Broadband access in the United States is even worse than you think.

The intersection of government and technology.
April 28 2010 7:03 AM

Denial of Service

Don't believe the telecoms. Broadband access in the United States is even worse than you think.

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By way of comparison, Taiwan already has near-universal access to 10 Mbps and South Korea achieved 1 Mbps universal access in 2008. By the end of 2010, Germany and Ireland both plan to reach universal 1 Mbps while Sweden, Denmark, and the U.K. are working to 2 Mbps to everyone by the end of the year. In essence, many nations expect to achieve goals by the end of 2010 that will rival what we hope to achieve in 2020.  Furthermore, the 100 million households that will get 100 Mbps speeds represent only 75 percent of the population. By comparison, South Korea plans to have 50 Mbps available for 95 percent of the population in 2013, Sweden's goal is 100 Mbps for 90 percent of the population by 2020, and Finland is striving for universal 100 Mbps availability by 2015.

Many commentators have pointed out that competition is sorely lacking among broadband providers. As the FCC noted in its national plan, 96 percent of all households are served by two or fewer providers. But even when some choice is present, precious little information is available for customers to make informed decisions about their broadband service offerings. Speeds are advertised as "up to"—even though systematic testing documents that customers usually receive only half this advertised speed. And advertised prices almost always exclude hidden fees and additional costs, often require bundling with additional services that customers neither want nor need, are usually only good for short promotional periods, and come with a mountain of caveats and other fine print allowing providers to sever connections, manipulate customers' Internet traffic, and even spy on your online activities.

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The FCC's plan falls far short of providing the meaningful information customers need. In two detailed examples, the plan suggests that ISPs provide the average speed—a far more useful comparison than max speed—but not a guaranteed minimum speed. We'd never buy a package of "up to a dozen eggs" at the supermarket, so why are broadband providers allowed to systematically promise more than they deliver?

In the same way that it's useful to know the processor speed, screen size, amount of RAM, and hard drive space of a computer before you buy it, broadband measures such as latency, jitter, and uptime are key pieces of information needed to know whether you can run a growing number of online applications, even if they sound complicated at first. For example, if you use Skype, stream NetFlix movies, play World of Warcraft, or use any other of the countless real-time applications, metrics like latency and jitter affect your quality of service.

What can we do to fix these problems?  First, the FCC can mandate that all ISPs provide a "broadband nutrition label" that clearly lays out the details of what's actually being offered so that customers can make informed decisions about which service to buy.  Second, the FCC should systematically collect information on the speeds, pricing, and adoption of broadband across the country—especially in un- and underserved areas.  Third, the commission needs to address the duopoly in the United States and formulate a competition policy that will bring back a meaningfully competitive market. If we don't put these solutions in place,  the United States could end up on the wrong side of the international digital divide.

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James Losey is a policy analyst with the New America Foundation's Open Technology Initiative. He writes about user freedoms and the digital divide have been published in Advances in Computing, Ars Technica, CommLaw Conspectus, IEEE Internet Computing, IEEE Spectrum, and Slate.