The news that New York will be digging into internet service providers to determine whether or not they are fairly delivering promised broadband speeds has sent a ripple through the U.S. consumer rights community. Net neutrality proponents, who are often in favor of wrangling large ISPs to prevent them from manipulating their networks, are reacting as well.
Reuters reports that the New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sent letters to executives at Verizon, Cablevision, and Time Warner Cable asking each of them to provide copies of disclosures they have made to customers and of their internal testing internet speeds. The suspicion is that customers are paying for web speeds they aren’t getting — something that’s not exactly possible for a consumer to test. Additionally, customers paying for premium speeds could be getting ripped off; they may be receiving faster internet, but not at a proportion that corresponds with how much more they are paying for those speeds.
The Wall Street Journal quotes Tim Wu, senior enforcement counsel and special advisor in the Attorney General’s office: “We are specifically concerned about disruptions to the consumer experience caused by interconnection disputes, and also the possibility that interconnection arrangements may in some instances render irrelevant any benefit of paying for a ‘premium’ option.”
Indeed, the interconnection dispute is one that has been roiling the U.S. for some time, albeit not making the front pages. This issue involves in-depth understanding of the relationships between major ISPs and transit ISPs like like Level 3 and Cogent. Known as upstream ISPs, or companies that have built larger web networks, they have contracts with ISPs like Verizon, supplying them access to more of the network. These connections and business contracts between transit ISPs and major ones have been at the core of some controversy; a study issued last year by M-Lab pointed out that their relationships contribute to degraded consumer internet speeds.
Concerns over whether or not ISPs are delivering their promised speeds is not restricted to the U.S.; The Guardian reported in June that over 15 million households in the U.K. are not getting promised broadband speeds. A consumer group found that just 17% of homes received an average speed that matched the advertised level and only 15% managed that speed during the peak evening period. And homes in rural areas have it the roughest.
A study conducted in Europe and published in October points out that U.S. ISPs tend to be more honest about the speeds that consumers are receiving in contrast to E.U.-based ISPs. Both the U.S. and Europe have also been ridiculed for their progressive technology innovation and yet laughable internet speeds compared to some Asian countries.
The probe in New York could set a precedent for other states to examine ISPs’ relationships with customers as well; New York has a history of being more aggressive when it comes to protecting consumer rights, but it is also a hub for net neutrality proponents, and advocates for reigning in big businesses that are possibly abusing their ownership broadband networks. Wu is one of those net neutrality heralds — and ISPs should expect a thorough, publicized probe.