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Uncle Sam tested my broadband

September 15, 2010 Leave a comment

Broadband arrived at my house a good 10 years ago as digital subscriber line (DSL) service from DirectTV. The satellite company sold its DSL service, and we were flipped to Verizon. (I know, I was using Verizon lines the whole time.) My house — and I have an extensive home office that would be the envy of the most enthusiastic teleworker — is about 2.5 miles as the crow flies from a Verizon building. Plus, it is about 35 years old, so the copper wiring is aging. DSL never seemed all that fast, although it beat dial-up. And with both companies, the service was good.

Now we’ve have switched to FIOS. We got it for telephone and internet, because we’re satisfied with Dish Networks for satellite TV and we didn’t feel like starting all over. We went to satellite because cable service was horrible.

For what seems like more than a year, my neighborhood had gone through the stages of FIOS. Six months of little flags planted all over the place. Then noisy and messy trenching, with some unlucky neighbors getting big junction boxes, the size of fish tanks, buried in their lawns with green lids showing. Then grass repair complete with salt hay all over the place. Then the sales calls door-to-door.

At the same time, I signed up with the Federal Communications Commission to see if I could become one of the locations they survey to see how broad broadband really is nationwide. It’s called TestMyISP and FCC is using an outfit called SamKnows to conduct the experiment. I’m not so sure about FCC chairman Julius Genachowski’s net neutrality dreams, but I do agree with J.G. that a clear picture of the state of broadband is probably useful and that broadband can be an enabler of economic growth. And anyway, I like to do my part.

I think I signed up with the FCC, oh, in April or so. Just a couple of weeks ago I got an e-mail that I was still in the running because I have the kind of connection they want to include in the tests. Today another e-mail asked me to run a test and give them my address, which is understandable since even in cyber space electrons eventually have to flow somewhere.

The test routine repeatedly crashed Apple Safari, so I had to run it using Firefox. Interesting, the test required me to allow a digital signature from the New America Foundation, the left-leaning think tank started by a former Washington Post editor.

The test showed I have a pretty darn fast connection for a house, more than 5 megabits per second uploads, and 15 megabits per second downloads. In fact a whole report downloaded that has so much detail about the connection that if it was a CAT body scan I would blush.

Despite my purported inbound/outbound state, FIOS has never felt blindingly fast. Specific files such as MP3s or JPEGs people send do come down pretty quick, and YouTube mostly runs better. But performance isn’t like the ads. I don’t play online games so I can’t say how they run. My theory is that when you have a fiber or cable, the limiting factors are not your connection, but interruptions from servers plus caching activity and disk saving going on inside your computer. I also think design of web sites and how they are hosted and architected has a big effect. Some of the big newspapers just never snap onto your screen, for example, because the pages are made of elements from dozens of servers.

One of the biggest improvements with FIOS, frankly, was that it comes with a faster wireless router for inside your house, although both mine and my wife’s computers are wired directly into the router. But other machines for which I use WiFi are noticeably faster even though they are still on the 802.11g standard.

Soon I hope to be helping Uncle Sam get that clear picture of national broadband. I’ll keep you posted.