FCC: Cable Internet Is Getting Faster, But DSL & Satellite Still Likely To Miss The Mark

fcc2015byproviderThe FCC’s job — well, one of the FCC’s jobs — is to make sure that everyone has access to decent broadband connections. You can’t understand what you can’t measure, though, so as part of that, the commission has to measure just how broadband is holding up. They issue a report, called Measuring Broadband America, roughly once a year to share their findings. The new one, the fifth, has just been released and while there’s still a lot of room for improvement, on the whole it seems to be a high note on which to end the year.

The last time the FCC updated this report, in June, 2014, the FCC found that while the news was, on the whole, trending positive, some ISPs were still falling short on delivering consumers what they paid for. Over a year later, the new report shows that there’s been some improvement… but some users, particularly DSL customers, are still being left behind.

Let’s lead off with the happy part: for many of us, the internet is getting faster. Over the past five years, cable and fiber ISPs have promised and delivered significant technological improvements that boost the available network speeds dramatically, and even DSL has seen a slight increase. Unfortunately for rural subscribers, available satellite internet speeds, on the whole, have stayed level or even fallen.

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Those speeds, of course, are what ISPs say they’re delivering to you — but consumers’ reality may be different from the one businesses push on paper. And that brings us to the FCC’s other key question: are you getting what you’re paying for?

The FCC compares an ISP’s actual speeds to its advertised speeds to find out. If a company promises you 50 Mbps download speeds, and you get 50 or higher, that’s 100% or more. If that company promises you 50 Mbps download speeds, and you get 40 Mbps or less, that’s less than 80%, and it’s no good.

On average, though, cable and fiber companies are indeed coming very close to the promised mark for most consumers’ download speeds, and they’re even more likely to hit or exceed that mark for upload speeds. Satellite companies are underpromising and overdelivering hugely, which is great for consumers… but DSL companies, with a couple of exceptions, appear to miss the mark rather broadly.

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Of course, sometimes crap happens, and so the FCC doesn’t ask ISPs to meet a perfect standard. Those advertised rates are “up to” for a reason, after all; even the best-maintained, most-robust network is sometimes going to have too many people using it, or weather interfering, or whatever. Instead, the commission want companies to deliver at least 80% of the speed they promised you, at least 80% of the time. For cable and satellite customers, ISPs are pretty consistently meeting or exceeding that standard. For DSL and even some fiber ISPs, though, the results are a lot less good.

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Hughes satellite consumers are seeing their ISP significantly overperform the promised level of service, which is great. ViaSat/Exede customers are, well, not so lucky. That huge gap between the two bars, for those that service, indicates that the download speeds consumers get are pretty wildly inconsistent and hugely variable, based either on when or from where subscribers access it.

In general, though, things are looking up. “Today’s report confirms that advances in network technology are yielding significant improvements in broadband speeds and quality,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement. “Faster, better broadband will unleash new innovations and new services to improve the lives of the American people. This comprehensive assessment of broadband performance helps to keep consumers informed and hold ISPs accountable.”