How the project unfolded

Feb. 18, 2011

The data for this project was provided by technology and network diagnostics firm “Ookla.” Ookla is well-known for a test it developed to measure the speed of broadband connections.  The company also collects survey data where people report how much they pay for their service and what the advertised speed of their broadband connection is.

Ookla’s speed test is one of two used by the Federal Communications Commission to gather data on connection speeds across the nation. The second is offered by an organization called M-Lab.

Ookla provided the Investigative Reporting Workshop with 7,912 surveys taken in and around the Washington, D.C., metropolitan statistical area (MSA). The data was collected between April 2010 and Jan. 17, 2011. The data included customers who also subscribed to telephone and/or television service. We eliminated those subscribers and ended up with 4,294 surveys of broadband-only customers.

Of that total, 524 were from the District of Columbia; 2,286 were taken in jurisdictions that share a border with the District; 1,053 were taken in counties that do not touch the District, but are part of the city’s metropolitan statistical area; and 431 surveys were taken by people who live just outside the MSA. 

Note: Participants are all self-selected volunteers.

The Ookla data was unusual in that it includes the names of the Internet service providers, the ZIP codes the surveys were taken in, the connection download and upload speeds, the connection promised download and upload speeds and the customer’s self-reported monthly bill.

Despite the unscientific nature of the data collection, we determined that it provided insight into the state of the broadband market in the Washington region. Such information is closely guarded by providers and is either not collected or not released by the Federal Communications Commission or any other government agency.

These data allowed us to do something that can’t otherwise be done: Look at actual download speeds instead of provider’s “promised” speeds, which can vary significantly. This gives users a better idea of what they are paying for. 

The FCC’s National Broadband Plan, released in March 2010, recommended that the agency collect detailed broadband information and make it available to consumers.  “The purpose of disclosure for consumers is to help foster a competitive marketplace,” it reads.