We need more data transparency around internet access speeds

Network speed tests led to claims that the median fixed broadband speed in the United States in May 2022 was over 150 Mbps. Meanwhile, off-network speed tests of US broadband show median speeds that are a bit lower – median US speeds for May 2022 were below 50 Mbps.

The result is a real disconnect between how policymakers and ISPs understand connectivity and the consumer experience. Business decisions by ISPs can create bottlenecks at the edge of their networks, such as when they implement lower-cost, low-speed interconnections with other ISPs. This means that their broadband speed metrics fail to capture the results of their own decisions, allowing them to claim to deliver broadband speeds that their customers often don’t experience.

Transparency

To protect consumers, the FCC will need to invest in creating a set of broadband speed metrics, maps, and public data repositories that allow researchers to access and analyze what the public actually feels when people buy broadband connectivity. Previous FCC efforts to do this have been heavily criticized as imprecise and inaccurate.

The FCC’s latest proposal to create a national broadband map – estimated to cost $45 million – is already being criticized because its measurement process is a “black box,” meaning its methodology and its data is not transparent to the public. The FCC also appears to be relying almost entirely on ISP self-disclosure for its data again, which means it is likely to significantly overestimate not only speeds, but also where broadband is available.

The new national broadband card may, in fact, be much worse in terms of data access due to rather strict licensing agreements under which the FCC appears to have granted control of the data – collected with public funding – to a private company and then commercialize them. This process is likely to make it extremely difficult to accurately determine the true state of broadband in the United States.

The lack of transparency around these new maps and the methodologies behind them could lead to major headaches when disbursing the $42.5 billion in broadband infrastructure grant funding through the program. equity, access and deployment of broadband.

Independent analysis like Consumer Reports’ Let’s Broadband Together initiative is a crowd-sourced data collection of monthly internet bills across the country. (Full disclosure: I am an advisor to this project.) Efforts like these from consumer groups are crucial to bringing more transparency to the issue that official measures differ from consumer experience. The FCC’s methodologies have been highly imprecise, which has hampered the country’s ability to bridge the digital divide.

Reliable and fast Internet access is a necessity for working, learning, buying, selling and communicating. Making informed telecommunications policy decisions and curbing misleading advertising depends not just on what is measured, but how it is measured. Otherwise, it’s hard to tell if the broadband service you’re getting is the service you’re paying for.

Sascha Meinrath is the ddirector of the X-Lab and the Palmer Chair in Telecommunications at Penn State.

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