Understanding Broadband Speed Data in NTIA’s Indicators of Broadband Need

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Digital Beat

Understanding Broadband Speed Data in NTIA’s Indicators of Broadband Need


Chris Ritzo

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) recently released a new public map, the Indicators of Broadband Need. This publicly available resource accompanies the National Broadband Availability Map (NBAM), pulling together public and private broadband internet access service datasets.

The Indicators of Broadband Need map and National Broadband Availability map are both proving helpful to communities as they plan how and where to improve broadband services for their residents. But the landscape of assessing or measuring who does and doesn’t receive quality and affordable Internet service is complicated by the conflation of measurement datasets covering different aspects of Internet connectivity and user experience. 

In a recent Measurement Lab (M-Lab) article, we discuss the inclusion of data from our Network Diagnostic Tool (NDT) in the NTIA map and dig into the detail of each dataset provided in the Indicators of Broadband Need map. The post gives readers a deeper understanding of the differences and context to the various datasets in the NTIA Indicators of Broadband Need Map, as well as our understanding of how each relates to the 25/3 national broadband standard.

Lai Yi Ohlsen

There is a disconnect between providers, regulators and consumer advocates in deciding which tests and data define “what you are paying for.” While Internet service providers (ISPs) typically define service as an “up to” maximum download and upload speed within their networks (also known as maximum link capacity), the Internet, obviously, extends beyond the “last mile” ISP networks. 

The results of speed tests that attempt to only measure last mile link capacity do not always reflect people’s experience of accessing the content and services of the broader Internet. As our article describes in further detail, M-Lab provides data about connectivity beyond the last mile and supports the idea that it is imprudent to rely on just one metric to define healthy Internet performance. 

The M-Lab article focuses on addressing the similarities and differences between datasets in the NTIA tools, by examining questions such as:

  • Which dataset(s) assess the speeds that ISPs provide?
  • How do different measurements compare and contrast with one another? 
  • What can each broadband dataset tell us about people’s experience using their connections to access Internet applications, services, and content? 

The Internet is a complex system. No one measurement methodology or data source is sufficient to measure the Internet’s performance. M-Lab believes that including many broadband datasets and highlighting their differences is a net gain for Internet research. The more data, the better. 

Examining the Indicators of Broadband Need map and its different datasets provides us a chance to step back and understand what aspects of Internet service are—and aren’t— being measured, how they differ, and how they can be improved. 

Understanding the source of measurement data and what it is intended to measure is critical when comparing or contrasting data from different sources. Researchers that aggregate results from the large number of tests from M-Lab, Ookla, or other platforms should take this into account. If the data is not treated with attention to detail, context and form, it is possible, and quite easy, to draw incorrect conclusions that could have large implications. Incorrect analyses do not correlate to inaccuracies in the data itself, but do lead to incorrect conclusions and weaken the validity of any resulting conclusions.

It’s great to see that improving broadband service for all Americans is becoming a priority. With more data with more nuanced analyses, we hope communities can begin to get a clearer picture of all aspects of Internet service and content delivery.

Chris Ritzo is the Program Management & Community Lead for Measurement Lab, where he supports researchers, policymakers, advocacy groups, and individuals interested in M-Lab’s open Internet measurement data. Chris is a former librarian and IT support specialist whose work is grounded in experiences within the maker movement, community organizations, grassroots media, cooperatives, and community access television. Chris holds Master's degrees in Information Science and Communication from the University of Illinois. 

Lai Yi Ohlsen is the Director of Measurement Lab, a fiscally sponsored project of Code for Science & Society. Previously, she worked to defend and promote human rights online with eQualitie as Technical Programs Manager.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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