Something-something broadband

Every month, throngs of people are connecting to the Internet via broadband for the first time ever. And according to Dave Caputo, CEO of Sandvine, about half of them call their provider that first month to report that their connection “seems slow.” Providers don’t know what to tell them, Caputo said at a panel discussion this week. It’s a subjective assessment, perhaps fueled by advertising that promises lightning-fast speeds sure to blow consumers away. But problems like these linger in part because consumers lack an adequate vocabulary to describe the increasing diversity of broadband offerings. (How fast is fast?)

And the problem is going to get worse.

New equipment from Alcatel-Lucent this month is designed to give consumers more choice in their performance level. As the speed gap between, say, hard-core gamers and best-effort emailers widens, will we continue to use the word broadband to describe both offerings? At some point, if you’re at a friend’s house and want to use a particular rich Internet app, it won’t be enough to ask if your friend has broadband. We could distinguish these tiers by referring to the megabit-per-second numbers that designate different tiers, but those numbers are notoriously inaccurate. And of course, speed isn’t the only criterion that matters. When the bottom line is the quality of your experience, latency and jitter are important too.

In addressing net neutrality concerns, one of the first actions the FCC is likely to take is a mandate of transparency among broadband providers. But whatever information they are forced to disclose to users about the quality of their service isn’t likely to make much sense to users, said Blair Levin, managing director of Stifel Nicolaus, in another panel discussion this week.

“God knows what consumers are going to read about the reset protocol of…whatever,” he said.

Broadband providers might ease that situation — and reduce the number of calls they get each month about service that “seems slow” — if they helped to develop and convey a new consumer vocabulary for broadband offerings that isn’t based on exaggerated promises, proprietary marketing brands or technical jargon. Or something like that.

Any suggestions?

E-mail me at

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