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At a time when online privacy concerns have forced Facebook and Google to back down, it might seem audacious to ask for 10,000 volunteers to allow the government to monitor every bit and byte of their home Web use. But that is exactly what the U.S. Federal Communications Commission did last week.

Anyone can volunteer for the program at its dedicated website. Selected participants will receive a box made by U.K. firm SamKnows that will monitor their Internet data consumption and connection uptime. The box will also perform hourly tests of connection performance, using dedicated servers to conduct speed tests and loading pages from common Web destinations to track latency, delay, failure rates, and the performance of the ISP’s DNS servers, which convert each Web address into the IP address that locates a server. Users will be able to access detailed results from a box profiling their connection.

“We hope that by providing consumers more information on the nature of the service efforts like this new project might push the marketplace towards better performance,” says FCC analyst John Horrigan..

The results will appear in a “State of Broadband” report later this year and inform the FCC’s efforts to deliver on the ambitious National Broadband Plan that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act required the FCC to draw up. Unveiled in March 2010, the plan involves providing 100 million households with access to 100-megabit-per-second broadband, around 20 times faster than those typically available today.

The most valuable data the new FCC trial will yield is the extent to which broadband subscribers get the speed they pay for. Telecom companies typically promise “up to” a certain speed in their advertising, but anecdotal evidence suggests that few customers actually receive this headline number. “When we have real information on what Americans pay for and what we get is where I think we’ll see profound sticker shock,” says Sascha Meinrath of the New America Foundation, a think tank. Meinrath is a cofounder of Measurement Lab, a consortium of academic labs and companies, including Google, that provides open-source connection testing tools online, some of which will be used by the FCC’s black boxes.

Just days before the FCC’s announcement, two companies–Measurement Lab and Ookla, whose market-leading speedtest and pingtest sites also allow Web users to test their connection speed–made publicly available the results of the millions of connection tests they have performed, releasing more than a billion broadband speed-test records to shed a brighter spotlight on the big U.S. telecom companies.

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Credit: FCC

Tagged: Communications, Internet, broadband, FCC

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