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Truth in speeds - broadband access


By Scott Bradner


Graeme Samuel, the chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission  ( recently took Australian broadband Internet service providers to task over their failure to make it clear to potential customers just how fast their service was or was not.  The admonition should not be confined to Australia.


Australian IT reported that Samuel, after speaking at a business lunch, warned telecommunications companies that they "may be overstepping the mark in terms of misleading and deceptive conduct.  (",7204,20653552%5E15306%5E%5Enbv%5E,00.html) Misleading ads from a telco?  Say not so!


Mr. Samuel noted that the actual speed a customer experiences depends on factors such as the length of the local loop and on congestion. I took a look at the web sites for the main cable and DSL providers in my area and also found a distinct lack of any useful information on just what speeds I could expect to get if I ordered their service. I looked at the Comcast "see prices and choose packages" and the Verizon "packages and prices" web pages to try to get an idea of what these providers were telling potential customers.


Neither provider gave any hint about upload speed and both put download speeds in multiples of dial-up speed along with a bits-per-second value.


Comcast offers two "download" rates for their "High-Speed Internet" service: 6Mbps and 8Mbps, with double the download speed for large files with PowerBoost (tm).  Verizon offers two "connection" speeds for its "Verizon Online DSL" service: "up to 768Kpbs" and "up to 3.0 Mbps."  Since the Comcast service is specified in terms of "download" speed and the Verizon DSL service is specified in terms of "connection" speed we are already in an apples vs oranges discussion.


Then I looked for the fine print that Mr. Samuel had warned about.  Comcast says "Actual speeds may vary and are not guaranteed.  Many factors affect download speed."  Not much information there other than a general 'don't bet on it' disclaimer.  Verizon is about the same, they say "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 they have designed into their networks.  For Comcast, just how many customers are on a local cable plant, what speed are they configured for and what the speed of the uplink between the cable head end and the ISP is running at.  For Verizon, how many customers are sharing a single uplink to the ISP and what speed those customers are configured for. 


Thus, for both DSL and cable modems there are choke points where the supplier can decide to spend more money to improve service or decide to skimp and save a buck.  Its easy to see why they do not want to give you any real information about how choked their choke points get at busy hour but, without some hint at the oversubscription ratio and some information about upload speed you have no idea at all what performance you will get.


Maybe I missed it, but I do not remember the US FCC saying anything like what Mr. Samuel did, but then again, even with the Australian regulator's concern I doubt the Australian customers 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 on how students will do eludes most higher ed institutions, including Harvard and the above prediction-free prediction is my own.