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November 18, 2013

FCC Unveils Free Speed Test App to Measure Mobile Broadband Performance

For several years there has been concern by consumers and policy makers that mobile users in the U.S. do not get what they are paying for. There has even been legislation, which has not gone anywhere, that calls in essence for truth in mobile advertising.  And, while the congress has not acted given stiff industry opposition based on the difficulties of delivering to any given phone what is promised, this has not stopped regulators from trying to get a handle on things.  In fact, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is out with a free application called FCC Speed Test. The first iteration is for Android devices and is available from Google Play.  You might wish to download it and take it for a spin. 

The Wisdom of the Crowd used to assess mobile network deliverables

Speed Test is an open-source, crowdsourcing program that was developed in cooperation with broadband experts, major wireless service providers and other stakeholders. It is the first in a series of capabilities designed to provide consumers with open, transparent information on their own mobile broadband speeds. In 2014, the FCC will release interactive maps and other tools to allow consumers to see meaningful information about mobile broadband network performance nationwide using the aggregate data collected by the app.

What FCC Speed Test does

The app is straight forward. It measures mobile broadband (cellular) and Wi-Fi network performance and delivers in-depth, real-time views of key metrics related to mobile broadband experiences. It works as follows:

Once installed, the app will run periodically in the background, and will automatically perform tests when users aren’t using their smartphones. A manual option is available for on-demand mobile broadband testing.

Graphs of past performance tests on key parameters (e.g. upload and download speed, latency, and packet loss) are then presented on users’ smartphones.

By default, the app will use no more than 100 megabytes (MB) of cellular data each month for automated testing. Users may adjust the data limit from within the app.

The FCC says the aggregated, anonymous data will, “Help the FCC’s Measuring Broadband America program provide accurate information on mobile broadband performance in the United States necessary to enable consumers’ and the Commission’s fact-based decision-making.

Expanding the FCC’s Measuring Broadband America program to mobile

For those who have been watching the Commission, you are aware that back in February it released the third report of its ongoing, nationwide performance study of residential fixed broadband service aimed at giving consumers the ability to make educated choices about their broadband services. (The FCC’s three reports on U.S. fixed broadband are available here www.fcc.gov/measuring-broadband-america).

Speed Test, to be followed by the map expands this effort so that all broadband access can now be viewed. 

In an era where personal information privacy has become a hot potato, the FCC in releasing Speed Test was careful to make the following points about protecting the anonymity of those using the app.  It emphasizes that: 

No personal or uniquely identifiable information is collected; data collection is a fully anonymous process

In order to protect consumers, data will be processed and analyzed statistically to ensure its anonymity before release.

The FCC Speed Test app’s privacy policy and disclosure terms are available at http://www.fcc.gov/measuring-broadband-america/mobile/mobile-terms-privacy-notice.html.

In fact, given heightened sensitivities, especially surrounding the government’s use of data, the FCC went to unusual lengths to describe how the app is not just designed to preserve anonymity but also the entire program is constructed to be transparent to a variety of stakeholders. Steps taken in this regard include: making the app’s code available, and publishing the methodologies being used and the underlying data.  

What’s next!

As noted, the FCC plans to provide visualizations and maps. The proposed schedule that will allow consumers to compare mobile broadband network speeds and technologies is aggressive: 

The iPhone version of the app is due out in January of 2014

In early 2014, a map on the FCC website will allow consumers to compare speeds and technologies in their regions.

 Also in Q1 2014, as data is collected, a higher resolution map will allow consumers to
zoom into areas of cities to see variations of speed, latency, and lost packets.

In Q2 2014, higher resolution data should allow the FCC to provide more localized results.

Q3 2014, focused info-graphics including such things as comparisons based on time of day, days of the week, combinations of data, and even a weather map of traffic will be added

The impact of the app should not be under-estimated.  However, since this is crowd-sourced, its value is going to be totally dependent on user participation.  Hence, the challenge for the FCC is going to be in creating mass awareness of the app, and getting users to trust its security so they will download it.  Both of these are rather tall orders, and it will be fascinating to see in a couple of months how many people have downloaded the app. 

What will also be interesting obviously is how the industry responds. One possible optimistic scenario is that mobile operators who typically top the charts in terms of performance could use the results in their advertising to demonstrate differentiated value. The issue will be whether they provide links to the app or not in said commercials.  If they were to do so it would increase the awareness and value of the app. The FCC has not elaborated on how it intends to get visibility for Speed Test.  Industry cooperation is the best way to encourage downloading, but this is problematic given those who literally are not fast, might be slow to want this program to catch fire. 

In previous items on this and other consumer related subjects I have quoted the tag line of discount clothier Syms, ”An educated consumer is our best customer.”  I happen to believe this is true, and clearly so does the FCC.  Whether the industry agrees, and what it does in reaction to performance information being publicly available in rather granular fashion is going to emerge as one of the bigger stories of 2014.

 I have already downloaded the app, in two words it is “very cool.”  There is lots of really interesting information to digest.  I can’t wait to see how my provider stacks up.  So give the FCC a helping hand if you live in the U.S.  Download the app.  You will be glad you did on several scores.      

Edited by Cassandra Tucker

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