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Switching Internet Providers Is Too Damn Hard, the FCC Chairman Says

Tom Wheeler longs for the days when consumers could switch phone companies every month if they wanted to.
Image: 1776

Did you hear about those Comcast service calls from hell that have been cropping up over the last couple months? So did FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who said today that switching internet service providers is too damn hard, in part because ISPs have grown used to having a monopoly on broadband services.

"Once consumers choose a broadband provider, they face high switching costs that include early-termination fees and equipment rental fees," Wheeler said in a major speech today at Washington DC's 1776 tech startup incubator. "And, if those disincentives to competition weren't enough, the media is full of stories of consumers' struggles to get ISPs to allow them to drop service."


Wheeler said that's because ISPs haven't really been forced to compete in many parts of the country, they've grown used to predatory practices that consumers hate. He said that, whenever possible, the FCC will force competition in the future.


"Users cannot respond [to unsatisfactory service] by easily switching providers. As a result, even though there may be competition, the marketplace may not be offering consumers competitive opportunities to change providers, especially once they've signed up with a provider in the first place," he said.

Anyone who has tried to leave a major ISP probably knows the drill—and that's in places where there are options. Wheeler noted that right now, of the 80 percent of Americans who can get 25 mb/s internet speeds (which he said should be the short-term goal for internet speeds), three quarters of them have no choice about which company is going to provide their service. In cases of "duopolies," the terms and services are usually pretty dismal, as well.

"Some of you are old enough—like me—to remember the long-distance telephone wars of the 1990s," he said. "Sign up with Sprint in April, switch to MCI in May, and then to AT&T in June. Choose any one of them, or others, in July. That is what a truly competitive telecommunications marketplace looks like. That is not the reality—even for 'competitive broadband'—today."


Image: FCC

So, Wheeler feels your pain. But, is his commission really going to do anything about it? In his half hour speech, he didn't lay out any specific things that the FCC will do to make switching companies easier. Instead, he said that his goal is to facilitate competition as best as he can, hoping the rest will follow.

In places that do have true competition, like Austin and Kansas City, where Google just started its gigabit fiber networks, competitors have upped their services and cut costs, a development that Wheeler called "great news"—and a model for the rest of the country.

"Where meaningful competition is not available, the commission will work to create it," he said.

Wheeler noted that the commission is thinking about opening up broadband spectrum to new and fledgling companies and once again reiterated that he hopes cities will consider building out their own networks.

Whether that ultimately makes leaving Comcast or any other ISP any easier is still up in the air. In the meantime, the FCC is considering whether it should allow Time Warner Cable and Comcast to merge, forming one massive ISP that would dominate most of the country. We'll see if Wheeler backs up his words with action.