Fiber optic cables. Sometimes Internet traffic gets tangled, too.

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Broadband Speeds May Be Slower Than Advertised

Rani Molla is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist using data visualizations to cover corporations and markets. She previously worked for the Wall Street Journal.
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If you like to look at popular content on the Internet, chances are you've suffered from frustratingly slow Internet speeds while that content gets delivered to you. 

New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sent out letters this week to top Internet service providers (ISPs) saying they may not be delivering the premium Internet speeds they advertise. The letters were based on consumer complaints, the AG's own analysis and a report by M-Lab, a group that tracks Internet data. 

According to M-Lab, much of what's slowing down the Internet are "interconnection points," which is where your ISP (say, Time Warner Cable) meets what's known as a "transit ISP," a company you've probably never heard of that carries content (say, Netflix or porn) to ISPs.

This chart shows speeds of major providers that passed through connections with transit provider GTT in the New York metro area. These numbers are representative of other major interconnection points in the U.S. -- all of which had speed degradation, according to M-Lab. When download speeds get to the single Mbps, as they do at surge usage times, basic browsing functions no longer work. 

The pattern seen in the chart isn't reflected in official broadband-speed stats: The FCC, in its annual speed report, tries to show optimal performance and thus excludes data with congested interconnection points. 

Unfortunately, these clogged points are exactly where popular content is most likely to travel, according to Collin Anderson, a researcher at M-Lab. "A lot of paths are impacted, especially well-known paths to well-known content providers," Anderson said. And the M-Lab data show sustained degradation, with numerous instances lasting more than a year. 

The FCC's Open Internet rules, which took effect in June and promised to insure "consumers and businesses have access to a fast, fair, and open Internet," don't definitively address interconnections between ISPs and transit providers. But the FCC can investigate them on a case-by-case basis if there are allegations of anti-competitive behavior. The trouble is, these interconnections may not be purposefully anti-competitive. Just painfully slow.

Ultimately, ISPs and transit providers really need to bolster technology at interconnection points. Given the limited amount of competition for ISPs in this country, they may have little incentive to do this unless they are forced to, by angry customers or more attorneys general.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Rani Molla at rmolla2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Mark Gongloff at mgongloff1@bloomberg.net