Several years ago I switched my home ISP from Comcast to AT&T DSL because of an attractive promotion and the promise of lower monthly bills for similar speeds. At the time Comcast and AT&T were the only two choices in my area.
AT&T was supposed to deliver 6 Mbps, which was comparable to what we were getting from Comcast. After completing the switch, we found out that the 6 Mbps speed in fact wasn’t available in our area (the salespeople didn’t know that apparently). We had to settle for 3 Mbps, which was almost never delivered (fine print: “up to 3 Mbps”).
As a practical matter what we received was 1 to 2 Mbps on average, generally at the low end of that range. The screenshot, above right, was taken on a particularly bad day.
I made repeated attempts to address the problem with AT&T, which kept suggesting it was my equipment and not their network. It was incredibly frustrating — even rage-inducing. AT&T delivered consistently poor service. We attempted to upgrade to U-verse; however it never happened. (Once again we were sold but later told it wasn’t available in our area). Frankly, because of laziness, we lived with the terrible speed for about six years.
Earlier this year my teenage daughter started prodding me to upgrade our internet. So I “went back in” and investigated all the options. I desperately wanted to avoid both AT&T and Comcast; I could not. To my surprise (but not entirely) Comcast and AT&T were still my only choices. Reluctantly I’m back with Comcast though the speeds are much faster now.
What I’ve described above is a kind of metaphor for the sorry state of broadband in the US today. As the NY Times points out the cost of broadband in the US is higher and the speeds are much slower on average than in much of the developed world:
The United States, the country that invented the Internet, is falling dangerously behind in offering high-speed, affordable broadband service to businesses and consumers, according to technology experts and an array of recent studies.
Cable companies (and telcos that provide TV services) are capable of offering gigabit-speeds at reasonable cost but have little motivation to do so. With Comcast, for example, costs are sometimes reduced in the form of teaser rates that last for six months and then shoot up to 2x to 3x the initial pricing.
Cable companies offer various explanations or excuses (e.g., “there isn’t demand“) for why speeds aren’t faster and costs lower. The truth is that these companies have no market or regulatory incentive to offer faster, cheaper internet — regardless of whether that hurts long-term US competitiveness. If there’s an apparent lack of demand for higher speeds it’s only because they’re so expensive, not because consumers are content with sluggish connectivity.
In those places where Google Fiber has entered the market, Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and TimeWarner have felt pressure and improved services, speeds and in some cases pricing for consumers. They’re scared by the competition. Cable TV is slowly but surely losing subscribers — live sports is the main thing that stands between cable TV and the abyss — and the internet is now the key and most profitable service in many markets.
Google Fiber’s progress is slow as the company negotiates “right of ways” and digs up streets in Kansas City, Provo and Austin, its only three markets. But absent a credible threat such as Google Fiber the likes of Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and TimeWarner aren’t going to change their practices or pricing any time soon. And given their clout in Washington there’s little reason to believe the FCC or legislators will push for improvements.
If Google’s ultimate objective is to speed up the consumer internet it should pre-announce new cities. Even months or years before its actual market entry, the prospect of Google Fiber could still represent a big-enough threat to get the cable cabal off its collective posterior and into preemptive action.