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FCC Report Confirms Slow Broadband Speeds; Don't Panic Yet

The new FCC  Broadband Performance OBI Technical Paper No. 4 is already fueling the hype machine with the headline that consumers get roughly half the stated upload and download speeds Internet service providers claim. What the FCC found simply confirms what we knew already: the speeds advertised by ISPs are not what end users actually receive, but the reality isn't as bad as the numbers suggest. The report states that 80 percent of broadband users need only four megabits per second (Mbps), which equals the actual average speed that users received across all types of services offered.

Still, as seen in the graphic taken from the report, the stated average speeds collected by the FCC from sources like comScore and Greenstein & McDevitt vary from the actual performance delivered by as much as 50 percent. The stats used in this report are based on data from content delivery networks that measure speed from the nearest CDN server and the end user. For ISPs miffed about the numbers, the FCC acknowledges that actual measurement and better reporting could deliver a more accurate picture, though whether that would work in the providers' favor is an open question.

The 50 percent "promised vs. delivered" gap, the report says, is similar across all broadband technologies, including fiber to the home, cable, DSL and satellite. It stems from slow or outdated consumer equipment in the home, problems within the ISP network, such as congestion, or delays on the Internet outside the ISPs' control, like overloaded servers or  Internet-wide problems.

Raw broadband speed numbers are meaningless without an investigation of how users consume bandwidth and an understanding of how much throughput is needed to fulfill their needs. To figure that out, the FCC analyzed data from Pew Research and broke users into four groups: advanced, full media, multimedia and utility users.

Advanced users, a group the FCC estimates includes 20 percent  of all Internet users, are those who consume HD video and real-time and bandwidth-intensive applications. Advanced users consume typically 1Mbps to 4Mbps for their activities. Full-media users consume some video and real-time media, but less than advanced users. Emerging multimedia users are hitting lower-quality multimedia sources, and utility users are largely consuming Web pages and e-mail. The latter three groups make up the remaining 80 percent  of Internet users.
Similar to advertised speeds, actual bandwidth usage is often far below what is advertised or paid for. Viewing Web pages, checking e-mail, and other stop-and-go interactions are more adversely affected by delay and congestion than speed or bits per second. Where the effect of insufficient throughput comes into play are applications that consume a lot of bandwidth, like file large file transfers. Real-time, high-quality media suffers from both bandwidth and latency.

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