Challenges mount as broadband grows

Broadband pricing, service speeds and service reliability growing concerns, GAO says

If it is true that as Gartner says the US will add over 27 million new broadband customers in the next four year, service providers and the FCC need to address a whole host of issues from pricing to services lest there be mass confusion and tons of consumer complaints

According to a report out today from the watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office, a wide range of measures to assess broadband performance is generally available to consumers, industry, and government. However, many in the industry told the GAO that the measures used by consumers and those used to make comparisons across the United States and among other countries have limitations. 

Reaching a compromise among broadband providers, consumer advocates, and others on improved broadband measures in the United States has proven to be difficult because they do not agree on alternatives for improvement, the GAO found. 

Specific challenges include: 

Price. Industry experts told the GAO the available pricing measures for consumers are limited. For example, officials from the Consumer Federation of America and Pew Internet & American Life Project said the lack of a comprehensive and consistent measure from the government for consumers to compare prices from providers was a limitation. They added that improved measures for prices would help consumers make more informed decisions about broadband services. Although FCC has open proceedings on requiring providers to include measures of price in the broadband reporting form, it currently does not collect this information.

Actual delivered speed. Experts identified limitations regarding the speed tests for consumers to measure actual delivered speeds. A representative from Akamai, a company that handles approximately 15 to 20% of all Internet traffic worldwide through its global server network, said one problem with speed tests is that the result can be significantly affected by the location of the server that is used to test the speed; the farther away the server, the less accurate the result. Many other factors can also affect a user's speed of service, such as congestion on the network, time of day, and other applications that the user may have open on the computer when testing. NTIA officials told the GAO that the speed tests are not able to determine the Internet traffic congestion points, if any, along the chain of networks. An official from the Pew Internet & American Life Project said the results of the speed tests are not verified by other parties. He also explained that some third-party Web sites that attempt to compare actual delivered speeds have limited numbers of respondents and do not have an independent party verify the results, a fact that decreases the utility of the information for making comparisons. 

Service reliability. Some industry players the GAO contacted, including, IEEE, the Internet Engineering Task Force, Akamai, an economist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), NTIA, and Wireless Internet Service Provider Association (WISPA) are concerned that there is no measure for consumers that addresses service reliability. A service reliability measure would provide information to consumers on factors such as transmission quality, which affects perceived speed and could be useful to consumers in comparing the reliability of broadband services. According to an official from Akamai, service quality is the most difficult performance measure to define, measure, and relay to a consumer. 

All is not bleak however.  Many in the broadband industry are generally supportive of National Telecommunications and Information Administration's State Broadband Data and Development Grant Program and its effort to create a national broadband inventory map, which could help address some problems areas. 

The GAO said that the NTIA has made progress in implementing its State Broadband Data and Development Grant Program and requiring grantees to collect data that have important implications for consumers, policy makers, and industry in measuring broadband performance. NTIA will begin receiving data by March 2010 as part of its new grant initiative to collect state-level broadband data and establish a national broadband inventory map. 

Of course the NTIA has some issues.  The GAO said particularly the NTIA lacks specific guidance for grantees on calculating actual delivered speeds. Without such guidance, it will be difficult to ensure the consistency, and therefore the quality, of the data, limiting the effectiveness of the mapping effort in making comparisons across the country. Developing procedures to help ensure consistent and accurate data is critical, as NTIA begins to distribute funds to grantees and they begin their data collection, the GAO stated. 

More importantly, this effort has the potential to provide consumers, policy makers, and industry with accurate and reliable information such as broadband availability, type, and advertised and actual delivered speed by census block, information that could be used by each in their decision-making process and help guide broadband investment in unserved or underserved populations, the GAO stated. 

In the end consumer advocacy groups and academicians and representatives from think tanks generally stated there was a need for improved information on price and actual delivered speeds to make comparisons and good decisions about service, the GAO stated. 

These experts preferred that FCC require broadband providers to report price per megabit per second and the averaged actual delivered speed of last-mile connections (from the home to the first provider node or aggregation point) to provide more consistent measures for consumers to make comparisons, the GAO stated.   

Still others suggested providing an average price by speed tier, while others suggested providing the lowest and highest prices by speed tier. Finally, some consumer advocacy groups and academicians and representatives from think tanks also favored a measure on service reliability to provide consumers with information on the quality of their connections, the GAO stated. 

In contrast, broadband providers and trade and industry groups generally did not perceive a need for additional broadband measures because, in their opinion, price and speed information is readily available from providers and third-party sources. According to them, additional reporting requirements would be an intrusion into a market that is working, as evidenced by falling prices for increased speeds. They added that additional reporting requirements would be an impediment to investment in infrastructure, as more resources would need to be devoted to data collection, the GAO stated.

These representatives also reported that price per megabit and the average actual delivered speed are difficult to measure and that FCC is not likely to report the information in a timely fashion. For example, in the past, it has taken FCC close to a year to report the data from the broadband reporting form once it has been submitted by broadband providers, the GAO concluded. 

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