Mobile app tests your speed, reports results to the FCC.

Perhaps you missed the opportunity, a couple of years ago, to install a device in your house that tells the FCC your broadband speeds. If so, and you’re still kicking yourself for missing out, you’re in luck. Now, instead of having to hook up an FCC-provided “free wireless router”, you can download an Android app developed for the FCC that does much the same thing on your mobile device. (An iPhone equivalent is expected early next year.) 

This all began with the FCC’s shocking discovery that most people don’t know their own broadband speeds. For those who are interested, there are websites that will test your speed; see the examples here and here. (CommLawBlog does not endorse these, or the others mentioned below.) But the FCC was not satisfied with you knowing your speed. They wanted to know, too. So they invited you to install a device called a “SamKnows Whitebox” on your computer that shared your speed information with the FCC.

At the same time, they asked for public input on how to get comparable data from mobile broadband users. That effort has now borne fruit. (Read the FCC’s fact sheet about the new app here, or click through its 11-slide PowerPoint here, or scroll/click your way through the FCC’s webpage on the subject here.)

The app, also a product of SamKnows and downloadable from Google Play, is designed to run periodically in the background, measuring data speeds and uploading the information to the FCC. The tests and the upload themselves consume data, which counts against your plan with the carrier. The app limits the data load to 100 MB per month by default, but the user can change this number.

The FCC promises to publish only aggregated anonymous data. It adds:

Privacy is paramount. The FCC has taken significant measures to ensure the privacy and confidentiality of volunteers for this program. Using privacy measures developed and reviewed by a diverse team of privacy experts, any data that could potentially identify specific smartphones is analyzed and processed to ensure privacy protection.

The FCC also says, “Data collection is fully anonymous. No personal or identifiable information is collected.” If this is strictly true, however – if the uploaded information does not include the identity of the smartphone sending it – then the FCC cannot aggregate the data from a particular phone, which would tend to impair the usefulness of the data.

There is an exception to these privacy assurances: “We may share mobile broadband performance data collected by this Application subject to legitimate requests by law enforcement or where otherwise required by law or regulation.” There is no suggestion that the FCC will collect or share the content of broadband communications. Unlike some other government agencies we could name.

In an additional reassurance as to privacy, the FCC’s website includes the following:

Researchers and other partners supporting [the FCC’s] analysis are skilled in the field of statistics and computer science to identify patterns that a third party might exploit in ways to compromise your privacy, for example by comparing the location information with other sources of information.

The FCC is prepared to “take steps to address the risks” that this presents if and when concerns arise.

Available to the user through the app are data on download and upload speed, latency, and packet loss. The app also collects information on cell tower ID, date and time, handset type and operating system, signal strength, type of connections (3G, 4G, etc.), and GPS location. At various stages during the coming year, the FCC promises to publish increasingly detailed reports of its findings.

There is, however, a technical hitch. Apparently the app cannot tell the difference between data transferred via 3G/4G or over Wi-Fi – which can be faster or slower, depending on the circumstances. (Our own tests with the app show much better results with Wi-Fi turned on.) The FCC asks users to disable the Wi-Fi on their phones before running speed tests. But the app runs in the background at times of its own choosing, while many users leave Wi-Fi turned on all the time. The permissions suggest the app has access to the Wi-Fi connection, so perhaps it discards speed data gathered while Wi-Fi is operating. But at least for some users, that would greatly decrease the amount of data available for analysis.

If you want to share your speed data with the FCC, by all means download its app. But if you’re just curious, and want to keep the results to yourself, you can try this app instead, or this one.