Truth in speeds -- broadband access

ACCC's admonition goes worldwide

Graeme Samuel, chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission recently took Australian broadband ISPs to task over their failure to make it clear to potential customers just how fast their services are. The admonition should not be confined to Australia.

The Australian IT Web site reported that Samuel, after speaking at a business lunch, warned telecom companies that they "may be overstepping the mark in terms of misleading and deceptive conduct." Misleading ads from a telco? Say it's not so!

Samuel noted that the speed a customer experiences depends on such factors as the length of the local loop and congestion. I looked at the Web sites for the primary cable and DSL providers in my area and also found a distinct lack of useful information on what speeds I could expect to get if I ordered their service. I looked at Comcast's "see prices and choose packages" information, and Verizon's "packages and prices" Web page to get an idea of what these providers were telling potential customers.

Neither provider gave any hint about upload speeds, and both gave download speeds in multiples of the dial-up speed along with a bits-per-second value. Comcast offers two download rates for its High-Speed Internet service - 6Mbps and 8Mbps - with PowerBoost to double the download speed for large files. Verizon offers two connection speeds for its Verizon Online DSL service: "up to 768Kbps" and "up to 3.0 Mbps." Because Comcast's service is specified in terms of download speed, and Verizon's DSL service is specified in terms of connection speed, we are in an apples vs. oranges discussion.

Then I looked for the fine print that Samuel warned about. Comcast says, "Actual speeds may vary and are not guaranteed. Many factors affect download speed." Not much information other than a general "don't bet on it" disclaimer. Verizon is about the same, warning, "Actual throughput speed will vary. Speed and uninterrupted use of the service are not guaranteed."

What neither page tells you is what level of oversubscription the service providers have designed into their networks. For Comcast, I wonder how many customers are on a local cable plant, for what speed they are configured, and at what speed the uplink between the cable head end and the ISP is running. For Verizon, how many customers are sharing a single uplink to the ISP and for what speed are those customers configured? Thus, for both DSL and cable modems, there are choke points where the supplier can either decide to spend more money to improve service or skimp and save a buck. It's easy to see why they do not want to give you any real information about how choked their choke points get at busy hours, but without some hint at the oversubscription ratio - how much bandwidth there is and how many customers are sharing it - and some information about upload speed, you have no idea what performance you will get.

Maybe I missed it, but I do not remember the FCC saying anything like what Samuel said. Then again, even with the Australian regulator's concern, I doubt the customers in his country will get enough information to make any accurate predictions about actual performance, so maybe it does not matter.

Disclaimer: The art of making accurate predictions about how students will do eludes most institutions of higher education including Harvard, and the above prediction-free prediction is my own.

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