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If youre concerned about the cost of Internet service you might wonder am I actually getting the speeds Im paying for. We had Cyrus Farivar explore the promises made by providers of high speed connections to see if they really live up to them.

CYRUS FARIVAR: Have you ever noticed how commercials for broadband service are so vague?

(Soundbite of advertisement)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: Welcome to the fastest Internet speeds.

Unidentified Man #2: Along with the fastest Internet connection you also get a whole bunch of free stuff.

Unidentified Man #3: My Internet is fast because I got Road Runner Turbo with PowerBoost, kind like an extra boost of speed.

FARIVAR: Turbo with PowerBoost? That almost sounds like an energy drink. Anyway, to be fair, companies like these are offering different levels of service. They offer download speeds of 1.5, three, six or maybe even 20 megabits per second. But thats not quite what were actually getting.

Mr. CRAIG SETTLES (Industry Consultant): With broadband, we have allowed ourselves to get into the equivalent of a legitimized con game.

FARIVAR: Thats Craig Settles, he is an industry consultant based in Oakland, California.

Mr. SETTLES: All of the advertised speeds are speeds that you can't be sure that you would get on an average day. It is a theoretical ceiling, if you will, and baseline.

FARIVAR: In other words, that six megabit DSL connection that you just bought has a potential maximum of six megabits. But its almost certain that youre always going to be 10 or 20 percent below that limit. Fortunately, there are Web sites like Speedtest.net that you can use to analyze your Internet connection.

Mr. SETTLES: For example, I did a test earlier today. And so Im getting 1.2 megabits per second download speed, right? Im paying for 1.5.

FARIVAR: 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, theres an easy way to tell if the connection is slow.

Professor YALE BRAUNSTEIN (Information Science, University of California, Berkeley): If the videos are pausing all the time, if the voice is choppy because thats even more noticeable than the video itself usually then people will complain.

FARIVAR: Thats Yale Braunstein, a professor of Information Science at UC, Berkeley.

Prof. BRAUNSTEIN: But for your average user, my guess is that they cant tell the difference between 1.5 megabits and three or six.

FARIVAR: And thats the other thing. Industry analysis from Forrester Research shows that only 41 percent of Americans know what their home Internet download speeds are.

For NPR News, Im Cyrus Farivar.

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