While most Americans are generally satisfied with their broadband service, four out of five don't know how fast their connection is, according to a new survey by the Federal Communications Commission.
That uncertainty adds to the confusion that already shrouds the FCC's efforts to obtain reliable data about the actual upload and download speeds ISPs deliver to subscribers, which can vary significantly from the advertised rates.
As an outgrowth of the study, the commission is planning to launch nationwide speed tests to sample fixed and mobile broadband speeds from providers in different markets across the country.
"Speed matters," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement. "The more broadband subscribers know about what speeds they need and what speeds they get, the more they can make the market work and push faster speeds over broadband networks."
The speed tests continue the FCC's flurry of activity in the Internet-services sector, building on the recommendations included in the comprehensive national broadband plan the agency submitted to Congress in March.
The authors of the report noted that speed and pricing are operative factors for consumers when comparing broadband service plans, but that the fluctuations across a provider's coverage area sometimes obscure the actual performance, which in turn can undermine fair-market competition in the sector.
In that spirit, the commission plans to compile the data it collects in the speed trials, compare it with providers' advertised speeds and release its findings in a "State of Broadband" report later this year.
The FCC is asking for 10,000 volunteers to register for the broadband speed trial at TestMyISP.com. The agency has commissioned Internet metrics firm SamKnows to conduct the tests. SamKnows has performed similar trials for Ofcom, the communications regulatory authority in the United Kingdom.
Additionally, the FCC is issuing a public notice asking for comments on a similar trial the agency is looking to conduct to measure mobile broadband speeds.
The commission launched its own online broadband speed test in March, but said that the partnership with SamKnows, which will entail the installation of hardware in participants' homes, is taking a more scientific and comprehensive approach.
"Better information can help all consumers choose the broadband services that best meet their needs," Joel Gurin, chief of the FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, said in a statement. "Today, most people just know that their home broadband speed is supposed to be 'blazing fast.' They need more meaningful information to know exactly what speed they need for the applications they want to run, and what provider and plan is their best choice."
In its latest survey, the FCC found that 91 percent of respondents said they were "very" or "somewhat" happy with the speed of their home broadband service, compared to 71 percent who said they were satisfied with their mobile broadband speeds.