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With all the high-sounding talk they throw around, you would think Internet Service Providers (ISPs) were ruthless politicians on the campaign trail.

One fellow I know, complaining that websites seemed slow to load, didn’t think much of my suggestion that he was experiencing slow service from his ISP. “Why, I’ve got a 50 meg high-speed download connection,” he exclaimed, quoting what he had been told by AT&T about his U-verse Internet service. “Whoa, backup, hoss,” I thought. Here was another victim of clever marketing-speak.

First off, the phrase “high-speed” is pretty useless. I remember, not so long ago, providers used to brag that their “high-speed” DSL Internet service was “20 times faster” than “old, out-dated dialup service.” While that may have technically been true, it was much like saying a turtle moves faster than a snail. Comparatively “high-speed,” yes, but still pretty slow.

The next step in understanding ISP gobbledygook is to understand the meaning of the word “meg.” From the ancient Greek word “mega,” meaning great, large or mighty, “meg” is the short way of saying the number that is represented as a one (1) followed by 6 zeros; in other words, one million. “6 meg” would be six million.

The next question is, six million of what? When it comes to Internet connection speed, “meg” refers to megabits per second, or Mbps. A “bit” is the smallest unit of computer storage, represented by the digits zero (0) and one (1). A 3Mbps connection speed is one capable of moving three million zeroes and ones around every second.

That may sound like a lot, but 3Mbps represents less that one second of streaming HD video.

Confused yet? I think the ISPs are counting on you being confused, as I’d bet not one out of 100 Cox or AT&T customers could tell you what a “meg” is, or why they should even care. All they know is, the more megs, the better, which is actually true. The more megs your Internet connection can handle, the faster things will move along. What gets lost in the confusion is the notion that customers can check for themselves whether they are getting their megabits worth, or not.

None of the Internet plans offered by the major ISPs actually consistently deliver what they lead their customers to believe is promised. For example, in most metropolitan areas, “AT&T Internet” (formerly known as “U-Verse,” formerly known as “DSL”) currently offers only three Internet service plans, touting speeds from “up to” 50Mbps to “up to” 1000Mbps.

Note the careful use of the words “up to.” “Up to” means that the speed could, possibly, on occasion, every blue moon, if the creek don’t rise and you hold your mouth right, get that fast and stay that fast, but it’s not really a promise. While there may sometimes be bursts of speed approaching the promised numbers, those rare bursts last only for seconds at a time. Useable speeds are slower.

Astute Internet users will note, though, that ISPs tell you right up front in their Terms of Service and User Agreements that they probably won’t deliver what you may think they have promised. AT&T is careful to offer the following definition of the word “speed”:  “The term speed is used to describe the rate a particular broadband Internet access service CAN transmit data (emphasis added).” So, “speed” doesn’t really refer to the rate at which something DOES travel, but instead, refers to the rate at which something CAN travel.

Many factors can affect how fast things occur on a home or business network. How many devices are on the network at the same time, and what are they doing? If Mom and Dad are watching a Netflix movie and Facebooking at the same time as the kids are streaming videos on Youtube, playing online games, and listening to music on Spotify, super-fast Internet can suddenly seem very slow.

Websites can slow down, too. If you are trying to watch the same sporting event on espn.com at the same time as millions of other fans, brace yourself; it can get pretty weird.

I encourage you to test your Internet speeds for yourself, and see if they line up with the plan you are paying for. If the speeds vary dramatically from what has been offered, something is wrong, and the reasons can vary. Defective modems and routers, and bad wiring coming to the home or business are leading causes.

You should start your testing with a real desktop or laptop computer (not a phone or iPad) connected directly to your router with a network cable, not via wireless Wifi. Use a variety of testing websites, such as speedtest.net; fast.com and att.com/speedtest. After you’ve established your baseline, then test using a newer laptop and Wifi, with different tests at different distances from your router. Lastly, test using phones and tablets; the differences can be dramatic.