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Speedometers for Broadband Consumers

A Northwestern University professor, James Carlini, called on Michigan state regulators to require broadband providers to supply "speedometers" to their customers in an editorial this week. See http://www.eprairie.com/news/viewnews.asp?newsletterID=14039 Since state officials check the accuracy of gas pumps and scales to ensure consumers get what they pay for, he argues, they should do the same for broadband Internet access. While a facile suggestion, it does point to a self-created problem cable operators and telcos would be wise to address. Although broadband ISPs continue to ratchet up their speeds, in virtually every case, service is sold as an "up to X Mbps" offering. In other words, the fine print lets consumers know that the stated speed is the maximum possible transmission rate on the cable or DSL access network, not what they what they are guaranteed to receive. Furthermore, the claim only applies to the access network, as broadband providers have no control over speeds for traffic as it leaves their networks and flows onto the public Internet. To support his case, Carlini cites speed tests performed by a broadband consumer through public web sites that come in far short of what Comcast advertises. This will undoubtedly be the case when accessing a web site on the public Internet, as data centers are not architected to provide multi-megabit speeds to every Internet user accessing a web site hosted on their servers. However, broadband providers are not faultless. Often, they are quick to tout blazing speeds with an "up to" caveat to differentiate their products in the market, but do not invest in infrastructure and backbone network capacity required to truly deliver them. The point here is that MSOs and telcos have done themselves, and consumers, a disservice by marketing their products based on megabits, rather than value. Advertising X Mbps begs the question: is that speed actually being delivered? Am I, the consumer, getting what I paid for? It's a dumb question to plant in a customer's mind, as it encourages them to measure the product on that attribute, an attribute that is frankly irrelevant for most users. What really matters to broadband consumers is the overall quality and value of the experience, a blend of access speed, reliability, support and bundled applications for an attractive price. The lesson: broadband providers that can't muster enough creativity to market the value of their services beyond megabits should not be surprised when consumers, and regulators, start calling them to task on their speed claims. Of course, if consumers really want broadband providers to measure usage, they could start with charging for usage by the megabyte.
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