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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/3/2010 11:54:00 AM ET 2010-06-03T15:54:00

How do you connect your home computer to the Internet? If you have broadband service, what’s the download speed?  If you don’t know — and odds are you don’t — you’re in the majority.

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“People know whether they’re paying extra money to upgrade to a faster speed,” says Aaron Smith, a research specialist with the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. “But when you ask them if they have a 40 Mbps (megabit per second) or a 20 Mbps connection, you generally get quizzical expressions and an inability to answer the question.”

I know I pay a lot more for broadband because it’s much faster than my old dial-up service. But I couldn’t tell you the speed I bought or the speed I get if my life depended on it. And I’m not alone.

“Speed is a key attribute of broadband, but it’s something people simply don’t know about,” says John Horrigan, director of consumer research at the Federal Communications Commission.

Today, the FCC released the results of a nationwide survey on home broadband service. It shows that 80 percent of broadband customers don’t know their connection speed. About two-thirds of those responding think they should get the promised speed 100 percent of the time. But only 24 percent of the users believe they are getting that advertised speed.

Joel Gurin, chief of the FCC’s Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, tells me there are many reasons why broadband is such a mystery to so many.

“Broadband speed involves a lot of numbers about megabits per second,” he says. “People don’t really have a gut feeling about what that means, and as a result, I think many people just don’t understand what kind of speed they’re getting and what they are paying for.”

The way companies advertise broadband adds to the confusion. They all claim to deliver “blazing fast” service, but they never guarantee an actual speed. They only promise to provide “up to” a certain speed.

Gurin believes a lot of people get broadband speeds that “are really much less” than the big numbers shown in the ads.

It may not bother you if you’re checking e-mail and the download is a little slow. In fact, you might not even notice. But if you’re watching video online and there’s a lot of hesitation, that’s incredibly annoying.

Is this deceptive?  
Chris Hanis, an IT consultant with Precision Network in Seattle, says there’s a reason Internet service providers use the “up to” claims.

“They’re trying to give themselves a little bit of an out so that they can’t be held to a precise standard,” he says. “They may deliver the promised speed to your house, but they can’t guarantee it beyond that point, because it’s out of their control.”

Hanis says speed can be degraded by various things inside the house: the software you use, whether your machine is infected with malware, the quality of a wireless router and the number of computers in the house sharing that connection. Some cable company modems allow USB connections, which have slower throughput than Ethernet connections.

The Federal Communications Commission wants broadband users to know more about this premium service, specifically the speed that’s being delivered to their homes.

To do that, it must determine what’s currently happening in the marketplace. Today, the commission announced it would conduct a speed test in 10,000 homes across the country.

Would you like to take part in this scientific study?  You can register as a volunteer for the Broadband Community Panel at http://www.testmyisp.com/.  If your home is selected, you will be able to track the performance of your broadband service and provide important data to the FCC.

The results will part be of the “State of Broadband” report, which is scheduled to be released later this year. Will this work lead to new regulations? Gurin tells me it’s too early to tell. It’s also possible the industry will decide to create voluntary standards for broadband service and advertising.

But he says the FCC definitely wants to make it easier for broadband customers to make an informed decision about this premium service. And that will most likely require some sort of advertising guidelines.

“If you look at the ads now, there’s a lot of variability in how different broadband carriers will talk about the speed you need for different applications, what they deliver and how much you get,” Gurin says. “We really would like to see that done in a way that people can do more apples to apples comparisons.”

Take a speed test
Your computer doesn’t come with a speedometer, but you can still find out how fast you’re going. Just log on to a site called speedtest.net and you can do a free upload and download test. You can even find out how your connection speeds compare with others using that service.

Hanis, the IT consultant, says if you’re at 80 to 90 percent of the advertised speed, most companies will consider that well within their standards. But if it turns out you’re only getting a fraction of the speed you pay for, you might want to contact your Internet service provider and have a service technician come to your house.

If the company is providing a slow connection to your modem, the work should be done at no charge. But if your equipment is causing the slowdown, expect to be charged for the service call.

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