some other countries, including Singapore, South Korea, and Hong Kong, have highly concentrated urban centers that make it easier to reach consumers with broadband (due, e.g., to lots of tall apartment buildings).
The FCC’s 2010 National Broadband Plan and initiatives coming out of it, including the 2011 and 2012 residential broadband performance reports, reflect policymakers’ resolve to raise broadband penetration and performance – and awareness – in the U.S. For at least 40 years in policy and academic circles the correlations between and among education, economic development, and opportunity on the one hand, and what today we call “broadband” on the other, have been fundamental. Only relatively recently have these notions penetrated the mainstream of policy and political discussions – and even more recently than that, the popular consciousness. Broadband, now, in either its wire-based o
r wireless flavors, is widely regarded to be on the same checklist of modern life’s essentials as electric power and indoor plumbing.
For its part, the FCC’s flexing of its consumer protection muscles by reporting (in plain English, no less) on ISPs’ advertised-to-actual performance seems like a big step onto the turf of the Federal Trade Commission, the agency traditionally charged with consumer protection and truth-in-advertising. But if the Report’s data, and the FCC’s characterization of its own role in the improved performance of US residential broadband networks, are to be believed, then maybe this light-touch government oversight truly is complementary to the vaunted power and purity of market forces.