In April, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) published a study titled, “Broadband Performance: Additional Actions Could Help FCC Evaluate Its Efforts to Inform Consumers.” Addressed to two U.S. Congressman and one Senator, the report covers two topics: broadband information ISPs currently available to subscribers, and how effective Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules and regulations have been in making this information available.

As boring as the study sounds—and we have to admit it’s not a page-turner—it does, in its 42 pages, attempt to answer one very basic and interesting question: why is it had to accurately and objectively compare advertised speeds from multiple Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to one another, and to the actual performance subscribers experience?

Here’s Where the Problem Starts

The FCC requires every ISP to disclose information regarding its network’s performance in terms of metrics like speed and latency. Providers can’t claim gigabit speeds in advertising and then not back it up. However, the FCC doesn’t require ISPs to measure this performance according to any specific standard.

Many users have done online speed tests in an attempt to find out whether they’re getting all the speed they’re paying for. In some cases, the tests return lower-than-advertised numbers and subscribers understandably become upset. However, the ISP and speed test company aren’t necessarily measuring speed in the same way, either. That means it’s possible the advertised and tested speeds are different, yet both correct.

For example, the equipment you use to connect to the Internet, including routers and cable modems, can affect your actual connection speeds in ways ISPs can’t plan for in their marketing. Speed tests from sites using other networks may be affected by traffic on their own network—outside of your ISP’s control—and skewing the reported results on yours. And if others in your family are using the connection at the same time you run the test, it will drastically affect the results.

The FCC Says “Stop Complaining”

The FCC took complaints about slower-than-advertised speed seriously. Since 2011, it has published an annual report, “Measuring Broadband America” (MBA), in which the commission measures the industry’s advertised and delivered performance over a 24-hour period, as well as 7 p.m. – 11 p.m. peak hours. According to the 2014 report, the nation’s 14 largest ISPs deliver an average of 101 percent of their advertised speed. ISPs are allowed to use this data to fulfill their requirement to make performance data available to consumers. So for some, but not all ISPs, performance data comes directly from the FCC.

Possible Future Changes

To this point, the MBA reports have measured performance within an ISP’s network so that outside factors beyond the provider’s control would affect their results, as described earlier. However, that’s not how consumers use the Internet: in most cases, we have no idea which network content is on, or how that affects our speed. We only know how long it takes content to load. Future MBA reports may adopt this more “real world” methodology.

Trust someone who reads these reports for a living – they’re long and dull. The 2014 MBA is 68 pages long, and consumers won’t bother reading it to find out one or two statistics on performance. The FCC will need to make these reports more consumer-oriented if it wants to make it easier for consumers to judge the speeds available to them.

It Boils Down to This

One fundamental problem with the FCC’s efforts to make it easier to measure broadband performance, says the GAO, is that there are no performance goals. The FCC has no way of measuring its effectiveness in educating the public on broadband quality. And without those goals, the GAO rightly points out that the FCC can never claim success in any meaningful way.

If you’re one of those lucky subscribers receiving 101 percent of the speed you thought you were paying for, congratulations. But you don’t have to care what the reports say: all that matters is whether your current provider is meeting your standards, not the government’s.If it isn’t, it’s time you looked for a new plan.

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