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We need more data transparency around internet access speeds

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On-net speed tests have led to claims that the median fixed broadband speed in the US by May 2022 was over 150Mbps. Meanwhile, off-net speed tests of US broadband show median speeds that are a lot lower – the median US speeds for May 2022 were under 50Mbps.

This results in a real gap between the way policymakers and ISPs understand connectivity and the lived consumer experience. ISPs’ business decisions can create bottlenecks at the edges of their networks, such as when they implement cheaper, lower-speed interconnections with other ISPs. This means that their broadband speed measurements don’t 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 building a suite of broadband speed measures, maps, and public data repositories that allow researchers to access and analyze what the public actually experiences when people buy broadband connectivity. Past efforts by the FCC to do this have included: heavily criticized as inaccurate and inaccurate.

The FCC’s latest proposal for creating a national broadband map – at an estimated cost of $45 million –is already criticized because the measurement process is a “black box”, meaning the methodology and data are not transparent to the public. The FCC also seems to be relying almost entirely on the ISP’s self-disclosure for its data again, meaning it’s likely vastly overestimating not only speeds, but where broadband is available.

In fact, the new national broadband card could be much worse in terms of data access due to fairly strict licensing arrangements under which the FCC appears to have control over the data granted— collected with public funding — to a private company for commercialization. This process is likely to make it extremely difficult to accurately determine the true state of US broadband.

Lack of transparency about these new maps and the methodologies underlying them could lead to major difficulties in disbursing the $42.5 billion in broadband infrastructure grants through the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program.

Independent analysis such as the Consumer Reports initiative, Let’s make broadband together, is crowdsourcing data collection from monthly internet bills from around the country. (Full disclosure: I’m an advisor to this project.) Efforts like this by consumer groups are key to creating greater transparency about the problem of official measures differing from consumer experience. The FCCs methodologies were highly inaccuratewhich has hampered the country’s ability to address the digital divide.

Reliable, high-speed internet access is a necessity for working, learning, shopping, selling and communicating. Making informed decisions about telecommunications policy and curbing false advertising is not just a matter of what is measured, but also how it is measured. Otherwise it is difficult to know if the broadband service you are getting is the service you are paying for.

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

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