Consumers In The Dark Over Their Broadband Speeds

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hide captionExperts say the broadband speeds consumers experience at home are typically 10 percent to 20 percent below the limit that they pay for.

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It's hard to conceptualize a data network with speeds that are up to 100 times faster than what the average American has at home. But last month, Google said it plans to complete a broadband network with speeds of 1 gigabit per second for up to 500,000 people in the U.S.

Most consumers don't even know what kind of speed they are paying for with their broadband. Industry analysis from Forrester Research shows that only 41 percent of Americans know what their home Internet download speeds are.

One Comcast ad promises the "fastest Internet speeds," while a Time Warner ad touts "RoadRunner Turbo with PowerBoost," which provides "an extra burst of speed."

Turbo with PowerBoost? That sounds like an energy drink. To be fair, companies like these are offering different levels of service. They offer download speeds between 1.5 megabits and 20 megabits per second. But that's not quite what we're actually getting.

"With broadband, we have allowed ourselves to get into the equivalent of a legitimized con game," says Craig Settles, an industry consultant based in Oakland, Calif. "All of the advertised speeds are speeds that you can't be sure you would get on an average day. It is a theoretical ceiling, if you will, and baseline."

In other words, that 6 megabit DSL connection that you just bought has a potential maximum of 6 megabits. But it's almost certain that you're going to be 10 percent or 20 percent below that limit. Fortunately, there are Web sites like Speedtest.net that you can use to analyze your Internet connection.

A lot of consumers care more about the qualitative experience rather than the quantitative speed. For example, if you watch YouTube or Hulu on your computer, there's an easy way to tell if the connection is slow.

"If the videos are pausing all the time or if the voice is choppy — because that's more noticeable than the video itself, usually — then people will complain," says Yale Braunstein, a professor at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. "But for your average user, my guess it that they can't tell the difference between 1.5 megabits or 3 or 6."

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