DSL subscribers more likely to get cheated on broadband, says FCC

Most broadband customers get the speeds ISPs advertise -- but some don't, and they're likely to be DSL users, says an FCC report.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
5 min read

If you're a DSL broadband subscriber and you have the option of getting either cable or fiber broadband instead, you may want to make the switch. That's because many DSL providers aren't delivering on their advertised speeds, says the FCC.

While the Federal Communications Commission's fourth annual "Measuring Broadband America" report, released Wednesday, indicates that cable and fiber broadband providers deliver or exceed on advertised network speeds, DSL providers aren't fulfilling their promises.

This chart compares upload and download performance during peak usage periods across all ISPs. All ISPs, except for Verizon DSL, CenturyLink, Frontier DSL, and Windstream, meet 90 percent of performance or better, on average, during peak periods. Notably, the four exceptions use DSL technology. FCC

The issue of whether consumers get the service they pay for has come to the forefront recently as the public debates the FCC's controversial Net neutrality rules and as the agency takes a deeper dive into how broadband providers connect to other network providers to ensure services like streaming video aren't degraded.

"Consumers deserve to get what they pay for," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement. "While it's encouraging to see that in the past these reports have encouraged providers to improve their services, I'm concerned that some providers are failing to deliver consistent speeds to consumers that are commensurate to their advertised speeds."

Wheeler said the agency will be sending letters to the CEOs of companies that underperformed in the test to understand why they're not delivering advertised speeds.

The report also offered a few other key findings. Most notably, for the first time, the FCC not only tested the upload and download speeds of broadband services, but it also looked at how consistently companies delivered those speeds. The FCC also noted significant congestion at so-called "peering" or interconnection points in some broadband networks. Peering or interconnection refers to the points in the network where broadband providers connect with other networks that are delivering traffic to their broadband customers.

DSL is a dog

When it comes to choosing a broadband service, the FCC report indicates that customers subscribing to a cable or fiber-to-the-home service are more likely to get the speeds their ISP advertises than if they subscribed to a DSL service, which tends to be slower (and less expensive).

Cable companies, such as Comcast and Cablevision, as well as fiber-based broadband provider Verizon did very well in the test, often delivering faster speeds than what consumers paid for, even during peak times of day.

For example, fiber-based broadband providers delivered 113 percent of advertised download speeds and 114 percent of advertised upload speeds. These networks also tended to offer the fastest speeds available. And subscribers of these services suffered the lowest amount of downtime.

"The 2014 Measuring Broadband America Report shows what many communities and consumers around the country already know: fiber is on fire, " Heather Burnett Gold, president of the Fiber to the Home Council Americas, said in a statement. "All-fiber networks are faster, stronger, and more reliable, and we applaud all the commission has done and continues to do to enable the build out and deployment of these vital connections."

Cable broadband providers also performed well in the FCC's test. During peak times of day, the FCC found, cable broadband delivered 102 percent of advertised download speeds and 111 percent of advertised upload speeds.

Meanwhile, customers subscribing to DSL service were the least likely to get the speeds they were paying for.

"Fiber and Cable technologies continue to evolve to higher speed offerings, but DSL is beginning to lag behind," the FCC said in its report.

What's more, as most broadband providers, regardless of whether they offer broadband via fiber, cable, or DSL infrastructure, managed to either improve download speeds or at least hold them steady. Only Verizon's DSL service showed worse results. And in terms of consistency, Windstream's 1.5 Mbps speed tier of service was notable for delivering only 78 percent of advertised speeds, a low among all ISPs at all speed tiers, the FCC said.

The FCC's report points out that the difference between DSL service and fiber and cable broadband may be caused by the different economics associated with upgrading DSL technology versus cable or fiber infrastructure. For example, DSL can require structural or plant upgrades to achieve higher speeds, while cable or fiber can upgrade with incremental investments in the electronics. It could also reflect broadband providers' investment decisions in terms of broadband. Some companies, such as AT&T and Verizon, offer both fiber-based services as well as DSL.

Still, the FCC maintains that broadband providers, regardless of technology or the cost of the service they're offering, have an obligation to deliver the network speeds they advertise.

"We fully expect providers to make the necessary investments to ensure that the service they deliver is consistent with what they advertise to consumers," the agency said in its report.

Consistency of speeds needs improvement

Even though fiber and cable broadband providers did a great job delivering the speeds they advertised, the FCC's report also notes that those speeds aren't always available. For example, Cablevision delivered 100 percent or better of advertised speed to 80 percent of the broadband customers involved in the test 80 percent of the time during peak periods. About half the ISPs delivered approximately 90 percent or better of advertised speed. And several ISPs delivered less than 60 percent or better of advertised speeds 80 percent of the time to 80 percent of consumers involved in the testing.

The FCC noted that this was the first time it has measured consistency, and it's hopeful that broadband providers will improve this throughout the year, especially since it's an area on which the FCC will continue to focus in the future.

This chart shows how consistently ISPs deliver advertised speeds. It's a metric designed to convey how likely any given consumer is to experience broadband speeds of a particular level. FCC

Congestion is a problem. So now what?

The FCC noted congestion at certain "peering" points in the network. But officials say the congestion didn't have any effect on the results of the speed tests. That said, the report indicates that the congestion likely had an effect on the quality of service consumers experienced if they were getting traffic through one of the congested peering points. And this, FCC officials say, could be a problem.

Still, these officials emphasized that the congestion data collected from the speed tests has not been analyzed yet. And they said the agency will continue to look at this issue and develop tools to measure the effects of this congestion on consumers.

"During our testing we noticed that at certain points through the test-network we saw some very serious congestion," said an FCC official during a conference call with reporters. "We aren't prepared to make conclusions right now, but we will be looking at how video service providers are affected by this congestion."

Network congestion at points where broadband providers connect to other networks has become a hot-button issue lately, as it usually plays a role in degrading delay-sensitive traffic such as streaming video. Over the past several months, online video provider Netflix has publicly accused broadband providers Comcast and Verizon of refusing to pay for necessary network upgrades to ensure that its streaming video is delivered to their joint customers without degradation or interruption.

The issue has gotten entangled in the debate over how the FCC should draft its new Net neutrality regulation. And last week, the FCC said it will begin looking into these business arrangements to determine how they affect consumer services.

Later this afternoon, the FCC plans to release the raw data related to the network congestion observed during its test.