It’s no surprise that Americans generally hate their ISPs. After all, companies like Comcast not only routinely abuse a lack of competition to drive up prices, but they often provide some of the worst customer service in any industry in America. That’s when they’re not busy happily killing net neutrality or lobbying for the death of other meaningful consumer protections.
But in countless parts of the country, consumers are increasingly turning to community-run broadband networks as an alternative to this cavalcade of dysfunction. More than 750 communities around the country have now either built their own broadband networks or built local cooperatives in a quest for better, cheaper service.
A new survey by Consumer Reports once again highlights how consumers are responding positively to this home-grown approach to better broadband. The organization surveyed 176,000 Consumer Reports readers on their experience with their pay TV and broadband providers, and found that the lion’s share of Americans remain completely disgusted with most large, incumbent operators. The full ratings are paywalled but available here to those with a Consumer Reports subscription.
All the usual suspects including Comcast, Charter (Spectrum), AT&T, Verizon, and Optimum once again fell toward the bottom of the barrel in terms of overall satisfaction, reliability, and value, largely mirroring similar studies from the American Customer Satisfaction Index. One of the lone bright spots for broadband providers was Chattanooga’s EPB, a city-owned and utility operated broadband provider we profiled several years back as an example of community broadband done well. The outfit, which Comcast attempted unsuccessfully to sue into oblivion, was the only ISP included in the study that received positive ratings for value. “EPB was the top internet service provider in our telecom ratings two times in the past three years,” Christopher Raymond, electronics editor at Consumer Reports told Motherboard. “ Consumer Reports members have given it high marks for not only reliability and speed, but also overall value—and that's a rare distinction in an arena dominated by the major cable companies,” he said. A major problem is that incumbent broadband providers have gone to great lengths to nickel and dime subscribers with a wide variety of spurious surcharges and bogus fees. Regulators have historically been apathetic to this problem, which often involves making up entirely nonsensical fees, then hiding them below the line to pad the advertised rate post sale. As a result, most broadband and cable TV subscribers often have no idea what they’ll pay until they actually receive their first bill. To that end, Consumer Reports has been waging a new campaign dubbed What the Fee!? aimed at holding cable TV providers and ISPs accountable for what’s effectively false advertising. Raymond told me most municipal broadband providers are often too small to include in the organization’s rankings. That said, other studies have supported the idea that municipal broadband providers are more likely to offer better, cheaper service free of obnoxious surcharges and quickly-evaporating promotional savings.
For example, a recent Harvard study found that community-owned broadband networks provide consumers with significantly lower rates than their private-sector counterparts. That’s often because these ISPs have a vested interest in the communities they serve that extends beyond extracting monopoly rents from captive subscribers. “Almost all community-owned networks offered prices that were clear and unchanging, whereas private ISPs typically charged initial low promotional or 'teaser' rates that later sharply rose, usually after 12 months,” the researchers said. So why haven’t more towns and cities building their own broadband networks? As EPB and other municipal providers have found out, ISPs are often quick to sue such operations in the hopes of putting them in a deep financial hole right out of the gate. More than 21 states have also passed protectionist laws—often quite literally written by ISP lobbyists—banning towns and cities from exploring the option. That’s not to say that building your own broadband network will be an automatic success story. Municipal broadband is like any other business model, and depends entirely on the quality of those crafting them and the financing that’s available. That said, the multi-decade effort by ISPs like AT&T, CenturyLink and Comcast to take the right of self-determination away from local communities only highlights how terrified incumbent ISPs are of these communities taking matters into their own hands. Fortunately, efforts to roll back these protectionist laws have gained traction in states like Colorado. And as Trump-era attacks on consumer protections like net neutrality gain steam, it only advertises how community-run broadband can be a faster, cheaper, and more transparent alternative to Comcast.