FCC: Cable Internet Really Is Getting Better But It Still Sucks To Have DSL

Image courtesy of TroyMarcyPhotography.com

The FCC has released its latest Measuring Broadband America report, which — among other things — tells consumers if internet providers are indeed living up to the super-fast speeds they advertise. And while the industry is getting better at both delivering and marketing cable broadband, Americans who rely on satellite or DSL internet access are having difficulty catching up.

Back in 2014, the FCC found that by and large, fiber providers were consistently exceeding advertised speeds, cable providers were managing to hit them more than 90% of the time, and DSL providers were hovering around the 50% – 60% mark. And last year, the 2015 report found that cable connection speeds were getting faster nationwide, but DSL and satellite users were being left behind.

So what does the 2016 report have to tell us?

Let’s start with the good news first, shall we? Everyone likes good news.

So: broadband speeds are up! Both the real speeds and the advertised speeds for consumers have increased since last year, which is great. Last year’s average speed was 32 Mbps; this year’s median is 39 Mbps. That’s a 22% increase. Hooray!

(And yes, mean and median are two different metrics. The FCC changed the way it calculates figures this year in accordance with some rule changes due to the 2015 Open Internet Order — aka “net neutrality.” However, the commission says it compared both mean and median values and did not find any variations greater than 5%, “which implies that the measured values were, in general, only slightly skewed.” The full report still also provides raw data for both values.)

Another piece of good news: for most providers, the FCC says, real speeds and advertised speeds are finally getting aligned. Cable and fiber providers are meeting or exceeding their advertised connection speeds on the regular. If you’re paying a cable company for “up to” 100 Mbps downstream, odds are now really good that your device is indeed connecting at 100 Mbps or better.

In handy-dandy chart form, you can see how promised download speeds have grown rapidly over the past few years for cable providers, including Optimum, Charter, Comcast, Cox, and Time Warner Cable:

Several broadband providers' highest advertised download speed, year over year.

Several broadband providers’ highest advertised download speed, year over year.

That big spike up to 300 Mbps for TWC was for “TWC Maxx,” a service tier the company was piloting. However, since the Charter acquisition, Maxx has now been cancelled. All the other companies with high connection speed promises are hanging out around the 100 Mbps level, with Comcast popping up to 150.

That’s advertised performance, granted. But the median actual performance — which draws in data from every service tier — is also generally trending upward across the board:

Major internet providers' median download speed, year-over-year.

Major internet providers’ median download speed, year-over-year.

More consumers are adopting those higher speeds, too, where they’re available. But that “where they’re available” is the big caveat, and it takes us to the “bad news” half of the report. Because as both the charts and the text show, a large segment of internet users are still being left in the dust. While cable connections are improving, DSL and satellite users — and for that matter, some fiber users — continue to see their service stagnating or even degrading.

The satellite-internet customers also suffer on other major metrics: consistency, latency, and packet loss.

Packet loss measures how much data simply never makes it from point A to point E through points B, C, and D. For a smooth internet experience, you want that number to be as close to zero as possible. Cable providers Optimum, Charter, and Comcast all came in right around 0.1% of data lost or less, with Cox only fractionally higher. Hughes satellite users, however, were missing nearly 0.8% of their data. A number close to 1% adds up to a negative experience more quickly than you’d think.

Latency, meanwhile, is basically a measurement for delay. It’s about how much time it takes a signal from point A to reach point B and come back. That’s another number that you want to be as close to zero as possible, so you feel like you’re getting a fast response time when you do things online.

The cable providers once again came in pretty low, with Optimum leading the way between 10 and 20 milliseconds of latency, on average. (That’s 0.01 to 0.02 seconds.) Verizon FiOS also came in low, around the same point. Among cable providers, none had more latency than 30 ms (Time Warner Cable). DSL providers fared worse than cable, but still all came in under 60 ms, or about 0.06 seconds.

Once again, however, satellite internet customers are facing a comparatively crappy experience. For both Hughes and ViaSat/Exede customers, the FCC found latencies around 600 ms — that’s more than half a second, pushing towards a whole second, and that’s something significant enough for users to notice, especially if it happens with every single action you take through your connection.

And consistency, finally, is exactly what it sounds like: you want your connection experience to be consistent. If you’re looking for a 100 Mbps connection, is it always around 90-100 Mbps or does it oscillate wildly between 50 Mbps and 150 Mbps? Users want to know how their service works, and they want it to work the same every time they sit down with their computer or pick up their wifi-using mobile device.

The FCC uses a metric called 80/80 to measure consistency: are at least 80% of users getting at least 80% of the connection speed they’re promised during peak usage hours? Cable subscribers once again stand the highest chance of success there, with more than 90% of Optimum and Comcast users getting at least 95% of their advertised connection speed at peak hours. But by and large, DSL customers and Frontier customers are lucky even to find themselves making that 80% threshold. And for Viasat/Exede, the percentage of users who manage to reach 95% or more of their advertised connection speed at peak hours is… zero.

In a perfect world of perfect connections, all these bars would be 100% blue.

In a perfect world of perfect connections, all these bars would be 100% blue.

So why is satellite service so awful, especially this year? The technology itself is part of the problem, the FCC admits, but the other challenge is that both major satellite internet providers are, in a sense, victims of their own success: “increased subscribership and consumer usage of these services” really does mean there isn’t quite enough network to go around to all those users right now. “Future proposed launches of more advanced satellites” planned in 2017 would reverse the trend, the report suggests.

As for DSL, however, its downward trajectory seems potentially bottomless, because the networks just aren’t getting upgraded.

“We note that DSL technology is capable of attaining speeds comparable to cable and fiber technologies,” the report notes, “but that improvements … may be required, adding to overall expense of the service.”

“We find on this basis that there is a growing disparity in download speeds surveyed between DSL and cable and fiber technologies. This disparity has been growing since our initial Report,” in 2011.

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