Consumers believe they can expect to receive maximum advertised internet speeds in their homes most of the time, but the data to show how often that actually happens doesn't exist, a new study has found.
"There really aren't any comprehensive tests that are done at the retail level … to confirm what speeds they're actually able to get consistently," Janet Lo, co-author of the study by the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, said in an interview Thursday.
In fact, she said, there is "some data that suggests there might be a gap" between advertised speeds and those achieved in the home, as found in other countries that have actually made the measurements.
Lo said the non-profit consumer advocacy group undertook the study after hearing complaints from consumers who weren't sure if their internet connection was measuring up to advertised speeds.
It hired polling firm Environics to find out how consumers interpreted advertising by internet service providers and made decisions about what packages to subscribe to, given that advertising tends to focus on maximum speeds, using phrases such as "up to 175 megabits per second."
The study found that among 2,002 Canadian adults shown actual ads for internet packages during an online survey in October 2011:
Seventy per cent thought the maximum advertised download speed is the maximum speed what would actually be delivered to their own internet connection.
Fifty-six per cent said they expected to get the advertised maximum download speed most of the time.
Eighty-three per cent said download speed was very important or somewhat important when choosing an internet service provider for their home.
"I think consumers do expect that there would be a guarantee for the speed that's advertised," Lo said.
However, when PIAC spoke to internet service providers, they said they did not know what speeds actually received by customers were on a household-to-household level.
Lo noted that Canada's Competition Act prohibits false and misleading advertising.
"I think it certainly speaks to how speed should be advertised if they cannot confirm that the consumer can receive this speed at home," she added.
Jennifer Kett, spokeswoman for the internet service provider Rogers, said the company agrees that customers deserve to know how well their internet services are performing.
In fact, she said in an email, this past November, Rogers signed an agreement with broadband performance testing firm SamKnows to conduct ongoing measurement of broadband internet speed based on customer data. However, the company said it is too soon to discuss results, as the tests are ongoing.
Lo said there has been some evidence that the maximum speeds customers actually receive are lower than that advertised.
For example, Lo said, at a time when the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development listed the average maximum advertised internet speeds in Canada as 20 megabits per second, the average internet speed among Canadians who used Google's Measurement Lab to test their internet connections was just three megabits per second.
However, Lo cautioned that there was no way to know what the advertised connection speed was for those who logged into Measurement Lab and that no such online tools to measure connection speed are completely reliable.
Albert Lee, spokesman for Bell, said actual internet speeds can be affected by factors such as the distance between the customer's home and the internet service provider's switching equipment or the configuration of the customer's equipment.
"Bell is very clear with customers about any potential speed variance," he said in an email, "including providing both minimums and maximums for each internet service offering."
Lo said other countries have found a "pretty substantial gap" between advertised and delivered speeds. For example, a study in the U.K. found that at a time when the average advertised speed was16.3 megabits per second, the average maximum achievable by a given consumer was just. 8.2 megabits per second and the speed they received on average over time was 7.6 megabits per second.
Advertising maximum theoretical internet speeds is not the only option for internet service providers.
Telus does not advertise maximum speeds like other ISPs do, but the range of speeds that customers can expect to receive, said company spokesman Shawn Hall in an email.
"To our knowledge we are the only ISP to offer that clarity," he added. "We think that is better for our customers."
In general, the PIAC report suggested that:
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which regulates telecommunications providers, should collect its own data on what internet speeds are delivered to consumers and how they compare to the advertised speeds.
Internet service providers should provide more complete information to consumers about the factors that affect internet performance and the reliability of their advertising claims.
The Competition Bureau of Canada should consider enforcement guidelines for how internet speed performance claims are advertised to consumers.
PIAC's study received funding from Industry Canada's Contributions Program for Non-Profit Consumer and Voluntary Organizations, but it noted that the views in the report are not necessarily those of Industry Canada or the Government of Canada.