Cable operators delivered the fastest average broadband download speeds in 2011 -- with major MSOs easily blasting by rival telco and satellite Internet services -- according to data from independent testing firm Ookla.
For the full year, the six fastest residential Internet service providers in the U.S. based on average download speed were Comcast, Charter Communications, Cablevision Systems, Time Warner Cable and Insight Communications.
That's according to Ookla's Net Index service, which has measured hundreds of millions of individual user tests through its Speedtest.net website. (Data for some providers, including Bright House Networks and Suddenlink Communications, is not available in Net Index.)
Comcast and Charter delivered average download speeds of 17.19 Megabits per second, followed by Cablevision at 16.40 Mbps, Cox at 15.76 Mbps, TWC at 14.41 Mbps and Insight at 14.22 Mbps.
Verizon Communications fared better than its telco peers with an average download speed of 12.94 Mbps, thanks to FiOS Internet, its fiber-to-the-home service that provides up to 150 Mbps downstream. And overall, Verizon had the highest upstream speeds with an average of 7.41 Mbps. Still, the company's legacy DSL services dragged down overall speeds.
Telcos largely rely on copper-based digital subscriber line technology, and DSL can't deliver the performance levels that cable's DOCSIS 3.0 spec can. Theoretically, DOCSIS can scale up to 1 Gigabit per second or even higher, while DSL tops out today at about 40 Megabits per second even under ideal conditions.
AT&T delivered an overall average download speed of 4.40 Mbps, according to Net Index data for SBC and Bell South, which are the regional bell operating companies that now comprise AT&T. Qwest Communications, which last year merged with CenturyLink, delivered an average of 6.34 Mbps in 2011, the Net Index data shows.
According to Net Index, satellite broadband and terrestrial wireless services -- including Sprint Nextel, Verizon Wireless, ViaSat (WildBlue) and Hughes Network Systems -- are even slower than DSL providers. For one thing, higher-speed 4G is just becoming widely available.
Cable's dominance in broadband will continue over the next decade, according to Sanford Bernstein senior analyst Craig Moffett. U.S. MSOs will pick up about 10 percentage points of broadband market share by 2020, rising to nearly 70% by then, as DSL recedes, Moffett predicts.
"Technology adoption is creating a feedback loop that increasingly favors cable's physical infrastructure," Moffett wrote in a research note last month. "As more people are served by higher-speed connections, more and more applications are evolving to take advantage of them. Customers with lower-speed connections are increasingly being forced to upgrade to higher speed connections... or be left behind."
Meanwhile, telcos' faster fiber-fed services will also gain share, according to Moffett: From 2011 to 2020, Verizon's FiOS share will grow from 6.0% to 7.9%, while U-verse will rise from 4.7% to 10.1%.
The relative broadband speeds of cable vs. telco isn't merely an academic curiosity: Major providers are increasingly touting Internet performance in their marketing as they fight for consumers' dollars.
Verizon and Cablevision, for instance, have been fighting over their respective broadband speed claims in recent months, with the telco complaining that the MSO's latest ad citing Federal Communications Commission performance data is misleading.
Ookla's Net Index source data is available to download at http://www.netindex.com/source-data/.
Seattle-based Ookla provides broadband speed testing and network diagnostic applications to customers including Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox, AT&T, Verizon, ESPN, CNN and Cisco Systems.