The state of broadband in the United States is poor. We already know that huge swaths of the country don’t get broadband – but even where they do, those connections are often bogged down by limited options, predatory billing practices and a general lack of choice. And the poor state of federal data collection makes it difficult to gauge the full extent of the problem.
So last year, we took matters into our own hands. In partnership with Consumer Reports, we asked readers to share their Internet bills with us, and more than 22,000 of you did. The Consumer Reports data team spent more than a year sifting through this data, and together we put together a sort of snapshot of the price people pay for internet access in the United States.
To be clear, this is not a standard statistical survey. The 22,000 invoices we received are specific to our readers, so they are not predictive or representative of the national broadband market. That said, this is one of the most ambitious efforts of its kind to understand and provide unique insight into what broadband access in America really looks like.
Consumer Reports has a more detailed and methodical data write-up where you can get into the weeds of exactly what we found and how we analyzed it. But for our side of things, we’re trying to get the big picture of what we’ve found and what that says about the experience people have with the companies they pay every month.
In short, this is what’s wrong with broadband in America.
a:hover]:shadow-highlight-franklin [&>a]:shadow-underline-dark black:[&>a:hover]:shadow-highlight-franklin dark:[&>a]:shadow-underline-white md:text-40 lg:-ml-100″>It’s expensive
This is the most basic fact about it all, something you’ve almost certainly noticed if you’ve paid an internet bill. On average, people in our sample pay about $75 per month for Internet access — a bit more than previous estimates, but certainly nothing out of the ordinary. There are a few people who pay $150 or more, but these are clearly outliers.
For most Americans, this will probably seem normal, but it shouldn’t be. For starters, it’s more than people pay in other countries. Our survey only covered US customers, but there are many other surveys that can give you an idea of the international situation. A survey by the Open Technology Institute in 2020 found consistently lower prices in Europe, falling as low as $31 in Paris and $40 in London.
Not all price differences are bad. Countries that have lower prices often have slower connections, so the picture improves slightly if you go by the price per megabit – but not enough to completely close the gap. There are plenty of intangibles that could close the rest of the gap, whether it’s less downtime or more stable speeds.
But the simple fact is that we pay more, which raises the difficult question of whether we are getting what we pay for.
a:hover]:shadow-highlight-franklin [&>a]:shadow-underline-dark black:[&>a:hover]:shadow-highlight-franklin dark:[&>a]:shadow-underline-white md:text-40 lg:-ml-100″>Most people can’t choose carrier
It’s the iron law of Internet access: if you don’t like your carrier, you’re probably stuck with them — and when they know you’re stuck, you end up paying more.
Both of these statements may seem obvious, but proving them is harder than you think. The FCC maintains a comprehensive map of telecommunications coverage in the United States, but these maps rely on data from self-reported ISPs, which means they tend to paint an optimistic picture of what is actually available. . Simply put, telecoms will claim to cover large areas where they have never operated a line.
Our data provides some insight into the larger problem, but we should be upfront about the downsides. Even with 20,000 bills, we only have limited coverage of the 40,000+ zip codes in the United States, so anyone who showed up as the only bill in a zip code is automatically grouped into the column “1”. Even if there is more than one invoice in a postcode, it is unlikely that we have registered all the carriers in the area. In short, we don’t really know how many options most of these people have; we can only make guesses based on the data.
That said, there is already plenty of evidence to suggest that lack of choice is a problem. A 2020 study by ILSR found that 83.3 million Americans have only one broadband option, although slower DSL lines are increasingly being offered as an alternative. We know this hurts consumers; the question is how much.
This is where the collected data starts to really come in handy. Even with our limited data, we can see a pretty clear trend for postcodes with more than one invoice in the database: the more options you have, the cheaper the service becomes. So it’s not a huge difference – the difference between having a single vendor and three or more is only a few dollars on average – but it’s a reminder of how bleak the outlook can be without meaningful competition.
a:hover]:shadow-highlight-franklin [&>a]:shadow-underline-dark black:[&>a:hover]:shadow-highlight-franklin dark:[&>a]:shadow-underline-white md:text-40 lg:-ml-100″>They add incidentals
This is perhaps the most boring part. Even when the prices are both high and unavoidable, they always find a way to top it up a little.
The charges represented by the dark green bars are the main offenders here, and you can probably find a few of them on your own internet bill, labeled as “internet infrastructure charges” or “network enhancement charges” or the myriad data cap charges. charged by some ISPs for exceeding the data cap or expensive “unlimited data allowance” charges to avoid the cap. In order to keep our charts tidy, we refer to them all by the same name (“company-imposed fee”) because they are all basically compound. There is only a tiny cost associated with providing DNS or IP services and no relationship between that tiny cost and the fees they charge you. Even if there were, there’s no reason why they couldn’t factor those costs into the overall price of the service like every other company. This is nonsense – the telecom equivalent of selling you a $5 sandwich and then adding 50 cents “mustard fee”.
Equipment costs are slightly more legit. This usually means your ISP rents you a router and you can get away with buying your own (which will almost certainly be cheaper and less hassle in the long run). Most people don’t, but at least it’s possible.
Still, the sheer variety of fees is worth shaming. It’s part of a larger strategy to inflate prices and confuse customers into bewildering compliance. Some vendors are worse than others (kudos to Sonic and TDS for being the least bad of the bunch), but everyone does at least some of it. And without clear incentives for good behavior, it seems unlikely that any of these fees will go down in the future.
a:hover]:shadow-highlight-franklin [&>a]:shadow-underline-dark black:[&>a:hover]:shadow-highlight-franklin dark:[&>a]:shadow-underline-white md:text-40 lg:-ml-100″>There is no escape from fiber
We’re a tech blog at heart, so it’s always tempting to think that new technology will save us from this kind of problem. In the case of Internet access, this technology is satellite Internet. The economy of laying fiber encourages this kind of rent seeking, so maybe escaping fiber will allow us to build a better kind of telecommunications?
One day, maybe, but we’re not there yet.
Edge editor Nilay Patel addressed the issues with Starlink last year (to put it mildly, it’s still very much in beta), but it’s not limited to just one service. Providers like HughesNet, Dish and Viasat have offered satellite connectivity for decades, and while newer generations have improved, they haven’t changed the basic challenges. It is difficult to provide reliable service via satellite; it takes a lot of equipment and ends up not being much cheaper than relying on terrestrial fiber. Unless you’re far enough away that satellite is your only option, it usually doesn’t make sense.
The data we have collected bears this out. To begin with, only a tiny fraction of the people who sent bills used the satellite service: only 274 bills out of more than 18,000 in total. For those using satellite, prices weren’t all that different from the average wired connection – and that’s before you factor in the quality of the connection. That doesn’t mean the satellite revolution won’t make things better; it just means it’s not there yet.
In the meantime, we will have to make the most of what we have.
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