While the broadband industry likes to pretend the problem doesn’t exist, there remains countless corners of America where broadband still isn’t widely available. And for many, getting connected remains a Kafkaesque and comically-expensive affair.
According to FCC data, there’s virtually no competition in broadband at faster speeds. Giants like Verizon have all but given up on expanding fiber and upgrading DSL networks, leaving cable giants like Charter Spectrum and Comcast with a growing broadband monopoly in countless markets nationwide. High prices and poor service are the result.
FCC data also suggests that roughly 28 million Americans, or roughly 8 percent of the country, lack access to any broadband whatsoever. And because America’s broadband availability and mapping data is notoriously terrible, the actual numbers are likely much worse.
New home buyers are frequently but falsely informed by ISPs that broadband is available at their new address. Those claims are often propped up by the FCC’s broadband availability map, which despite its $300 million price tag and recent relaunch, still dramatically overstates broadband availability, speeds, and the number of actual competitors in any given market.
That’s because it’s based on inaccurate form 477 data provided to the FCC by ISPs, who have a vested interest in obfuscating the nation’s broadband market failures. Current FCC maps declare an entire census block “served” with broadband if just one home in that block can receive service. Efforts to improve this methodology are routinely blocked by ISP lobbyists.
Despite repeated ISP assurances, consumers often then move into their new home or apartment to find that broadband isn’t available after all. When they contact their cable company to complain, they’re frequently told that running the needed coaxial cable (often a mile or less) will cost them a small fortune.
It’s a story that plays out time and time and time again for both residential and business customers. Users that were previously and repeatedly told by ISPs and the FCC that broadband was available at their new address are often informed post-move that the act of connecting them will now cost $5,000, $10,000—even as much as $25,000.
The familiar story played out again this week when one New York City business owner was told by Charter Communications—after six months and as many on-site visits—that being connected to the company’s network would cost a whopping $138,963 (Charter offered to pay the first $5,000, bringing his out-of-pocket costs to more than $133,000.)
"It just seems absurd to me that in New Yawk City, of all places, it would take 9 months of legwork (not to mention the bureaucratic anguish) and $139K just to get a reliable internet connection," the frustrated user wrote in an email to Gothamist.
If they’re lucky, some of these users can sign up for satellite broadband service or wireless. Still, usage caps, overage fees, restrictions on HD video, high prices, and rural capacity issues can often make these connections impractical for everyday use, especially in a bandwidth-hungry home filled with teenagers.
Consumer groups state that the first step for annoyed users is to contact local regulators as they try to negotiate a more sensible rate for the work.
“The best agencies to contact would likely be local or state ones, such as the local franchising authority or a state PUC,” recommends John Bergmayer, Special Counsel for consumer advocacy firm Public Knowledge. “Entities that actually have authority over the day-to-day operations of a company.”
Charter Communications (Spectrum), for example, is already under fire in New York State for terrible service and failing to adhere to some modest broadband deployment conditions affixed to its latest merger. Given the state Public Service Commission just voted to kick Charter out of the state for bad behavior, contacting these agencies can sometimes be fruitful.
Others suggest that local organization is the path forward, given that neighbors can often collectively pony up costs that a solo homeowner might find daunting. If that doesn’t work, building and running your own local ISP is becoming an attractive alternative to the status quo.
“My recommendation is to organize for a better solution,” argues Christopher Mitchell, founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “Demand that local elected officials consider municipal options, talk to nearby ISPs about potential partnerships, or if they are already members of a rural infrastructure co-op, push the governing board to investigate providing Internet access.”
More than 750 communities nationwide have grown tired of waiting and have built their own broadband networks; networks that studies suggest provide faster, cheaper, better service than their private-sector counterparts. ISPs find this so threatening, they’ve lobbied for protectionist laws in 21 states that effectively outlaw such community engagement.
Most of these efforts can take root from nothing more than a trip to the local pub, Mitchell tells Motherboard.
“They should pick a time and a local meeting place—like a brewpub—and use social media or put an ad in the local newspaper to say ‘Let's talk broadband,’” Mitchell recommends. “If no one shows up, that is a sad answer. But if enough people show up to start a campaign, then they need to take action.”
As the federal government makes it increasingly clear that it has no interest in protecting consumers from the anti-competitive and privacy-violating tactics of giant telecom monopolies like Comcast, it’s becoming just as clear that local civic engagement is the path forward for those left disenfranchised and disconnected.