Data Again Shows That U.S. Broadband Is Painfully Mediocre

from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept

For literally twenty-five years we’ve thrown billions in subsidies, tax breaks, merger approvals, and regulatory favors at U.S. telecom giants in exchange for the promise of amazing, competitive, ultra-fast, widely-available broadband (and oodles of high paying jobs). And time and time again, studies show that what Americans got back in exchange was…something notably less than that.

The latest speedtest data from Ookla once again shows that when it comes to broadband speeds, the U.S. continues to be nothing to write home about. The country ranks fourteenth in both wired and wireless broadband download speeds, despite boundless subsidies, rampant “deregulation” (read: doing whatever Comcast and AT&T say to do), a nauseating amount of 5G hype, and lots of promises from industry about the illusory investment benefits of killing net neutrality rules and functioning government oversight.

When it comes to wired broadband, the United States has fallen out of the top ten nations despite the dropping cost of fiber deployments:

On the wireless side, we’ve never once been in the top ten list. And while we did jump four spots to fourteenth, that’s still not great. In large part because U.S. deployments of 5G, despite a ridiculous level of hype, are consistently slower than most overseas deployments:

As always some caveats: speed tests alone aren’t the most accurate representation of true network performance, because users are often running tests when there are problems, may not be subscribed to the fastest speed available in their area (often because it’s too expensive), or may be testing dodgy WiFi from a bad router halfway across the house. But the problem is that the U.S. rates consistently mediocre to terrible on every meaningful metric that matters, whether it’s speeds, coverage, quality of the actual connection, customer service, or, especially, price:

“If we want to talk about international rankings, it’s worth noting that the U.S. ranked 21st out of the 26 countries tracked in both standalone fixed broadband price and in mobile broadband price in the FCC’s 2020 Communications Marketplace Report, and that’s not a departure?it’s the norm,? (Dana) Floberg said.”

And while geography certainly plays a role, that stopped being a valid excuse a decade or so ago. We’ve thrown countless billions in favors and tax breaks at these companies in exchange for networks that routinely fail to materialize. I’ve spent twenty years studying and writing about the U.S. telecom sector and can assure you that regional monopolization and corruption are the primary reason for our continued failures. Canada and the U.S., which both share pretty similar approaches to broadband policy (namely: kiss the ass of regional, ever-consolidating monopolies), see similar outcomes on that front:

Despite the data never supporting it, the narrative du jour in telecom policy is that if you deregulate the sector (read: make telecom regulators so weak they can’t hold Comcast and AT&T accountable), miraculous things happen. Despite the data never supporting it, another popular narrative is that you can just throw billions in subsidies at this monopoly logjam to fix it. The reality is U.S. broadband stinks because of monopoly power and the corruption gravy train that protects it from accountability, something U.S. policymakers are rarely willing to acknowledge, much less actually do something about.

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Comments on “Data Again Shows That U.S. Broadband Is Painfully Mediocre”

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12 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Greg Glockner says:

More data, please

I do not disagree that US and Canada broadband is far behind other G-7 nations. But more information would be very helpful:

  1. Availability: How much of the problem is "broadband is overpriced" and how much is "speeds beyond X are not available at any price"?
  2. Data caps: How many wired plans have data caps? Is a genuine unlimited plan available, and how much is that?
  3. How reliable is the service?

If I had to guess, the biggest urban problems are price/value, while the biggest rural problems are availability of true high-speed. In my suburb, the cable company offers up to 1Gb down/40 Mb up, and the telephone company offers up to 120 Mb down/20 Mb. The phone company has no data cap, while the cable company can waive the data cap for an additional fee. I actually subscribe to both since I need high availability and I can afford it, but that’s not possible for everyone.

That said, I have far less patience with wireless carriers. "Unlimited" wireless costs more than I pay for true unlimited wired broadband, and it really isn’t unlimited. So we have a shared wireless data plan instead.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: The only shocking thing about this...

"…is that the US is not in last place, even among so-called "developed" nations."

Because due to government subsidies and grants infrastructure considered vital is still heavily funded by municipalities, states, and on the federal level.
If you really want to see "last place" you need to look at public transport, social services, labor conditions and health care, all of which of have americans either paying five times or more for a lot less than what taxes get for european countries or suffering more or less complete absence of it.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
jimb (profile) says:

not really surprising - "American Exceptionalism" strikes again

It’s not really surprising that Americans pay more for less, and get mediocrity in performance and endless glitzy, empty promises of excellence ‘real soon now’.

We seem to have applied the "conservative", market-based solution to broadband, and we’ve seen how well that works in healthcare, in pollution control, and in banking and finance. The problem is "conservative" and ‘public good’ (in both the civic and the economic sense) do not co-exist.

That One Guy (profile) says:

if the first hundred tries don't work, work towards two hundred

Clearly the problem is that not enough subsidies have been handed out, not enough tax breaks have been granted, and not enough regulations have been removed from or added to(depending on whether they benefit the major ISPs) the books. If the US will just keep throwing money hand over fist to ISP’s it’s only a matter of time until the rest of the world is left in the dust and will only be able to stare in awe are the amazing internet service all americans will enjoy at very reasonable prices.

Lostinlodos (profile) says:

Incomplete comparisons!

When the average annual income of a country is $7,000 and the price of broadband is 9 cents

Vs USA where the average income is $68,000?

Now look at pricing:
The us income rate is nearly 10 times that.
So the equivalence is 90 cents ppp.
We’re still terribly high but not quite as bad as the data says.
Or $7 more.
That’s using the article’s data premise though!

But the question is where do you get that cost from?
The lowest capped rates are obviously the most expensive. But how do you equate the difference in cost for the higher capped plans and where do you begin on unlimited packages.

Pulling a TB on an unlimited $70 plan makes it 7 cents per gig which is lower than India!

So it ultimately depends on how you approach the data.

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