FCC Mobile Broadband Test No Match for Cell Carrier 'Wild West'


NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- It's not just politicians getting their claims fact-checked by third parties these days. Soon, mobile carriers will have their broadband speed claims put to the test by the government. But some advocates are arguing that testing download speeds won't be enough to make the mobile market more transparent to consumers.

The testing will be carried out by the Federal Communications Commission, which announced last week that it's working on a plan to measure mobile broadband service in the United States.

The program is a follow-up of the agency's Measuring Broadband America report, which earlier this year reviewed fixed broadband speeds in the country. The agency has set an open meeting for September 21 to discuss how it plans to acquire and analyze broadband speed data for the testing.

At that open meeting consumers might want to open the debate with a simple question: what are you doing to make cell carriers transparent about speeds in advertising?

It's a question advocacy group Consumer Watchdog is preemptively asking in making the case that the FCC effort will invariably fall short. Testing actual data speeds won't do much good if the carriers aren't subsequently required to be transparent about those speeds, Consumer Watchdog argues. Further complicating the FCC effort is that carriers throw around the term “4G speeds” without ever defining what that means in terms of download speeds.

“The whole broadband world has become a wild west,” says Consumer Watchdog's John Simpson. “Everyone's saying that they've got 4G, and they've completely debased the notion of any kind of technical standard.”

Testing the actual speeds is a good start, says Simpson, and he acknowledges that carriers who perform well in the tests will likely say as much in their ads. But he says that those who don't fare as well aren't required to disclose actual speeds in their advertising, which means that third-party testing won't educate as many consumers as you might think.

It's worth noting that when the FCC tested fixed broadband speeds, they found that internet service providers are generally performing as advertised, delivering 96% of advertised speeds during peak periods. A few, including Cablevision and Verizon, were found to actually exceed their advertised speeds. But Wilson says that the ISPs tend to be more transparent than the carriers, generally disclosing download rates rather than trading in ill-defined terms like “4G.”

Until the carriers stop kicking around such obfuscating terms and start speaking a common language, most consumers will be kept in the dark about what they're really getting.

“If an ad is deceptive, they can brought to action under section 5 of FTC act, which deals with unfair and deceptive advertising,” Simpson says. “But the problem with trying to prove that they're deceptive is that there's no agreed upon definition [of 4G]. So let's just try to get them accurate about actual download speeds.”

--By Matt Brownell

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