Internet speeds may not stack up to companies' claims

Tom Fontaine
| Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011

Is your Internet service provider telling you the truth?

A Federal Communications Commission report released this month says only two of the nation's 13 largest broadband Internet service providers -- Verizon FiOS and Comcast -- offer download speeds that are as fast as advertised during the hours that are most popular for home users.

The FCC suggests many people don't know they're getting shortchanged, citing studies showing 80 percent of consumers don't know what Internet speed they pay for. Easy-to-understand information is hard to come by, the agency said.

"For consumers, choosing the right broadband service can be a daunting task," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said.

The FCC wants to change that. It says its report represents the first nationwide performance study of residential broadband service, excluding mobile service. It sought input this spring from residential users on what types of information they would find most helpful in making buying decisions.

Comcast has 750,000 residential customers in Western Pennsylvania, northern West Virginia and eastern Ohio, including phone and cable subscribers. Spokesman Bob Grove could not say how many Internet subscribers the company has in the region.

Grove said factors providers can't control can affect speeds, such as software or viruses on a user's home computer.

Verizon FiOS Internet and cable service are available in Western Pennsylvania, but spokesman Clifford P. Lee would not say how many customers it has here.

ISPs generally don't guarantee a particular speed, but tend to advertise an "up to" speed customers can expect under ideal network conditions. A speed of 16 megabits per second (Mbps), for example, could allow users to download a high-resolution photo in about a second, and 50 Mbps could let them download a full-length movie in under five minutes.

The FCC rated ISPs by calculating actual speeds of types of service as a percentage of their advertised speeds.

Download speeds during peak hours of Internet use -- 7 to 11 p.m. weekdays -- ranged from 54 percent of an advertised speed to 114 percent. Upload speeds ranged from 85 percent to 125 percent.

Verizon FiOS, which dubs itself "America's fastest, most reliable Internet," delivered download speeds during peak hours with its fiber-optic service that averaged 114 percent of its advertised speed, and peak-hour upload speeds totaling 112 percent. Both percentages led all providers.

"If we tell you we're going to deliver you a particular speed, we're going to deliver you that particular speed or better," Lee said.

The FCC rated Comcast second-best among providers, with peak download speeds amounting to 101 percent of advertised speeds and upload speeds of 112 percent. Grove said Comcast's website allows users to test Internet connection speeds.

Cablevision, which provides service in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, offered the worst peak-hour download speeds, at 54 percent of advertised speed.

Dean R. Manna, head of the marketing department at Robert Morris University in Moon, said consumers could benefit from the attention to Internet speeds.

"Most people don't even know what they're paying for, whether it comes to this or their cell phone packages," Manna said. "This could help them do a better job of voting with their wallets."

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