Reporting from Washington — Federal regulators want to know just how fast you're surfing, and they're looking for 10,000 volunteers to submit to a speed check.
Four out of five high-speed Internet users don't know how fast their home connections are, according to a survey released Tuesday by the Federal Communications Commission.
That leaves those consumers unsure whether they're getting what they're paying for, and it hinders them in shopping for better service from competing Internet service providers, agency officials said.
"Speed matters," said FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who has pushed for more consumer information about broadband service as part of a larger effort to expand high-speed Internet access nationwide.
In its National Broadband Plan released in March, the FCC asserted that consumers can easily determine a vehicle's fuel efficiency or the nutritional content of most foods from labels with standardized information, but they have little information about the speed of their Internet service.
To help resolve that problem, the FCC announced that it is seeking 10,000 volunteers who would allow special hardware in their homes to measure the speed of their broadband Internet service, as part of a scientific study of the performance of major providers.
"In order to really make good consumer choices, people really need to be able to draw a line between the speed they need, the speed that's advertised and the speed they get," said Joel Gurin, head of the FCC's Consumer Task Force. "Right now, it's very hard for consumers to draw that line."
In a survey of 3,005 adults conducted in April and May, the FCC asked whether people knew the advertised speed of their home Internet connection; 80% said they did not. That showed little improvement from an 81% figure in a 2006 survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.
Still, the FCC survey reported that 50% of home broadband users were very satisfied with their home connection speeds and 41% were somewhat satisfied, even if most didn't know the exact speed. For people surfing the Web wirelessly on smart phones, 71% said they were at least somewhat satisfied with their speeds.
The survey also found that 24% believed they always got the advertised speed they were promised by their Internet service provider, and 67% thought they always should get what they're promised.
Brian Dietz, a spokesman for the National Cable and Telecommunications Assn., a cable industry trade group, touted the high consumer satisfaction in the FCC survey. He said it wasn't surprising that consumers don't know their exact speed in light of the fact that competition among providers has led to network upgrades that have been boosting broadband speeds.
"Even if customers are not able to keep track of these improvements, the survey confirms that they are pleased with the results," Dietz said.
The average maximum download speed for home broadband service was 8 megabits per second, while the actual download speed averaged about half that — 4.1 mbps — according to data from online research firm ComScore Inc. cited in the National Broadband Plan.
Internet service providers usually hedge their promises, advertising speeds "up to" a certain rate of data. That's because various factors affect speed, including the quality of a person's computer and Internet router, as well as how many people in the home are surfing the Web at the time.
FCC officials acknowledge those factors could affect the ComScore data, so the agency will spend $600,000 on a scientific study that will use hardware that gauges the speed of a home Internet connection before it reaches the router or other equipment.
The hardware will measure specific information as well, such as speeds for video downloads and Internet phone calling.
To conduct the test, the agency will use SamKnows Ltd., a London company that did a similar study in Britain. People interested in volunteering can apply at http://www.testmyisp.com. The FCC also allows consumers to test their connection speeds themselves at http://www.broadband.gov.