Last week, the Federal Communications Commission built upon its growing new media prowess with the launch of its own iPhone and Android applications.

The FCC's new apps allow users to test the speed of mobile broadband services and report deadzones where mobile broadband is not available. The FCC iPhone app is a free download from iTunes or the Android marketplace.

"Transparency empowers consumers, promotes innovation and investment, and encourages competition," said chairman Julius Genachowski in a press release. "The FCC's new digital tools will arm users with real-time information about their broadband connection and the agency with useful data about service across the country. By informing consumers about their broadband service quality, these tools help eliminate confusion and make the market work more effectively."

The Consumer Broadband Test and the Broadband Dead Zone Report are also available as fixed applications at Broadband.gov. According to the FCC, the Ookla, Inc. Speed Test and the Network Diagnostic Tool (NDT) running on the Measurement Lab (M-Lab) platform are used to power the app.

On the night of March 13th, the FCC tweeted that over 80,000 tests had been registered using the Broadband Speed Test. It was unclear how many tests were through Broadband.gov or the apps.

In the future, the FCC says it will making additional broadband testing applications available for consumer use. Consumers can also submit availability information by e-mail to fccinfo@fcc.gov. And, perhaps taking a page from Google's playbook, this application is in beta. According to the Consumer Broadband Test information page, "this beta version is the FCC's first attempt at providing Americans with real-time information about their broadband connection quality."

I ran a quick test on my home cable Internet connection.

My downlink isn't quite fiber optic speed, but I found it close to existing tools. The test depends upon Java, though many users are likely to have that installed at this point.

I tried out the mobile app as well, which used the GPS in my iPhone to discover my location. According to the FCC mobile broadband testing app, I'm getting 1.42 Mbps download speed from AT&T 3G here on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., and .11 Mbps upload. My connection certainly beats GPRS, if not a Clearwire 4G connection — or my Wi-Fi.

Privacy Concerns?

The FCC states that it's "committed to protecting the personal privacy of consumers utilizing these tools, and will not publicly release any individual personal information gathered." It's posted a privacy statement to that effect.

Crowdsourcing Citizen Reporting

The larger context of the release of the FCC mobile broadband testing app is worth noting. The FCC will release its National Broadband Plan this week.

Part of that plan will certainly incorporate assessing where broadband service exists, how robust it is and how closely service matches advertised rates. An executive summary of the National Broadband plan is embedded below:

FCC National Broadband Plan Executive Summary

This kind of data collected by the FCC's broadband tests could serve in much the same vein as the FTC's consumer complaint assistant works at FTComplaintassistant.gov. By releasing the apps and test at Broadband.gov, the FCC has given citizens a tool to report service quality and availability around the country. Equipped with that data, commissioners may be able to make policy decisions informed by data as they roll out the national broadband plan.

Guest author Alexander B. Howard (@digiphile) will be reporting live from the upcoming Gov2.0 Summit in Washington, D.C., on September 7-8.