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FCC tool collects broadband speed data

A new FCC tool tests whether consumers are actually getting the broadband speeds they're paying for.

The Federal Communications Commission wants to help you make sure you get what you pay for when it comes to broadband.

On Thursday the agency launched a new tool that allows consumers to test the download and upload speeds of their broadband connections. The tool, which can be found at www.broadband.gov, tests wireless or landline-based broadband connections. It also allows consumers to see the latency, the time it takes for data to be sent from a computer to the testing server and back, and jitter, the variability in the delay between a computer and the testing server, that's being detected on their connections.

The tool was launched just days before the FCC is due to release its national broadband plan to Congress next week that will provide policy suggestions and information about getting all Americans connected to broadband.

Broadband speed tests have been around for a long time. Speakeasy has offered a popular version of a test for years. And Internet service providers, such as Time Warner Cable, also offer their own Web sites that allow consumers to check their speeds.

What's different about the FCC tool is that the agency is also asking consumers to anonymously provide their addresses, so that it can compile the data into a "Broadband Dead Zone" report, which will provide detailed information about broadband speeds in certain areas of the country. The report will be available online, and the agency promises to keep all data private.

The way it works is that consumers go to the www.broadband.gov Web site, type in their address, indicate whether they are a home user or business customer, and then click on a button to begin the test. Within a minute, they can get information on their DSL and cable modem speeds. The FCC is using existing speed testing tools from Ookla and a tool from M-LAB.

The FCC is also allowing iPhone and Google Android smartphone subscribers to test their wireless connections. These phones can use applications that are available in the Apple and Google Android app stores.

The purpose of the tool and the project to consolidate the information is to educate consumers about whether they are getting the service they are paying for and to hopefully highlight areas where advertised speeds may fall short.

"The FCC's new digital tools will arm users with real-time information about their broadband connection and the agency with useful data about service across the country," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in the statement. "These tools help eliminate confusion and make the market work more effectively."

I tested the new tool to see how my home broadband service performed. I live in New York City and subscribe to Time Warner Cable's standard Road Runner service, which is supposed to give me up to 10Mbps downloads and 512Kbps uploads.

I performed the test several times over a couple of hours during the day, and I noticed a couple of interesting things. The first thing I noticed is that my download speeds varied widely, ranging from 1.1Mbps on my Dell PC laptop to 7.5Mbps on my Apple MacBook. Meanwhile, my upload speeds remained rather consistent, ranging from 416Kbps to 500Kbps.

The other interesting thing is that each time I did the speed test, my MacBook always performed at least 2Mbps better on download speeds than my Dell laptop PC.

The first series of tests I performed was on my Dell PC laptop, and it reported the lowest speed, about 1.1Mbps on the download and 416Kbps on the upload. I called Time Warner Cable to see if there was a problem. The technician I spoke with said that my connection seemed fine on his end. He explained that the 10Mbps service I subscribe to is not a guarantee and that speeds "can go up to 10Mbps." He also emphasized that speeds fluctuate and vary based on time of day and how heavily utilized the network is. He also explained that sometimes different neighborhoods get better service than others. Still, he agreed that the speeds on my connection were too slow. He said I should be getting a consistent reading of around 7Mbps on my download link.

He reset my cable modem. And when I tested my connection again, the download speeds improved. But I still noticed a difference between the MacBook and the PC on every subsequent test. The Time Warner Cable Road Runner test showed similar results to the FCC test. And the MacBook always performed better on those tests than the Dell PC laptop.

I have no explanation for why the MacBook would perform better than the PC laptop. Each of these devices is connected to the same Linksys 802.11n router. And the laptops were sitting right next to each other at my kitchen table when I conducted the tests.

As a consumer, I can tell you that I am not satisfied with the level of service I am getting. Only once in my series of tests did my download speeds reach more than 7Mbps. And not once did I get the advertised speed of 10Mbps. I understand that the cable broadband network is shared and that download speeds vary. But I conducted these tests in the middle of the day, when I'd guess that most people in my apartment building and in my neighborhood are at work.

I'm very interested to hear results from other consumers' speed tests. Check out your broadband speeds at home and let me know in the TalkBack section of this story whether you are getting the speeds you pay for.